Dead man working

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Occasionally work-related suicides get reported in the popular press, but only when they are dramatic enough to warrant a story. Most HR people only deal with a few in their lifetime, so it is not spoken about much in polite HR circles, other than when justifying an EAP budget. A more recent case was highlighted internationally, and the response of the employer was particularly interesting.

Foxconn in China has mass produced 90 million iPhones and other smart gadgets for major players, but caught the public eye in the way it reacted to 17 work suicides (nine between March and May alone) by erecting suicide nets. This was because the deaths were all caused by staff jumping off the high rise buildings at the employer’s sprawling campus in Shenzhen, accommodating 300,000 workers in one location.

Then, when one suicide note stated that the jumper was ending his life in order to provide for his family, the compassionate HR department responded by withdrawing the death benefit for employees! I wonder whether its cancellation was prompted by HR wanting to impact behavior, or Finance wanting to contain a premium escalation because of increased claims experience. Stories have emerged about the employer’s 12-in-a-dormitory housing, one day off a month and punitive practices which would give our Labour organizers cold shivers.

When the press and Foxconn client companies raised concerns about working conditions, salaries were hiked 30% while also issuing sociological explanations that these deaths-per-thousand are purportedly less than the Chinese national average. Truly, an employer to die for! Then along comes France Telekom with 46 suicides in a progressive socialist first world country, confounding the simple assumptions which many of us make about sweatshop conditions in the east.

OK, hot shot HR practitioner, so what would YOU do in the face of a dozen suicides at the workplace, all committed in the same manner? Does it help you (or confuse you) to know that Foxconn’s suicide nets and withdrawal of the death benefit actually worked? Immediately, the jumping “trend” normalized, allowing other measures to be put in place for the medium and longer term.

Ask any well worn HR mentor about their experiences with suicides at the workplace (just think what a statement it makes that a person chooses to end their life at your work premises.) Some of us would have tried to isolate the incident as “unhappy Harry”, while others assume it to be symptomatic of the organizational culture, and launch into a climate survey, to try to diagnose a single cause of organizational wide toxicity.

Perhaps your best advice is to avoid having the CEO, CFO, CIO or even the CHRO trying to diagnose something for which they are not trained, especially when their own reputations might be impacted by the findings. This is where you need to defer to the Employee Assistance Program people, who will probably not allow you to get away with a single, simple diagnosis and solution.

No, it does not mean that we all need to spend millions on creating a workplace like Google. It also doesn’t mean we have to hike the salary bill by 30% like Foxconn. A long time ago, the Hawthorne studies showed that worker productivity improved as a result of both workplace improvements and the worsening of conditions – the conclusion being that people responded positively merely to the fact that the employer was showing an interest in their conditions.

With global competition driving low-cost producer mentalities, the workplace where we spend most of our waking hours is largely depersonalized, clinically branded, and relatively unsuccessful at eliciting true employee engagement. Some of us are doing some great things – learning as we go, of course – but working at it in partnership with our people. The consolation from Hawthorne is that (even if some of your projects don’t work) you are making a difference.

Perhaps one of our greatest challenges in HR will be the way in which HR can help create a good ‘Employer to work for’ while adapting to global competitive pressures, without mimicking Henry Ford’s mindless production line.

The cost is of failure is getting high.

About the author

Gary Taylor has worked in HR for 25 years, in National Mutual of Australasia and Unilever, then as HR director at South Africa's largest health insurer Medscheme for 14 years, followed by three years at Wits University. Two years ago, he was appointed to start up HR for a new University in Saudi Arabia, where he is now director of the policy office

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