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'Young people won't tolerate abrasive behaviour'

April 19, 2021 09:39 IST
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'When you have a more multi-generational workforce and more younger people coming in who have a very strong sense of what is wrong, and what is right, along with the opportunity to call out this kind of behaviour through mechanisms like social media, these problems will see the light of day and will get addressed.'

Abrasive behaviour

IMAGE: Kindly note this image has only been posted for representational purposes. Photograph: Kind courtesy Andrea Piacquadio/

Why do leaders exhibit abrasive behaviour in the workplace?

Why do employees tolerate it?

"Each of us needs to determine what is fundamentally important to us," Amit Chincholikar, the global chief human resources officer at Tata Consumer Products, tells Savera R Someshwar/

Chincholikar -- who has worked in various companies including Tata Sons Ltd and the Aditya Birla Group in a career spanning 22 years -- adds, "Individuals may believe they don't have a choice but that's where I have a slightly different point of view. I believe that everyone always has a choice. And believing that they don't have a choice is also a choice that people make."

"You have to decide how much you are actually willing to tolerate," he says. "That, in my view, is the biggest choice."


Do you believe abrasive behaviour gets the approval of, or a blind eye from, the top management especially when the person concerned has the ability to get the job done. In a sense, it adds to the company's bottom line so, like you said earlier, the shareholders are satisfied, the stakeholders are satisfied. As a result, does this kind of behaviour get condoned?

As I see it, the time when this kind of behaviour would get condoned is behind us in many ways.

There are few reasons for this change.

The first is a strong social media. As a result, highlighting such forms of abuse is relatively easier now than it was earlier.

Secondly, good companies have clearly taken cognisance of the fact that results at all costs is not something they are willing to live with because it comes with significant reputations risks. Earlier, this was seen as a differentiator. Now this has become a necessity.

At the end of the day, you may keep delivering stellar results but it counts for nothing if your reputation takes a beating.

Thirdly, the nature and demographic of the workforce has changed. You have an increasing number of young people in the workforce now and they have been defined by what has happened in the last 20 years.

It's hard to imagine, but it's only been 20 years since 9/11 happened. In the last 20 years, this generation has seen terrorist attacks, they have seen recessions, they have seen democracies fail, they have seen dictators fall... Most have them have been brought up in an environment where speaking their mind is pretty much second nature.

The awareness of the people and the attitude of the workforce have changed pretty dramatically. They want to live life on their own terms therefore certain things, as far as they are concerned, are non-negotiable. Rude or abrasive behaviour is definitely one of them. It is something people can see and call out.

The scrutiny from a reputation, governance and fundamental acceptance basis has changed quite significantly as well.

Some companies have progressed on this front than the others. But I would like to believe that these days are pretty much on their way out. The leaders of the future will not be able to succeed like this.

What you said about today's generation is absolutely true. Another question. Do you feel this kind of abrasive behaviour gets directed more towards female employees than male employees?

It's hard to generalise but I would say that the possibility of that happening is probably more.

It's a bit of a generalisation, but female employees tend to have much more patience and are less complaining or less demanding compared to male employees.

Let me give you a slightly different way of looking at it.

Research has revealed that when jobs, or roles within a company, are advertised, women tend to apply for 30-40 percent of the positions even if they meet the skill criteria because they are not sure if they are actually good enough for the job.

Men, on the other hand, tend to apply to 100 per cent of jobs. They tend to overestimate their ability, their capacity to be able to do more, etc.

Women tend to underestimate their own abilities.

They have more patience so they may tend to tolerate disrespectful behaviour because they sometimes see it as their own fault or see it as areas in which they can improve.

Therefore, they're likely to be subject to such behaviour more compared to male employees.

Amit Chincholikar

In such situations, what can employees and employers do because employees generally tend not to raise such issues and sometimes employers may not be aware, despite the mechanisms that may be in place.
Also, to what extent does the culture of a company contribute towards preventing such behaviour?

Let me answer the second part.

I think that culture of a company is most vital to determine whether one reaches, or does not reach, the outcome one is seeking.

Let me talk about some experiences we've had in Tata Consumer Products.

If you look at the way our performance review system is designed, besides the KPIs (key performance indicators) or goals, we also call out a set of behaviours that we expect people to exhibit. This is clearly defined, clearly communicated and clearly linked to our values.

For example, apart from integrity, excellence, ownership, etc, empathy is an important value for us. Our system says it's not just the 'what' that you achieve that is important, it's also 'how' you achieve it.

Once the system says this is the way we are going to be measuring people on their performance, which also includes their behaviour, then people get the message that this really matters in this organisation.

When people are considered for a promotion, or for senior roles, this is a very important aspect that always is factored in. And people know it.

If people get rewarded for reinforcement of positive behaviour, they also get reprimanded in their performance reviews or performance ratings when their behaviour is negative. They get bypassed or overlooked for roles that involve people management, etc.

From a culture perspective, I would say it is an organisation’s responsibility to always reinforce that such kind of behaviours will not be tolerated and action will be taken. That's point number one.

The second -- which we always call out as a mantra to our managers -- is that you always celebrate in public and gently reprimand in private.

One of the reasons why people feel small is that they are rebuked or called out in public. They are publically humiliated when something of this nature takes place.

Thirdly, organisations must put into place third party neutral mechanisms that enable people to reach out if they have a concern.

For example, we have an ethics helpline that is completely managed by a third party for those who wish to make an anonymous complaint, which includes behaviour. Each of these complaints is monitored in terms of actions that are taken until it is closed. And this is reported back to our audit committee, which is a subcommittee of the board.

So the highest level of the organisation, from a governance perspective, is actually reviewing complaints of this nature.

The fourth point is that we don't consider an increasing number of complaints on our ethics helpline as a suggestion that things are not working in our organisation. We see it as a positive indication that we have created a culture where employees are able to speak their mind freely.

We pride ourselves on our open culture. If more people are reporting issues, it means they are genuinely interested in solving them. It comes back to the premise that a disgruntled customer is more important to us than a disengaged customer.

A disengaged customer will just walk away; you will never know what is wrong. But a disgruntled customer -- somebody who makes a complaint -- is genuinely interested in solving for the issue.

Putting in mechanisms of this nature, consistently calling out the wrong kind of behaviour, celebrating things that people do well, and very clearly taking action against people who exhibit undesired behaviour is something that organisations can do, should do and will do.

We do this very often. And we do it in a manner where the person who is exhibiting this kind of behaviour is communicated with in no uncertain terms. We've had instances where people have been asked to leave the organisation because of this kind of behaviour.

Finally, it is not just subordinates who are recipients of abrasive behaviour; peers can face it too.

For example, we run a 360 degree feedback for our entire leadership team and the inputs that come in are viewed very seriously as progressive conversations for people to constructively modify their behaviour so that they can ensure their development and growth.

If bad behaviour is called out at an early stage, there is an opportunity to nip it in the bud 99 per cent of the time. But if you allow it to continue if you allow it to fester, it's like a cancer.

If you tackle it at an early stage, then you're able to control the poison that's there in the system. If you're not then, unfortunately, amputation is the only option you are left with. Unfortunately, at that stage, it's a very public and a very ugly amputation.

This may be easier to implement in larger companies like Tata Consumer Products, but what happens when these kinds of situations arises smaller companies, where such mechanisms, and this kind of culture, may not be in place. In such situations, what can employees facing this kind of behaviour do without jeopardising their jobs?

It comes back to the point that you raised about culture.

If, fundamentally, a company believes in a culture that encourages abrasive behaviour, it is only a matter of time before the company either folds up or gets called out.

Also, like I said earlier, when you have a more multi-generational workforce and more younger people coming in who have a very strong sense of what is wrong, and what is right, along with the opportunity to call out this kind of behaviour through mechanisms like social media, these problems will see the light of day and will get addressed.

The ICC example is a classic case in point. It is one of the richest sports bodies and may be dominated by a certain select set of cricket boards. The fact that it has been called out in this way bears testimony to the fact that, beyond a point, such behaviour will not be tolerated, no matter the size or kind of organisation.

But that is a call that you also need to take as an individual, right? Because if you're willing to tolerate it and continue with it, then you are as responsible for the way the culture of that particular organisation has been built.

Each of us needs to determine what is fundamentally important to us. Individuals may believe they don't have a choice but that's where I have a slightly different point of view. I believe that everyone always has a choice. And believing that they don't have a choice is also a choice that people make.

You have to decide how much you are actually willing to tolerate.

That, in my view, is the biggest choice.

It's like being in a toxic relationship. Very often people don't exit relationships because they fear what will happen if they do. And things get worse as time goes by.

The fact of the matter is that people always have a choice. We, as a society, need to let people know that because they always realise it.

We must also bring up our children to know they always have a choice and that, with every choice you make, there are consequences that you have to be prepared to live with.

Yes, we could be in difficult situations; it happens to the best of us. But exceptions do not define the way the world runs. And, to my mind, 95 per cent of the people are well-meaning and well intentioned and this is the majority that one should always choose to stay with. We should never let exceptions define our lives.

Amit Chincholikar's photograph: Kind courtesy Tata Consumer Products

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