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Tata Sons’ chief ethics officer on whistle blowing, working with CHROs, and more

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Mukund Rajan, chief ethics officer of Tata Sons, one of the world’s largest conglomerates comprising over 100 companies, shares how its employees contribute one million volunteering hours annually, and the relationship with the CHRO in getting them engaged.

Q. What has motivated you to stay loyal to Tata Group for about 21 years?

This group nurtures talent extremely well. I joined a programme called Tata Administrative Services (TAS), that gives exposure to young people across different industries and functional areas, and grooms them for senior positions in the group. These opportunities have really helped me in my growth.

Another aspect is the fact that Tata Group is reputable and walks the talk, by committing to the highest standards of corporate governance and ethical conduct.

Our strong and powerful code of conduct goes back almost 150 years to our founder’s vision on the business’ role in the community, who said – in a free enterprise, the community is not just another stakeholder in the business, but it is the very purpose of its existence.

That long-term commitment to the community speaks to what I – and all employees of Tata – would expect from an employer.

The last point, is the sense of higher purpose that we in the Group have. Because we are owned by charities, the harder we work, the more surplus we create, the more profits are generated, the more we are able to pay back to the charities, who can do good for the society.

We probably have the largest number of what we call ‘lifers’, i.e. people who spend their entire working careers in just one group. We provide a very long-term career, and because we have a very strong value system, we are able to groom leadership from within.

Q. How do you tie in corporate social responsibility with employees’ contributions?

One of our strongest elements is volunteering, whereby we encourage our people to give their time to non-profits, be it old age homes, orphanages, or hospitals, the company will give them time to do so.

Our most popular are the volunteering weeks, twice a year, coinciding with our founder’s day in March, and with the international day of charities in September, where employees get time off to spend with their communities.

Another flavour of volunteering are pro bono contributions on personal time that employees undertake for up to six months. We have a number of skilled people, for instance software programmers who help non-profits design a better website, or help hospitals to create information management systems.

Real value is created when they engage over a period of time in these projects, called ProEngage.

Our most popular CSR activity is the volunteering weeks, twice a year, where employees get time off to spend with their communities.

We called the third element of volunteering Engage+, where we give people sabbaticals, while on the payroll, to work with non-profits. This has been most effective during times of disasters, where our employees helped to bring back a sense of normalcy to communities.

Q. Do you track employees’ commitment to these volunteering projects?

Absolutely, last year, we contributed a little over 400,000 volunteering hours as a Group, and we then set the next target at one million volunteering hours.

I’m delighted to say we crossed that in this year’s volunteering week in March, putting us in the top five or ten volunteering programmes by a corporate in the world.

Q. What’s your advice for organisations wanting to implement such programmes?

It all about the giving. Pro bono contributions and volunteering is not a competitive exercise, where you are competing with another business for market share or profit. It is a unique space where you can come together and share learning and intelligence. Everyone wins and nobody loses.

Q. What are your KPIs as the chief ethics officer?

My overall title is that of brand custodian, which encompasses corporate social responsibility and ethics.

In the chief ethics officer function, the principal goal is to ensure the Tata code of conduct is adhered to by our companies and our people. This was created in 1998 and has been through two significant refreshes, one in 2007- 2008 and one in 2015, as part of our international best practice to review codes of conduct about every six years.

My responsibility is to ensure the companies understand the elements of the code, embrace it fully and report compliance. I work with the Group companies to understand what challenges they might face, put out advisories and issue policies.

It’s critical for our brand that the code of conduct is adhered to at all times, and if there is a violation, appropriate consequences need to follow.

Q. A lot of your work involves getting employees to buy into the projects and policies, so how closely do you work with the CHRO?

We work with the CHROs to cascade information and training around the code of conduct and policies. For instance, in India last year, there was legislation on corporates to organise training around sexual harassment. Things of that nature require you to work with the HR community.

HR has a critical role to play in training our managers on their responsibilities and without them, we would be completely unable to pursue this agenda in our group.

Last year, we contributed a little over 400,000 volunteering hours as a Group, and we set the next target at one million volunteering hours.

Q. How does this culture driven by ethics help the organisation in talent attraction?

With the recent series of corporate scandals and the global financial crisis in 2008, actions of big corporations have come under scrutiny.

We need to be sensitive to the fact that communities and young people in particular are influenced by what they read in the media, and when a corporate behaves differently from the stereotype, it becomes a helpful talent attraction possibility. We find that young people who join us are reassured by the fact that they work for an employer that has a higher purpose and is committed to values.

For Millennials in particular, we’re finding they really appreciate these aspects around volunteering, and our hope is some of them will become lifers.

Q. With Tata Group managing subsidiaries all over the world, what is your biggest challenge?

The biggest challenge is also the biggest responsibility – constant communication. One needs to constantly communicate the importance of ethics and values to ensure that new hires embrace this globally, including across companies we have acquired.

We have a real diverse mix of genders, capabilities, age groups, experiences and demographics, and it can be quite task to keep communicating the importance of all these issues.

In fact, when we refreshed our code of conduct, two critical elements were considered. One was to ensure the code spoke to people of different cultures. It’s a universal code, but it has to make as much sense to somebody in Europe as to somebody in Asia.

The second was the tonality of the code. Sometimes you get the sense that codes of conduct talk top- down, but we ensured the language was conversational, because authority is not the favourite thing of the young people joining the workforce. They need to feel you’re carrying them with you, so the conversation has to be among equals.

Q. For this communication, the HR function also has a part to play in cascading down?

HR has a critical role to play because all colleagues have to be trained, understand the relevance, and play their role in sustaining that culture.

A very critical element in our code, and legislation in many countries, is the notion of whistle blowing. When you see a problem, acknowledge it, then you need to report it.

In many organisations, either because there isn’t adequate respect for the leadership or because there aren’t transparent mechanisms by which you can report without the fear of action, things tend to get buried, the problem continues growing, and the reputation of the organisation can get badly damaged.

I think it is very important that HR supports the cascading of communication, making people conscious of their responsibilities and rights. They constantly balance between the management’s desire to get productivity, and the ability of people to respond to challenges the company may face – which when handled collaboratively and ethically can improve your brand’s equity with stakeholders.

Q. What whistle blowing mechanism do you currently have in place?

Many of our companies have a third-party ethics helpline where a level of anonymity is offered. But if they wish to reveal their identities, we have very strong commitment towards ensuring that no vindictive action is taken against the person.

Depending on who the complaint is about, it will either go to the chief ethics counsellor of that company, or to the chairman of the audit committee.

Many of our companies are listed, and the chairman of the audit committee is an independent director, with the responsibility to protect whistle blowers.

The committee then evaluates the credibility of the complaint, and pulls in the required resources from within, or even outside the company if there is a chance that people in the company may be compromised.

These mechanisms create an environment where people understand that wrongdoing will not be tolerated.

Image: IIMPACT conference, 2016

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