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Changing The 'Taste' In Tea Management

An innovative take on the management principles with reference to the tea industry....

The management protocol being followed in the tea industry, especially the estates, has been greatly influenced by the “Raj Period” and unfortunately, in most cases has remained stuck in that genre. It is indeed lamentable that most industry pundits have not been giving due attention to this aspect. Over the years, the attrition rate of tea executives has increased manifold as compared to earlier times. I do not have any ready statistics to support my statement. But, the industry would greatly benefit if a professional analysis is carried out in this regard.

I have lived my entire life till date in a tea garden environ as my late father was an employee of a tea estate and presently, I personally am associated with the industry as a human resource consultant. Sharing from my own experience in the genre of innovative management system, I am presenting here a ‘brush-up’ article as to why the tea industry fails to attract and retain young talent as compared to the good old days and have also tried to offer some humble remedies to rectify the same.

Lack of proper induction plans and programmes: The tea industry has been running in a fiercely hierarchical system since long and is influenced by the professional set up in the defense sector because of the fact that most Second World War veterans found employment in the tea gardens after the war was over. These war veterans carried their military norms and habits over to their newer roles as estate managers and employed military administrative tactics in administering the huge migratory labour force during that time. This sort of administrative practice was quite understandable keeping in mind the prevalent socio-economic conditions of that period. But, being stuck in the same management genre over the years without any transitional plan as such is making the industry pay dearly. The new recruits in this present age and time finds it hard to cope up to the service norms being followed and as a result find them-selves out of place and become reclusive.

So, when a new recruit initially joins service, the first and foremost area of interest should be to inform the individual about the functioning of tea society and mould him or her accordingly. This can be done in different ways. Here are a few suggestions that I believe could be practiced.

Buddy concept: In this concept, the immediate senior person to the new recruit (preferably another Assistant Manager or Welfare Officer) is provided with the responsibility of being a mentor to the recruit and helping him in acclimatizing in the new environment. Career points could be awarded to the mentor based on how good he or she guides and helps the new recruit in the garden way of life, and in how soon a time.

Based on personal experience, I have prepared a simple management concept and given it the name “GHAR”, literally meaning ‘house’, that could be of use to the tea industry. The recruit could be trained in this self-developed “GHAR concept”.

G: Guru Updesh (meaning, advice of the teacher): At the top, the recruit could be encouraged to follow the Guru’s updesh (teacher’s advice). The ‘Guru’ in this context could be the mentor who has been assigned to guide the recruit in the assimilation process.

H: Hridayangam (meaning, whole hearted assimilation): A gradual process of assimilation can be initiated by encouraging a recruit to look at the unique opportunities and avenues that a tea executive can experience. An active outdoor life, sports and club activities etc., are some of the aspects which needs urgent rejig. These facets were what had attracted talented individuals in the 60s and 70s into joining this industry.

A: Abhaya (meaning, fearlessness): Instilling a sense of fearlessness in decision making and encouraging the recruit to view the life of a tea garden executive as an ongoing adventurous journey matched by no other corporate managerial profession in the world.

R: Rohitaha (it denotes a person who comes for some special task): The recruit should be made aware of the fact that he or she has been selected on the basis of individual merit, and that he or she is the “chosen” one to do something “important”. This will bear a mark in the psyche of the individual and make him or her realize his or her importance to the allotted designation and the organization in its entirety. This will encourage the recruit to strive towards doing justice to his or her selection.

In the context of how a recruit can be psychologically and verbally abused, I am mentioning a true incident for the readers to use as a gauge to compare. A new recruit had to pay a visit to the planters’ club on the first day of his posting in an interior plantation of a reputed company accompanied by the Assistant Manager of the estate. Though nervous to the hilt, after reaching the club, he diligently greeted most of the guests present there with proper respect and also introduced himself to them. He then wanted to greet the ladies who were sitting in a group and playing cards. But the loud music blaring from the sound system made it virtually impossible for him to do so. Moreover, the ladies were maintaining a reserved outlook and he being new to the trade was at a dilemma as to whether it would be proper on his part to greet the ladies at that juncture. He ultimately decided to wait till the time the music system was switched off.

In the meantime the General Manager of the company arrived and everybody got busy in welcoming the dignitary. Taking advantage of the prevailing melee, he was asked by the accompanying Assistant Manager to quickly have his food and prepare to leave the club on the sly, as he was expecting some friends back at his bungalow. At this, the recruit requested him to let him first get introduced to the ladies as he had not greeted anyone till that moment. He then proceed to greet as many ladies as he could till the time he was finally told by the Assistant that he should wrap up soon as he was about to leave or else he would have to make his own arrangements to go back to the bungalow. Just imagine the mental state of the recruit at this juncture, on one hand he was doing as protocol demanded of him and on the other had to follow the orders of the Assistant Manager. Seeing no way out, he had to leave the club with his senior.

On the following morning the Manager summoned him to his office and gave him a verbal dress-down. He used improper adjectives and even raised questions about his upbringing. The recruit, already finding it lonesome in the tea garden, slipped further back into a shell. He was too disturbed and overwhelmed to explain about what had happened at the club the previous evening and about the fact that he had greeted almost everyone present there.

This is just one scenario. This incident could have been handled in a much better way by the Manager without taking recourse to the unwarranted verbal abuse. Such incidents have led to many talented recruits getting demoralized and mentally pressurized ultimately leading to resignation from service.

As we know that “a good meal never starts with chillies”, so, in the same manner a job initiation should never begin with insults and abuses. Reprimands and disciplinary proceedings can be adopted in different ways. It should be kept in mind that the new age recruits are of a different mental makeup than it was about a decade or more back. Certain disciplinary actions such as extra workload, curfew days (where a recruit is prevented from enjoying his club days), pay-cuts, marked confidential reports etc., could be used instead.

Weekly review should be conducted on the recruit by the mentor and necessary corrections should be undertaken. At the month end the Manager should conduct an acclimatization test on the recruit in the presence of competent analysts or assessors.

It may hereby be worthwhile to mention that an important driving cog in the wheel of the management cycles during the previous generation of tea Managers were the ladies, more so the wife of the Manager. The tea ladies should be encouraged to participate in some sort of “social management”. They can play a crucial role in guiding the recruits and later, also their spouses in the norms of tea social norms. Another area where the services of the ladies can be availed of is in forging and developing healthy relations with the laborers. The Manager’s wife can act as an auditor of welfare activities being undertaken in the estate and can also help in labour support initiatives.

I have tried to provide some humble suggestions for encouraging young, well educated professionals to work in the tea sector and take it forward towards a better future. It is not a sunset industry as most would like to suggest, it is rather a great industry, where all stakeholders associated should work towards turning the trend to light- the light of change and contentment.