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Passion paves the way for professional excellence - Harjeet Khanduja [Interview]

Passion paves the way for professional excellence - Harjeet Khanduja [Interview]

HR blogs
Anushka Rajesh
March 11, 2022
Human Resource Management Platform
Passion paves the way for professional excellence - Harjeet Khanduja [Interview] | peopleHum

About Harjeet Khanduja

Harjeet Khanduja is the VP of Human Resources at Reliance Jio Industries. Harjeet is an International Speaker, Writer, Poet, Visionary, and HR Leader. Harjeet has set multiple greenfield projects and has handled HR for large multinational organizations in various geographies including India, US & Canada. Harjeet’s experience spans a range of sectors that include Automotive, Manufacturing, Pharma, Alternate Energy, IT-ITES, Telecom, Digital, Healthcare, and Retail and has worked with business houses like Tata, Reliance, and Piramal.

Aishwarya Jain

Passion paves the way for professional excellence - Harjeet Khanduja [Interview] | peopleHum

Welcome to another episode of the peopleHum interview series. I am your host Aishwarya Jain and let's begin with a quick introduction of peopleHum. peopleHum is an end-to-end, one-view, integrated human capital management automation platform, the winner of the 2019 global Codie Award for HCM that is specifically built for crafted employee experiences and the future of work.

We run the peopleHum blog and video channel which receives upwards of 200,000 visitors a year and publish around 2 interviews with well-known names globally, every month.


Welcome Harjeet, we’re so thrilled to have you.


Thank you. My pleasure. 


So Harjeet, let’s rewind a little in history and if you could tell us a little bit, just something about your story and did you always want to be an HR professional? What is it that inspires you to excel each day? 


Okay, that is like three questions in one. But I will still try.  Look, my story is a story of a small-town boy who kept dreaming and God kept fulfilling his dreams. So, that is what my story is. Since childhood, I wanted to be a lot of things. I wanted to be a teacher, I wanted to be an event manager, I wanted to write, I wanted to speak, I wanted to help people, I was fascinated by technology, I wanted to make money. I wanted to be in business and I wanted to contribute to society. So I became an HR guy. So this is like all in one and that is how I landed in HR.

Actually, it was an accident that I landed in HR. I completed my engineering, joined Tata Motors, they placed me in HR. Actually, they placed me in the industrial engineering department which used to report to HR. And as my role expanded, I started loving HR and that is how I grew.


Of course and it's quite exciting to hear that you as a young boy, you could dream and fulfill everything that you ever dreamt of. That's just, it's rare to actually encounter. 

And I think you're a very people person since definitely you like HR. So what is it about people that excites you? How do you look at relationships around you? 


Look, whenever I look at people around me, I try to see how I can help them in some way that they enrich their own lives and that is something which keeps me driving. So my entire motivation comes from people. How? I don't know. One of my core skills is problem-solving. So, you give me a problem, and somehow by god’s grace, I am able to solve the problem. Maybe I am able to look at the problem in a different manner, and that is something that has helped me in helping people.

So what happens is, most of the time if you talk about psychology, you only see what is happening. You don’t see what is not happening, which is called perspective and different people have different perspectives.

If you start appreciating the perspectives of different people, then you are able to solve problems in a much better manner. So I believe that as something which has been working for me.

“If you start appreciating the perspectives of different people, then you are able to solve problems in a much better manner.”


Wow, I think it’s a gift because it is true that a lot of people don’t understand perspectives and therefore it leads to a lot of quarrels and fights and a lot of politics, right? And I’m sure you must have seen that in your lifetime.


Yep. All these things happen. That’s what makes you human. 


Yeah, that is true. 

And you are also into poetry, so HR and poetry, that’s a very interesting confluence. So, how does your passion for poetry support your passion for HR?


Frankly speaking, poetry has nothing to do with HR. I used to be a kid, I used to watch TV, that time Hasya Kavi Sammelan was very famous. And I used to see those guys, I was fascinated by those guys and I got an environment where I was asked to write, and I started writing. And I became a poet. Like I said, I kept dreaming. I wanted to start something, so I started the Council of Technical Scholars when I was in class twelfth and throughout my engineering, I pursued that. So, I am associated with Nasscom because I wanted to be there. I am associated with the CIA because I wanted to be there. I wanted to be a TedX speaker, so I worked towards that so that I become that. I wanted to write for the Chicken Soup series, so I made sure that I put in efforts, be focused and do that. I wanted to be a painter so I started painting very recently after say 44 years of my life and my wife is surprised, so that’s a good thing. I also never knew that I can be a painter.

Now the thing is, what happens is you're just looking at poetry, but each and every human being is a full package. So I love HR. I love poetry. I love painting. I love a number of other things. And when you work outside your core domain where you are spending nine hours or ten hours every day, that gives your brain a chance to use other parts of the wiring.

"When you work outside your core domain where you are spending nine hours or ten hours every day, it gives your brain a chance to use other parts of the wiring."

So, when your full brain is functional in pieces, you find that you start thinking out of the box. And that helps you in your day to day work also. This entire thing helps you build perspectives and that is why I promote that everyone should do two or three things that are not related to your business, unrelated things. Start doing something and you will find you are becoming better at your work.  

The reason behind it is, like the same thing, you spend 10,000 hours on something and you get skilled in that. If you work on your passion for 10,000 hours, what will happen is anything you start working on, you will become passionate about that. Because what you are fuelling is passion. So you get skilled at passion and that is how it helps.


Wow, that is very, very inspiring. And I also see your painting behind you. 




That’s very, very, it looks very beautiful. That’s a skilled art. So, what you’re saying is that one must really just follow their passion and give their 110% towards it and have a lot of positive energy and they will get what they want. 


Yeah. There is no alternative to hard work. You keep doing hard work, god helps you. You stop doing hard work, then god also starts re-thinking. So, that’s what my philosophy is.  

“You keep doing hard work, god helps you. You stop doing hard work, then god also starts re-thinking.”



And in this process, when you have so much passion to do something, did you also change yourself dramatically so that you could align towards your objective? 


Frankly speaking, you cannot change who you are. So you just keep working on it. You just keep dreaming. The moment you say, 'Okay, I want to do this, then what will you do?'

Since we were talking about painting, so it was not that, I thought that someday I will paint. And then somebody gifted me an easel and a couple of canvases and paints. And I said, ‘Okay, I don’t know how to paint. What should I do?’, so I went to YouTube and I started learning. And when I learned, I found that 'yes, I can learn.'

I can make a painting and look, once you paint something, put it somewhere, people like it. So I made more and more and more. So I believe, that is how it goes.


Right. I think these are some tips that anybody can use and they can achieve what they want in life and that would be phenomenal if everybody could just work hard towards what the objective is. 

But also Harjeet, there are so many distractions nowadays, especially for the young generation, right? They have the video games and then they want to go outside, they want to go out with friends and what we see is that they just get lost in the number of choices that they have. So, what would you kind of advise them, how should they just put their heads down and focus on one thing?


I am also a video game buff. So, when I play video games, I play them with the mindset that maybe I'm developing a skill. If the young people have that ‘I want to achieve something’ and that something can be anything.

Suppose if they say I want to be a TEDx speaker. Or I want to have, say 100,000 followers on YouTube. Then you start thinking, 'Okay, how will I get there?' And THE more you think and more you work towards it, that will actually build your focus. The most important thing for somebody to be focused is to identify a purpose. All these distractions actually keep the stress away. When I am stressed with either one of my passions, I actually go back to video games. Play a video game and then come back.

“The most important thing for somebody to be focused is to identify a purpose.”

I have also gone through that addiction period of video games. But you should do that once. You should play to such a level that after that you don't feel like playing. Once you do that, then you have won all those distractions.

So, the first time when I was with a doctor and my wife thought that I will have some kind of blood sugar problem. Do you know what the doctor did? He gave me a glass of water half filled with sugar and he said, have it. He said, don’t stop him from having sugar because if you stop him from having sugar, then he will crave it. He will cheat.

That day I understood, don’t restrict yourself, go for it. You know what is right, what is wrong. After some time you will feel guilty yourself and once you feel guilty, 'okay, this is something I am not doing right', you will fix it yourself. I can’t fix your mistakes, you can’t fix mine. I will have to fix my mistakes, you will have to fix yours. So, you need to realize what your mistakes are. For that, you need to commit them.


Absolutely. That is such a great way of actually finding your purpose. That makes sense. 

And Harjeet, they said that Attitude beats Aptitude. So when you work in your role, right? And when you are maybe guiding people to select the right talent for some role, do you have some tips or pointers or any models for behavioural testing that you keep in mind?


You’ve asked a very controversial question. I will ask a reverse question. Okay? Look, if I’m taking attitude as attitude and aptitude as the knowledge part of it, where you’re actually checking the IQ, whether the person as knowledge or skill. So, have you seen KBC? Kaun Banega Crorepati? How much they give? One crore, five crores. Something like that. That is what the prize money is. KBC is purely knowledge-based. They ask you a question, and they give you four choices also.

Then you think of Indian Idol. Indian Idol is primarily about the skill of singing or Dance India Dance, it is about the skill of dancing. What is the prize money? Fifty lakhs.  

And tell me a show which is totally about attitude. Roadies? It is purely about attitude. What is the prize money? 32,500 rupees. That is what you end up with. Think? If you see this way, you will find that although we talk about attitude, but we pay aptitude. Society does that. Don’t even talk about businesses.

If you look at jobs. A knowledge-based job is a supreme court judge? There is a pilot who has a skill of flying a plane. Purely skill-based job. No job is purely skill or knowledge or attitude based but primarily, the biggest component of a pilot is a skill. And which is the attitude-based job? That is housekeeping. You just need attitude. How much you pay a judge, how much you pay a housekeeping staff, and how much you pay a pilot?

Now the thing is when people say attitude is important, they say because if given that aptitude is the same, then attitude matters. If you just play on attitude, then it doesn’t mean anything.  Like suppose, if you want to have a cake, one is you can have cake, second is you can put cream on the cake. Now, with cream, the cake looks much better and it even tastes better but if I ask you to have only the cream, you will not like to have it. So, attitude is required and aptitude is a must with attitude. That is what we fail to tell.

“If you just play on attitude, then it doesn’t mean anything. Attitude is required and aptitude is a must with attitude.”

That is why if you see most of the companies use aptitude-based tests and for attitude, there are tests like you can use 16PF to basically profile people, you can use Big Five, you can use PI. PI is a very good tool for predictive index. Or another piece that you can do is, if you want to do behavioural kind of testing, attitude kind of testing, go for SBJTs - Situation-based judgement tests. You will find that a lot of good things will come out about the people you are looking at. These tests, especially attitude tests should not be used for selection or rejection. They should be used for probing so that you can have a meaningful discussion in the interviews.


Absolutely. I think you’ve spoken the honest truth that a lot of people would not really slice and dice and say it. But that’s the honest truth you’ve put out there and thank you so much for doing that. 

Another aspect that I want to touch upon is  the performance management process. Now, do you believe organisations do a good job of it and there are some managers that are very dreadful about performance enhancement period. So do you think, something, some kind of twist can be put to this? 


Okay, you are talking about 'Hari Sadus' of the world, right? 




Look, why managers dread this performance appraisal period, it is not because of performance management. Nobody hates performance management. What people hate is rewards management.

“Nobody hates performance management. What people hate is rewards management.”

Now, suppose if I give you 10 rupees and I tell you to distribute it among 100 people, how will you distribute it? That is what the biggest problem is. It is not that performance is a problem. It is that we mix performance with rewards. 

I was traveling in an Uber. And I saw that the rating of that person was somewhere around 4.9 with 5000 trips. I was amazed at how can you have such kind of a rating, it is not easy to get. Do you know what the guy told me? He said, 'Sir, day 1, I realized this job is not about driving. Driving is a skill for me to get this job. But this job is about making conversation with people, keeping my cab clean because that is what people rate me on.'

Look, he gets his incentive on how many hours he has driven his car. So your incentive is on efficiency. But your development is on the feedback, which the person gets instantly. And it is specific.

“Your incentive is on efficiency. But your development is on the feedback.”

Now, the problem with, say a traditional performance management is it was not started on a technology platform. It started with pen and paper. So what is attached to it is that first it will get done on paper, so you can't do it on a regular basis. So you will do it on a yearly basis, and then people found, okay we will digitize it. Then people started doing it on a quarterly basis.

Thing is, it has to be instant. If you think from a platform perspective, if you can capture feedback instantly, why will you wait for a quarter to end? And if I do something wrong, I will be most receptive at that point in time about a feedback and I will be able to improve on it.

It is not that people don’t want to improve. People want feedback. Thing is, most of the managers are not able to give feedback because even if you form an opinion, if it is not backed with instances that where did you go wrong and why did you go wrong and the person is able to relate, that helps in developing people or growing people. We say performance management processes but we do rewards management, that is where the problem is. I will leave it there.


Absolutely. I so agree with you on this point and it really tells you that our performance management processes are just so messed up in most organizations. And what you’re preaching is it’s really about continuous feedback. 

And when you talk about feedback, how is it that you give feedback to employees. Is it always constructive feedback or you’re very kind of curt and hard on them that this is what you did wrong and this is how it should be done. What is the process?


Look, what you said, this is what you did wrong and how it should be done. That is constructive feedback. If you just scream and shout that you don’t know anything, that is not a feedback. But if you tell somebody, this is what you did wrong, this is how it should be done. That is constructive feedback. Now, rest everything is tone and emotions, at which pitch you are talking about and what are the words you're choosing. Whether you are hurting the person or whether you’re trying to help the person.

Nowadays, when we are talking about platforms, most of the organizations are already planning to bring one or the other platform. And the moment you bring platforms, your managers will go away. I am not talking about any sci-fi movie. Look, there are many platform-based apps, Uber was one of them, Swiggy was another. Urban Clap was another.

Most of the organisations are removing what you call as managers, the person who is going to allocate you work, they are directly connecting you with a customer through a platform.  If manager is not there, then who is going to give you feedback? It is the customer who is giving the feedback on the platform and without any emotions or any anger or any different kinds of words, that feedback is getting passed on to you. 

And suppose your rating goes below three, you are called to the headquarters to get trained that you are doing something seriously wrong. Otherwise, people see their report card and they know what’s wrong with them. People know themselves very well. And they know sometimes they need guidance that, okay, how do I improve? If you’re able to help and support them in that, they are very happy with you as a manager. So, being a manager is a tough job but manager as a community, I believe in the age of platforms, you should actually keep it with tigers.


Right. Absolutely. 

And in this process would there be, especially in areas of HR, would there be certain areas where you think the application of technology would really make a lot of sense or automation in a certain sense would really help HR or support HR? 


Okay, tell me can you live without your phone? You can’t. I also can't live without my phone. Look, right now if you go to Amazon, Amazon recommends you what to buy, right? You go to Netflix, it recommends you what should you see. Don’t you want your HR platform to tell you who should you hire?

That is something that is coming naturally. Platform-based organizations are becoming strong and more and more organizations that go for a platform, which is the HR platform that is going to be an integral part of the business. Going forward you will not see organizations where a traditional way of doing HR is being followed.

So what happened was when PizzaHut or say, Dominos, when they came to India or in fact when they came into being what they did was, they started putting time pressure. That things are fast. You will get whatever you order in 30 minutes. That was a huge mindset change. Now how will that mindset change happen? If you're working on platforms, then you can make that happen.

Now if you tell somebody, okay, you need a service letter? Kal aana (Come tomorrow). Can you do that? Guy says pizza comes in 30 mins, you are telling me ‘kal aana’? Can you do that with people? Second is pizza gives you choices. Okay? What kind of cheese? What topping? Now when you call people inside and you do an induction, do you give people choices? You don't give choices. Don’t you think it needs to change?

They need a platform so that they are able to give choices that you want to do your induction? These are the four courses that are mandatory. Apart from these, there are four more courses. You can complete any two of them. Your choice. How will it happen? It will happen on a platform. Until and unless you put a platform in place, these things are not going to improve.

Look, generally, whenever we talk about technology or AI, people get very fascinated and everyone is talking about decision making with AI and automation. Frankly speaking, my own experience, what I have seen is that AI is most useful to ensure your governance. If your AI can check your certificates if your AI can match the photographs which were taken at the beginning, and which were taken at the time of onboarding, is the same person joining here? Those are the things that AI can help you with very easily.

Chatbots is a commonplace, how you use chatbots is something which you can see and in many processes you can use that. In HR, all the areas. Whether you talk about recruitment, you talk about talent management, engagement, performance management or even risks. You can use automation, you can use AI and you will be very happy doing that. 


Absolutely. I think that's created a rise in organizations that adopt these platforms would really get, they would just free themselves to do tasks that are more about thinking rather than just doing regular tasks.

And another area which remains a challenge Harjeet is employee retention. So, even for top organisations, there is something that is amiss. So what do you think in your opinion that needs to change here?


Look, that’s a difficult question. It is difficult because what organizations feel is that people should behave the way they want. Now, the problem is that society has changed outside. The moment you bring somebody in the organization, the person starts feeling constrained. You want to babysit people. People are not used to babysitting.

Look earlier there used to be joint families, which used to sit together, eat together and there used to be a head in the family. Everyone used to touch his feet and say whatever he will say that is fine and from that society has moved into ‘I want more independence. I want to live in my small nuclear family.’

Now you bring somebody into an organization that was actually built on an army philosophy. Organizations work on that army-based or structure like this is how the hierarchy works. You bring somebody in, that person starts feeling that, 'Oh my god. Where have I come? Now, this is another big joint family where I have to say ‘Yes’ to most of the things.'

Like in the army, it is not that they don't ask. They brief you and they say, ‘Koi shakh?’ (Any doubts) Now point is, you are saying ‘Koi Shakh’? Does anyone say, ‘Yes sir, I have a Shakh’? Nobody says that. That is the culture in which organizations have been built from.

So that is what the genesis is. Taking that genesis out is very difficult. If you see IT-based organizations, which were not built on those organizations or the new-generation platform organizations, they don't work in that manner. They have taken their principles from IT rather than taking it from the army. So that is why there is a distinct difference and they're able to engage in a relatively better manner.

So the rest of the people need to make those changes so that they can catch up with if they want that kind of talent in their organizations. It is not that people will stop working. People will still work. But if you say, 'oh, engagement is a problem.' Yeah, it is going to be because the person is experiencing something outside the company and a totally different thing inside the company.

“Engagement is going to be a problem if the person is experiencing something outside the company and a totally different thing inside the company.”

Google is there. Now Google is all about asking questions. You ask questions, it answers. So, if you have been working on Google all the time, but in your organization, if you can't ask questions, you are actually creating a contradiction in mind, and most of the time that is the reason people are not happy because the experience is different. It is not easy to bridge this gap, so I’m not saying suddenly things will change.

But you need to make a path, so you understand that these are irritants and nobody is going to come and tell these to you and ask you to solve it for them. You go inside a temple and you see everyone is kneeling down, so you also do that. You go to a church, you see people doing this (makes the Sign of the Cross), so you start doing that.

So companies need to understand this and changing their structure is not that easy because good businesses, big businesses have been built on certain principles. So, the moment you start changing that structure, it takes time. But it will happen.


Yes. Hopefully, it will happen, yeah. Definitely. I think organizations are slowly realising that they can't always think in silos. They have to expand and broaden their horizons and ask people what is really happening, what is wrong with them. 

And there is always also this controversy of how do you determine adequate compensation for talent? So, paying higher for the short term for quick business desires and inheriting long term issues versus having a structured, balanced pay approach. So, can you shed some light on that? 


Well, I don’t have a torch so I can’t shed light but let me tell you, suppose you have to go somewhere. Right now, it is not a time to go somewhere, but suppose if you have to go somewhere and you need to buy a train ticket, what will you do? You’ll go to Tatkal, pay higher, get the ticket, right? So, same is the funda with compensation. 

If you don't plan or you have got into a situation where you need to go somewhere and you have not planned, so you will have to shell out relatively higher than what you are otherwise doing. Or if you find that there is some competency you don't have inside the organisation will need it from outside, then any which ways companies go to consultants. With a particular project or for a particular skill, shell out a little bit more money and get that done on a short term.

So it is not a new thing which is happening where you are absolutely certain, you have planned that this is the work which is going to be there for the long term and for this work, I need a person. So it is a make-or-buy decision that I will do it in-house because outsourcing doesn't make sense. I will be able to do it at much better compensation inside the organization. So on that basis, you would take decisions.

Look, as far as fair pay is concerned, you'd have seen that there are multiple models and there are multiple companies that say that, okay, this is how you do job evaluation. You look at the entire gamut of the job. And based on benchmarking study where you get some benchmarks that okay, this is what my percentiles are and where I want to position myself on my compensation scale.

So if I have a strong brand, I would like to be below 50 percentile or if I am going in the market and I am looking for a particular kind of talent for a certain set of roles where I want to position myself, I want to be the benchmark myself. So based on your compensation philosophy and the need of the organisation, you make those decisions. Look, this is a very scientific area, and it works on supply and demand. 


Right. I think you just have to strategise well and understand what is your need at that point in time. 




That makes sense. 

So, just to wrap this interview up Harjeet, I’m gonna ask you if you have any other important sound bites that you think the audience would really get help from. 


Look, I would say keep dreaming because that is the only way they can get translated into reality. So, dreaming is the most important process, which you should have in your life. If we start thinking about what is possible, what is not possible. Everything is impossible until we dream of it.

“Keep dreaming because that is the only way they can get translated into reality.”

When I was small, we used to talk about something called telepathy and people talk and then there was Star Trek that okay, people can see also and then people can go there also. Did we ever think that it will happen in our lifetimes? But it happened because somebody dreamt of it and till the time we dream, nobody is going to make them true. So keep dreaming, maybe god will help you and your dreams will get converted into a reality.


Absolutely. Thank you so much for that advice. I think a lot of people just forget about their dreams and they’re drenched in sorrow and they say the future is dark, so it’s truly important to start dreaming and if you have the right, positive mindset, I think like you, everybody else can definitely benefit from that. Thank you. 


One reason why people don’t dream is because when we are children, people ask, ‘What will you do when you grow up?’ ‘I want to be a pilot, I want to be a teacher or I want to be an HR person. Point is, when you become a pilot, after that nobody asks you, ‘What you want to be?’ So our journey gets limited there. We don’t even ask ourselves and that is why I’m saying ‘Dream’.


Absolutely because I think that is very important because as you said, a lot of people are just very happy and content with what they have once they’ve achieved a certain position and they just think that’s the end of it. But as you said, it’s important to keep those milestones going always in your life. And you are truly an inspiration Harjeet, for a lot of people and for myself.

So, thank you so much for your time. I really, really appreciate you sharing your view with us. Thank you, I’ve learnt so much and it’s been such an enriching and a fun journey. So, thank you so much. 


Thank you. Thanks a lot. 

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October 25, 2021

A very inspiring list. Thanks for putting this together


October 25, 2021

This is such a great list of women leaders! More power to you all

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