Sunday, April 21, 2013

Fanfare for the Common Man - a tech fairy tale

(how technology is improving our lives - and other such fairy tales)


Technology has revolutionized and democratized life. The Financial Services and telecom sectors have invested in it heavily in the interests of better customer experience and efficiency. The following experience illustrates this, real-life.

Visited the bank to change my address in their records. I’d shifted.

Bank Officer : Sir, please fill out this form. And we’ll need an address proof. (...lists documents)
The form includes everything about me - not just my name, bank account number and the new address.
Me  :    So this will be effected on my Credit Card as well?
BO  :   No, Sir...there is this other form to fill....(gives me a second form to fill)
Me  :   But isn’t the Credit Card section part of your bank? Why do I need to do this again?
BO  :   Sir, they are a separate department and the forms are consolidated in their section in....xxx city.
Me  :    So you have two separate database entries on me?!!!!!!
BO   :   Yes, Sir. That is our system.
Me   :   Is that why the credit card department had my date of birth recorded wrong? They entered it separately.
BO   : Possibly, Sir.
Me   :   And for verification on a transaction, they told me I had given a wrong date of birth. Amazing, I can’t remember my own date-of-birth correctly according to them.
BO   : And Sir, we’ll need a photograph.
Me    :  I’ve changed my address, not my face. Why do you need yet another photo?
BO    :  Sir, its part of the KYC (know your customer) procedure.
Me     :  So without another photo, you don’t know me? Don’t you  have a camera here to take the pic?
BO     : Sir, we need one for the form.
Me      : But you digitize it for your database, don’t you? and you don’t have a camera at hand? Why don’t you use your webcam? Unless you need a resolution that captures the length of my eyelashes.
BO   :  (nervous laugh).
Me :   Why do I have to fill out the other stuff? You already have my existing address. With my bank Account No: and photo on your computer, you know its me.
BO  :  Sir, ok - I’ll fill that out (and then she fills it out!!). But wait, you account is at Gotham city (name changed to protect identity) and not here?
Me  :  Yes, that’s why I’m changing the address to here. I’ve shifted to Metropolis.
BO :  Sir, then you have to give this at your Gotham City  branch.
Me :   So I have to take a 3 hour flight to Gotham to submit this, since you’re computerized system doesn’t know who I am,....even if I can withdraw cash from this branch? and you can’t verify who I am, even I’m sitting in front of you with my ID.
BO : Sir, that is the procedure.
Me :   By telling you I’ve shifted, I’m doing you a favor. Its my money in the bank, accessible anywhere..so I really don’t care if your records are obsolete. Either I can do this right now..or its your problem finding me.
After conversation with Branch Manager with this crisis....
BO and BM :   Sir, why don’t you use phone banking and make the change. They’ll do so immediately.
Me  :   Great, then why didn’t you tell me in the first place so I didn’t have to fill up this long form.Its okay to do it from Timbuktu on phone, but when I come in person to the bank I have to fill out a form with document? Wow!
BO :   Sir, (hahaha). You are right, but that’s the system.

Now I had to do the same for my phone - mobile.

Phone Officer :   Sir, you need to contact  Extort-o-fone Gotham City to cancel your old number.
Me    :    Why can’t you do this on your computer right now? I’m here.
PO    :   Sir, that is our procedure. And please fill out this form.
Me     :    Other than address, nothing has changed
PO     :    Sir, its the system - please fill out the full form.
Me      :   Please transfer the balance from the old number to the new one.
PO     :   Sir, this is a new connection in a different circle....so we have to close the old number done. Which will be done in the next billing cycle.
Me      :   But I’m the same customer and its within my credit limit permitted. Why do I have to pay for 21 days of a Billing Cycle when you know I’m not going to use the number.
PO     :   Sir, but that is procedure we have to follow.

So Extortofone bills me for 21 days on a dead number. With efficiency, they refund my deposit on it after 60 days.  If my bill payment is delayed 10 days, the phone connection is cut-off. Its a very fair deal, I suppose.  They invest heavily in customer relationships and have a customer care executive for you if you’ve been a long standing customer. I have, for about 15 years. The CCE calls me up once a week for no particular reason at all. He even assures me that the refund will come in 60 days. I should be a satisfied long-standing customer, but I’ve become grumpy with age. Its my fault.

We must be an emerging economic power ready to storm the globe and a superpower in IT. Technology has really made our lives a lot better. They now transfer the paper onto computers, so we can print out additional copies of application forms that we’ve filled. Why do we need copies of our filled applications? I don’t know....it a technology savvy thing to do.

So about a decade and a few zillion bucks later, we’ve now shifted to technology-enabled bureaucracy in the enterprising, customer oriented private sector.  Just in comparison, my last tryst with government was renewing my Driving Licence. They mailed it home by registered post the next day after my application. Besides the form, I didn’t even have to give them a photograph. They had a digital camera.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

The Gender Pay Gap


Underlying reasons and suggested ways out

Various surveys have confirmed that women are paid less than men for equivalent jobs across he world. I couldn’t help wondering why this is so, based on my own experiences in India.  This is what resulted:

1. Govt is the only employer, in the Indian context, that has a fixed pay-scale for jobs. Its normally dependent on the length of tenure that an eligible candidate has worked at a particular level. So a pay band of say Rs 10,000 to Rs 15,000 is established for a job a Level 1, with Rs 500 increments. After 10 years, the pay levels off at that job at Rs 15,000. A new recruit will start at Rs 10,000/- with no experience at Level 1. A person recruited laterally with say 2 years experience will be recruited at Rs 11,000. There is almost no scope for negotiation.

2. Non govt jobs have a band within which a recruitment takes place. The band widens the more senior the position is. The starting point within the band is a negotiated salary. In practice, virtually all employees join the firm at negotiated salaries. Pvt firms include non-government organisations that are not-for-profit.
It is a normal practice in many private sector for-profit organisations to outsource the payroll. This becomes a single point of resentment with employees, so the approach is to shield such information from others.
It is also normal practice for the employers to seek to employ people at the lowest cost possible to the company. The only exceptions are those deemed outstanding in their work, many of whom are poached from other organisations. Pay hike is an incentive for the switch. Lets safely assume that in a normal A:B:C distribution of performance, the A list will be say 1 in 10. This piece applies to the 9 and could affect even the A list employees.

Given that salaries are negotiated, why do women end up with lower pay?  Please bear in mind that the following observations apply to a majority and not all. There are clearly exceptions to the rule.

1. Women are viewed as the “Second income earner” in families. This is true in terms of how women perceive their own earnings in the context of the family. This is true of how employers perceive women also. The result is that the starting point of the negotiation is lower than that of a male employee. (I worked for two years in a not-for-profit that was about 70% women employees including in top management and that’s how it  was assessed internally).
It is also true that in most homes with a single-earner, in the Indian context, the male is the earning member. This circumstance may not be true for many other countries.
2. Women look for a more wholesome picture in the job beyond pay (this can be related to a desire for dignity also). Working environment and the context of the job is also valued. So often they do not end-up negotiating too hard if the pay is in an acceptable range. The parallel one could look for here is starting pay-scales for those who come from other discriminated or disempowered groups. Aspects such as dignity of the work place play a huge factor in chosing a job.
3. Discriminated groups including women, often reach the interview table with a defensive mind-set, viz., I need the job badly, don’t want to lose the option over pay issues. Women, additionally, have to cope with work discontinuity that occurs due to marriage (husband got transferred), childbirth and child rearing. The location of city (due to husband’s transfer) and child rearing are related to the traditional roles of women in the home. The impact is required rigidity (of timings, for example) or flexibility (work from home, flexi-time) etc. Both of which place women on the back-foot on pay negotiations. The comparator for this would be for men-workers who may require such flexibility due to health reasons, child-rearing or other such responsibilities. The men with such circumstances are smaller in number, but my guess is that they get placed on the backfoot on negotiations.
4. Women who take a break for family reasons (especially child birth and rearing) often feel that the missed years may have taken the edge of the their abilities. I do not believe this to be true (and have experienced it thus). In fact, their maturity levels at handling such a challenge in life, is real value to the work place. The lack of currency in terms of data and developments is something any reasonably competent person can catch up in a few weeks - it isn’t a big issue. Many women at work and who are personal friends, confirm this view to me.
a. the fact they felt “lesser” when starting; and
b. realizing they’re as good as they were anyway and the “usual idiots” at work were still the “usual idiots” even if they had not taken a break!

All these above factors affect the negotiated pay of the recruit as also, the nature of jobs taken. The nature of jobs taken is a separate matter - but its no coincidence that a large number of fixed time jobs, as in hours of work, employ women. Teaching, operations and administration / HR, accounting jobs etc. Govt employment presents a very attractive option - equal pay, plus likely fixed hours - except for the few who reach the very top.

Downstream in a work career, for normal performers, the starting point of low-pay carries on through their career. Each consecutive job offers a hike (even if negotiated) based on previous  pay drawn So an employee being offered say a 25% hike on previous pay, finds it difficult to press for greater pay unless he or she is able to set-off competing employers in a bidding war. The latter happens not often, as jobs options don’t emerge at the same time.

To summarize:
1.Private sector negotiate pay to the lowest level possible for recruitment. In all cases during my working life (govt., private sector, for-profit and not-for-profit), there is no desire to pay less to women. The desire is to pay less for anyone - to the point it can be acceptable!
2. Women, like other discriminated groups, are on the defensive on pay negotiations.
3. The lower “entry” level payscale, thus has a downstream effect on their entire career.

What could be some avenues to explore to redress this?
1. To establish information systems to enable women to have a rough guage of what the job pays at the lowest to highest band (if possible). I can see guys using this service too, especially those from discriminated groups (handicapped, health, ethnicity etc)
2. To have active dissemination of the logic to women that:
a. Taking a break from work does not render them stupid. All that’s happened is that they are out of date on current events. No reason to feel despondent.
b. They are not “second income” earners. They are joint first income earners at the very least.
c. How the family perceives its relative earnings of partners is none-of-the-employers’-business.
d. For fixed-time jobs,  eg at a billing desk at the supermarket or as the person handling the front desk in an office, there is no reason for them to accept less pay for their time. For executive functions, jobs are inevitably outcome linked. So doing things like leaving early to manage the kids at home are NOT of any consequence. Its principally, in terms of time lost for non-work, no different from the golf-game or lunch-meeting around business, when about 5 minutes of actual work becomes an excuse to waste 2 hours! (some jobs this may not be a waste, but my experience suggest that most of the time it is. Its just fun bundled with a little work to make it look respectable!). Of course, managing a child is important while a golf game isn’t.
e. The pay negotiated in the early stages of a career, say graduation plus 3-5 years, stays like a monkey on one’s back. This is an issue that several men also face, if they’ve opted for lower paycheques early in the career. .

The key point I’d like to make is that the pay discrimination observed won’t go away with all the angst, rhetoric etc. Laws in countries can’t mandate private sector to guarantee any kind of pay =- you just have to look at the minimum wages scenario. Most of the perceived “discrimination” is the outcome of negotiations - related to a clutch of factors like those listed above. Its most often not out of a desire to pay less to a woman. Its out of a desire to pay less, full stop! You only need to look at the number of women employed in the recruitment business (flexi-location job), to realize that its often women sitting on the other side of the table negotiating pay. (I don’t have statistics for this, but it would be worth examining).