Never say no to a work that comes your way.

Devyani Rai has been driving key business initiatives and employee life cycle as an HR Business Partner across multiple industries like IT, Banking and Consumer Durables. A  young professional with a keen eye for talent requirements in business, her varied experience has helped in bringing best practices of different industries into one-fold. With more than 7 years of experience as a strategic business partner with specialization in competency-mapping, BEI, and a data-driven approach, she continues to drive productivity and talent initiatives to balance both business and employee needs.

In her current role, Devyani is working as a Senior Manager HR in Whirlpool Corporation India, leading the Business Partnering for all Corporate functions for India and Asia. With a challenging and diverse portfolio, creating value is her mantra for success in any organisation. 

Thank you, Devyani, for giving your valuable time to this interview. We look forward to your candid responses.

We would be pleased to learn about your professional journey from the beginning. So, please share with us about your first job interview. 

My journey as HR professional started with Infosys, which was a campus placement. In MBA, although we are told and coached about how to give an interview, it can never prepare one for the actual experience of sitting in front of highly accomplished panelists, where they want to assess, and we want to impress. I believe that in one’s first interview, where the sure strong point is the theoretical knowledge of your subject, it becomes necessary to exude confidence and honesty along. A panelists will always ask a few questions from your subject, but that is not what will set you apart – the three C’s play a pivotal role: Confidence, Curiosity, and effective Communication. The interviewer is always looking for ‘Potential’ in the candidate, and hence along with knowledge, it’s important to work on your 3C’s.

As the first job holds a special memory, let’s discuss your first year at your first job. How was your experience? What were your expectations of your employer and your role? Were they all fulfilled? What did not coincide with your expectations?

My first step in an HR career was with Infosys, where I joined as a Management Trainee. In the time spent there, I got exposure in Talent Acquisition, Talent Planning and Deployment, and then as an HRBP for >1500 employees across different locations. The different roles I did gave me valuable exposure and understanding of different phases of an employee's life cycle. I realized quite early in my career that by being flexible I could tap on multiple opportunities.

I believe that the first organisation and its culture shapes one’s professional personality and the values one holds. If the organisation values resonate with your personal ones, it is much easier to work well and be engaged to give your best.

In the beginning, as I’m sure to happen with every MT, I expected to work on strategic and high impact initiatives and add value, however, the reality soon seeped in me that an MT first needs to understand the heart and brain of an organisation before they can bring a relevant impact. That is where I decided to excel in any task assigned to me. I also realized that as an HR, one’s role is not defined by the quality, but the impact of each activity – your communication and persuasion abilities are tested at each stage, whether it’s resolving employee grievances, or giving a presentation to stakeholders – each word one speaks is relevant. I must emphasize here that knowing the basics of psychology as a subject came extremely handy as an HR, and I would urge each budding HR to understand human psychology which would eventually help you in understanding the organisation better.

What can set one apart from the crowd is hunger to learn. Each task was given to you; however menial it may seem in the beginning is a unique learning opportunity. As a child first crawls and then learns to walk, the same way at the beginning of your career – you may think that the task you are doing is extremely transactional, but it is only through those tasks that you understand the difference between a theory that you know and the realities of an organisation. Each activity that you do, is a drop added in your ocean of experience.

Do you think workplace mentors and coaches play an important role in settling fresh graduates in their first job? How was your experience? 

There is no doubt that a mentor plays an important role in one’s career, not only in the first job but throughout one’s entire professional tenure. However, a mentor implies one, or a select few people, generally senior to you, who guide you through one’s professional travel. I personally believe that a mentor can be anyone – a junior, your reportees, a peer, or a senior who help you learn the steps required throughout your career. From a junior an executive who helps you navigate through systems, to a peer who helps you in understanding office dynamics, to a leader who shows direction through his/her experience, one only has to be open to learning to keep finding teachers and gurus along the way.

Why did you choose HR as a profession? What was the motive and what was the motivation?

For me, the field of HR happened by accident – being an economics graduate, post-MBA I had planned on pursuing a career in Marketing. However, after the first year when we had to choose the internship we wanted to pursue, I applied for both marketing and HR in my chosen company and was selected for the HR program. Till then, I was not really sure what encompassed Human Resources as a field. But when I was given a project for developing a competency framework for the organisation for structured recruitment, I started to realize and appreciate the diverse aspects of HR. What started as a chance, came out to be the best experience of how an organisation can be impacted through an HR intervention – it meant not only ‘people’, but was a scientific methodology of creating structures to benefit the organisation in multiple aspects. It was after my internship that I realized the impact of this profession and decided to pursue it.

COVID-19 has changed workplace dynamics in many ways. What has been your learnings during this phase? What permanent changes do you foresee at the workplace post-COVID-19?

Changes in an organisation are generally a factor of a new ‘need’ – it may come from the leadership, competition, or in the current case, from the external environment. COVID has led organisations to follow a swift change in their method of working to survive, if not thrive, in these times. Below are a few learnings from this period:

  • The biggest challenge for an organisation has been balancing the short-term cost implications with long-term benefits. Do I reduce my manufacturing as per demand? Do I reduce my fixed costs or my operating costs (including workforce) to keep my cash reserves afloat? Most organisations have been forced to make the difficult choice of reducing immediate costs to battle revenue loss. However, organisations which have invested in systems and technologies have been able to battle this better than their counterparts. It is imperative that a mid to large scale company invests in good IT and systems, which has proved to be a key asset in continuing business operations.
  • Now more than ever, employees need to feel that the organisation values themWith work from home being the new norm, the standards of employee productivity have changed. It’s not the quantity of time one spends in office – In most organisations, productivity has actually increased during COVID. The organisation is then responsible to be an enabler to their employees – each manager needs to be involved in not only the output but also the personal lives of their reportees, because now more than ever, the division between personal and professional life has ceased to exist. Remote working has also led to a focus on the psychological well-being of employees, with more employees reporting anxiety and stress concerns, making it more important for people leaders to ensure a 360-degree approach while interacting with their team.
  • Fewer Meetings and More Delegation: Meetings are important, but they are limited to planning. Execution of those plans needs to be given more focus. Minimizing group meetings to the weekly affair is enough for updates – managers can always call for any specific inquiry. In this time of juggling personal and professional front, this ensures employees are able to maximize productivity. Similarly, decentralization of decision-making will make things move faster, especially with low opportunities for face-to-face discussions. 

Organizational Culture is a key differentiator between successful and not so successful organizations? What determines the organizational culture? What is the role of HR in creating organizational culture?

Organizational culture is a broad concept – it is an aggregate of the beliefs, values, practices, and perceptions that are reflected through each action that the organisation takes. I strongly believe that this ‘culture’ generally flows top-down, i.e. it is the leaders that through their actions create what employees perceive to be the organisation culture. How the employee experience culture is through the actions and decisions of his immediate manager, and so on. HR is neither the creator nor custodian of culture - we are the moral barometer and a culture catalyst, i.e. we facilitate and articulate what is already present, and if the culture is enabling, or limiting organisation growth, HR can then work closely with leadership to design change interventions to bridge this gap.

It is necessary that organisation strategy (internal and external) is in line with its culture. Nokia, Apple, Goldman Sachs are great examples of how culture can make or break an organisation.

What is your take on “Career Gaps”? We come across many people who are forced to hide certain aspects of their employment history because organizations do not shortlist their profiles because of career gaps. How do you address such cases? 

With talent shortage and increasing organisation requirement of skilled workforce, companies have moved forward from focusing on career gaps as a factor in hiring. Career gaps have never been a make-or-break the decision for recruitment, and till the time a candidate brings relevant experience and knowledge to the table, with a thirst to learn, an organisation will never reject them basis a gap. Yes, it may be discussed during the interview, but it is more to understand the employees’ perspective on the same.

What are your thoughts about layoffs? What is the role of HR in layoffs? According to you, what is the appropriate way of managing layoffs?

The perception about layoffs differs between the eastern and western cultures. In the West, it is a part of the employment lifecycle, and companies in the US do have a hire-and-fire practice. With the prevalent unemployment benefits and alternate job opportunities, it is not a social stigma. In the eastern culture, where there is a stronger sense of family, a layoff is taken more personally. It then becomes highly important to treat it in the same way – with respect and appreciation of the services rendered. An organisation only decides on layoffs if it has become important for its survival – employee cost is generally one of the last costs that is touched when there are cost restructurings.

Managing layoffs needs to be an extremely planned and detailed affair – the same communication needs to go to employees who are impacted, with high transparency on the requirement of this decision. The decision is always to remove a role, and not the employee. HR plays a pivotal role here to ensure the above – from the decision on the roles that can be restructured through job evaluations, to enabling managers to have this difficult conversation, and finally communicating and hand-holding impacted employees through this phase. The employees will always remember this experience; hence it is important to ensure a sensitive and smooth transition. This holds true for the employees not impacted as well – how the organisation takes this forward affects the loyalty and perception within as well as outside the company.

What do you think about Talent Shortage? What are a few practical tips you want to give to CEO’s and Hiring Managers to manage the challenge of Talent Shortage?

With 63% of Indian companies reporting talent shortage, this phenomenon is real. An organisation will face a talent shortage in two ways – through either attrition, especially of top talent, or else if it fails to invest in the learning of the current employees. Talent risk emerges when organisations have not structured the qualifications and competencies required for high impact roles and have not used a robust talent assessment/management process for identifying top talent in the organisation. Once we know the impact of each employee in terms of their performance & potential, we can specifically focus on interventions and customized development plans to keep them engaged and meet their career aspirations. Organisations also need to actively invest in employee development and learning to ensure both skill-enhancement and engagement. Extremely important is that this learning has to be based on a mutually agreed need, for full investment from both sides.

Based on your experience, what are the primary expectations of a CEO from the HR Function, in general and HR Head, in particular?

A CEO or any Business Head will always look for insights where they do not have the required visibility and an HR Head has an edge when it comes to understanding the employee's end of the business. An HR Head will always have the most difficult position in leadership because his/her purpose is not only business growth, but employee development as well. At the same time, it’s extremely important to be able to reflect employee development though data – this becomes the key differentiator. Being able to effectively correlate, measure, and plan HR interventions with improvements in business is a language that is understood by a CEO.

Need Identification in business is also extremely important for an HR Head for any intervention being planned – it has to resonate with a gap that is felt by the business, whether it be a process change, or a development plan, or evaluation of employee productivity.

How do you motivate your team?

I believe that one of the key motivators is to feel valued and important for the organization. Giving your team enough independence to handle key stakeholders and decentralization of decision-making gives a sense of a manager trusting him/her, and the employee feels valued. With regular feedback and coaching wherever necessary, a team can do wonders.

If you need to draw a landscape of the future workplace, how will it look like? What disruptions do you foresee in HR over the next FIVE years?

I see the below major disruptions taking place in the next few years:

  • With fast-paced changes and company requirements, I believe a lot of permanent on-roll employees would be gradually reduced to include a new dynamic workforce of gig workers, freelancers, consultants, and specialists. The gig economy is predicted to grow rapidly, as an era of specialisation takes over generic knowledge.
  • Artificial Intelligence systems would be able to take over undertakings like Onboarding, Performance Management (especially for teams like Sales/Service/Operations, where performance measures are easily quantifiable), HR Operations, and policy-based employee queries. This will give HR professionals more time and bandwidth to focus on high impact interventions. Hence, HR jobs may reduce, but demand would again increase for specialists.
  • With COVID pushing organizations for cost savings, any interventions designed would need in-depth data analysis – it would be imperative to show correlation between the problem and the solution through either historical data, productivity analysis, or regression, or through techniques like time & motion. Thus, statistical skill and an analytical mindset may become an integral requirement for HR.
  • Top Talent Retention would become more critical than ever, with workplace policies reflecting the aspirations of the Gen Z (like work timing flexibility, smart technology platforms, etc.), who would form the majority of the workforce.

Lastly, what is your message for fresh HR Graduates? How should they prepare themselves for a career in HR?

  • The most important factor for starting a successful career is a thirst to learn never say no to a work that comes your way. There is always something to be learned even from the most transactional of tasks.
  • Always know your employees – work on this continuously, this is what will help you with insights both about the business and about the organization’s expectations of you.
  • Build good working relationships with your stakeholders – it is imperative for a business leader/manager/employee to be able to trust you. That requires work and persistence.
  • Always identify a need on which you can work on – any intervention that you work on needs to be relevant to the business.

Thank you very much, Devyani, for sharing wonderful insight. We appreciate it.  

Previous PostHR needs to understand the business language to consult business leaders effectively
Next PostVirtual-workplace is the new normal.
Leave a Comment