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Bid for breakfast with your boss

Bharti Airtel dovetails HR with CSR to come up with a first-of-its-kind employee engagement formula.

Saumya Bhattacharya | Print Edition: November 29, 2009

The morning after India’s top telecom operator Bharti Airtel announced its second quarter results on October 30, CEO & Joint Managing Director Manoj Kohli is headed for an important appointment. At Radisson Suites in Gurgaon, Kohli is scheduled to have a breakfast meeting with Ajay Gupta, a DGM of Networks at Airtel’s office in Gurgaon. By no means is this an ordinary meeting. In a virtual coup, Gupta has won Kohli’s time in an auction. For an hour, over piping hot idlis and fruit platters, Gupta devours mentoring and leadership lessons that he is unlikely to forget in a hurry.

Gupta and other employees at Bharti Airtel’s centre in Gurgaon are getting a taste of new age corporate social responsibility (CSR) peppered with human resources (HR) management via an online auction. On offer among a host of bid items is “time” with Bharti Airtel’s senior management. An employee can bid for breakfast or dinner with Kohli at a 5-star hotel or get a pick-up in Kohli’s car to office or win a lunch for four with David Nishball, President (Enterprise Services), or even attend a vocal music class with Deputy CEO Sanjay Kapoor. The collections from these bids are put in the kitty of Satya Bharti School, Bharti Foundation’s flagship programme. The company contributes an equivalent amount.

Unlike most other initiatives, the online auction was not top-down; the idea came from a manager in the CSR team. Krish Shankar, Director (HR), wasn’t too sure employees will be interested in bidding for senior management’s time. But the response took him by complete surprise. “The employees found it novel and the auction created a buzz among their families and friends. It was not a normal hardsell of CSR with brochures and pamphlets; it was more than that in terms of employee connect with senior managers,” says Shankar.

THE BIG-TICKET ITEMS
Lunch for four with David Nishball, President (Enterprise Services).
Visit for 4 to Satya Bharti School at Neemrana and lunch with Atul Bindal, President (Mobile Services).
Golf session with K. Srinivas, Joint President (Telemedia Services), Bharti Airtel.
Planting a tree on an individual’s name at Bharti Airtel campus coming up in Gurgaon.

Gupta, who outbid others with a bid of Rs 21,000 for time with Kohli, says: “The auction was for a noble cause with a rider, but the rider was more enticing.” On winning the bid, apart from getting envious looks at work, Gupta, 38, got a counsel on how his networks career should take shape. Manoj Jain, Head, IT Enterprise Services (Corporates), and GM (IT), who together with an HR colleague, put his money on a morning jog with Shankar and won, says: “CSR impacts and motivates me personally. And in this auction, I could even slice and dice my giving budget.”

The online auction, which was open to about 1,200 employees at the Gurgaon centre, had more than 200 employees across all levels bid for time with top management. It wasn’t as if seniors outbid junior employees— the bids ranged from Rs 500 to Rs 35,000. Also, fearing they will be outbid, junior employees formed teams, made collective bids and walked away as winners.

The auction got all senior management involved unreservedly. “Some were, of course, already very committed. But they gave to this initiative their personal time that’s always in short supply,” says Shankar.

Kohli will vouch for that. Barely out of the quarterly results and gearing up for Airtel’s Delhi Marathon the next day, he honoured his share of auction bid. “The idea reflects, on one side, the commitment of company to education, especially of (the) girl child. Also, it’s a form of engagement with employees.” The periodicity of the auction is not yet decided, but Kohli is geared up for the next round.

It’s hard to believe that an idea that has brought cohesion to the Airtel workforce was not designed as an employee engagement mechanism. “The learning for us is that there is a group of people for whom CSR matters. So, now we realise that if we want to engage employees, here is an innovation,” says Shankar, who made the highest bid of Rs 35,000 for a tree to be planted in Bharti’s new campus.

The biggest takeaways of the auction are: the cause, the connect and, of course, fun, says Jai Menon, Director, Bharti Airtel, and Group CIO, Bharti Enterprises. In his case, it also turned out to be an exercise in reverse mentoring. Menon, who had picked up his squash racket after 20 years, found a coach in the bid winner Shailendra Singh, Deputy General Manager (Finance), who has promised to give Menon lessons till he masters his shots.

The idea gets a thumbs-up from HR experts. “Leaders in their day-to-day lives rarely get to interact with employees who are not their direct reports. These are the best interactions for employee engagement,” says Nina Chatrath, Senior Consultant, Korn/Ferry Leadership and Talent Consulting.

Another HR objective— bonding employees across different functions— is also met through such an initiative, says an HR expert, who doesn’t want to be named. “Some people could be cynical about the exercise because of the money angle, while some can say that employees should have a right to the top management’s time. But the more senior management is seen to be out front on CSR, the more employees like it,” he says.

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