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Work Collective - the essential term in your Russian business vocabulary
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Work Collective - the essential term in your Russian business vocabulary

Cliff Pendleton, former Human Resources Director at Unilever CIS, with whom I have been working closely and successfully for several years, told me once: “Russians are dangerous people. A western investor can be misled very easily in Russia. When you work in places like India or China, you are safe taking things right at first sight: Indians and Chinese are a different kind of people with unique behaviour, image and habits. That’s why it is easy to identify who they are.

Russia is a completely different story. Here you deal with people who look like you, sometimes are dressed better than you, are well educated, cultured, say things that a western ear is used to hear. And one falls under the impression that he is if not in Western Europe, at least in one of the Central European countries where people have similar mindset, habits and values and that they would be react to your actions in a predictable way. But later on, when you find yourself in a complicated business situation you would realize with a sinking heart that there is an abyss separating you and these people. They think different, they act inadequate”.

It is common knowledge that unlike westerners’ individualism, Russians are collectivists by character. An old Soviet dictionary defines collectivism as cooperation, mutual help, social awareness and responsibility, sound integration of personal and social interests, respect towards colleagues and their interests.

Fair principles indeed! I am sure that besides Russia there are also people in other countries who adhere to these standards to a greater or lesser extent. But nowhere else, perhaps except China and Korea, these principles have been exploited so widely to manipulate people’s minds and behaviour than in Russia.

There are no ways to direct or manipulate a person while he is at home. Workplace is another pair of shoes — here managers allocate monetary and social benefits. So it was exactly the attempts to find the most effective ways to manipulate the population minds when a special term — Work Collective — first appeared. According to Encyclopedic Dictionary published in 1981, “work collective is one of the most important society bases. The work collective plays a crucial role in shaping the communist mindset of the Soviet people, brining up the communist approach to labour and discipline, overcoming the past negative legacy in a man’s consciousness and behaviour. It is within the framework of work collectives that one of the Party goals — involving blue collars’ into production and society management — is fulfilled”.

The USSR set an absolute record in number of staff meetings held at enterprises that might be included into the Guinness Book of Records. And if we look at the sorts of questions discussed at those meetings! From manufacturing results to supporting the Party’s latest decrees, from the political situation in Cuba or Nicaragua to one’s alcohol addiction or divorcing his wife. As a popular old song goes, «Don’t sing those songs to me, I’ve heard them all before, tell the people at the meeting what you’ve done the wrong for». This way «tovarisch» Paramonova, a Party official, tries to talk reason to her unfaithful husband.

As a means of self-defense, people have worked out their own code of behaviour at endless meetings. Everyone entering the meeting room immediately put on a mask of seriousness and concentration. When reacting to speeches, they would utter words and phrases that were expected of them. And those who did not follow the rules were ousted from the «collective» by the decision taken at those meetings. This double moral, which became a second nature, continuously corrupted and eroded the population. Starting his famous «perestroika», Gorbachev and his supporters tried (or maybe pretended to be trying) to preserve the communist innocence with regard to private property. It was declared that the majority of enterprises will be granted more and more autonomy in taking important decisions, more and more independence from the governing state and Party bodies.

In this situation an inevitable question was arising: if we are to delegate the authority and rights to the enterprises, who in particular should undertake it?

The Director? Maybe. But the Director of the enterprise had enormous powers already. To give him more? This might be dangerous, as in this case he could become nearly «the owner» of the enterprise. Thus the idea to balance the Director’s authority and the influence of work collective was born.

The height of work collective empowering campaign was reached when the USSR Law on State Enterprise (Association) was passed in 1987. The Law stipulated that the highest self-administration body at a state enterprise is the General Meeting or Conference of the work collective. According to the Law, work collectives were entitled to take decisions on the most important economic and production issues and to elect the Head of enterprise. The Ministry of Labour (Goskomtrud) had hastily prepared guidelines on elections regulations. It was decreed to conduct alternative basis elections at all state-owned enterprises (comprising 99,99% of all production and other facilities then) in 1988 — 1989. It is hard to imagine the consequences of the decree! The heat of election campaigns was rising; people stopped working and plunged heads down into the election process. Many individuals who were in fact lacking any required competencies to take part in the elections started to enter the election game with the only purpose of getting as much fun from it as possible, or sometimes in order to take revenge over the existing director for some sort of punishment received from him. This triggered completely new election techniques to spring up. Former friends turned enemies when they became candidates for the director's position. The price of blue collars' votes was often measured by the amount of free vodka distributed by a candidate.

The elections often brought to the surface stagnant conflicts which had been brewing for a long time. As a rule, candidates who lost the elections had to resign their jobs. Blue collars who were not satisfied with the election results would through empty bottles into the Presidium.

This led to further corruption of the work collectives that were known to be either bribed or threatened successfully even before the new Law enforcement.

The new regulation gave illusion to the formal and informal leaders of the work collectives, that they not only manage, but also own the enterprise. In their eyes the Law was just another proof that «everything belongs to people, everything belongs to me», as another popular song goes.

The following privatization seemed to have set the situation straight. It became clear, who is the legal owner and how he can manage the enterprise. But this was true on the surface only.

The authoritarian power and lack of western democratic traditions in Russia resulted in a rather specific attitude of people towards the authorities and the Law. The majority of the population believes that the authority as well as rules and regulations by which they are forced to live are beyond their control as much as ever before and come from somewhere above, just the way it was in the pre-revolutionary and post-revolutionary Russia. True, we elect our Parliament and the President now, yet most people believe that no matter which way they vote, the authority determines the outcome. So it is their business to set the rules and the laws, and our business is to find ways around these. And there is an inner, fair law which has nothing to do with the official one, by which we want to live.

Most people have enough imagination to accept that ownership of a small business, a store, a repair shop or a catering is fair. But as far as bigger enterprises with thousands and more headcount are concerned, most employees believe that no matter who the legal proprietor is, it is the work collective who is its real owner and master. The ownership is admitted by the silent consent of the work collective only: “We tolerate you as we tolerate the managers you appoint, but only until you do us wrong. Or until our loyalty is bought over by another owner, who may all of a sudden declare his rights for the enterprise”.

When I was telling this to Cliff Pendleton from Unilever, he asked me: “What does the term “work collective” mean? I understand the meaning of each word well, but the word combination is absolutely unclear. Why employees have to set up something else besides official associations like trade unions?”

There are Trade Union Specialists in HR Departments of many large international companies. Trade unions are registered and their leaders are known. Their activities are stipulated by rules and regulations. But one would hardly meet a specialist on work collective relationships in any western company. This is something specifically Russian – unclear, spontaneous, unpredictable and could be dangerous for an employer who would ignore building up relationships with it. Therefore, constructing a Greenfield or acquiring a Brownfield, a western and local investor should keep in mind that there are specific traditions in the area of employee relationships in Russia taking roots in the history of the country, that besides individual employees and official trade unions each Russian enterprise has a special people unity – work collective to be taken into account.

By Viacheslav Volkov
Managing Partner
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