Lead Story

First among equals

SAP Labs India’s HR policies are not only women-friendly but also nurture a secure ecosystem for all its employees

Photographs by RA Chandroo

Google won it in 2013, 2014 and 2016, Risk Management Solutions in 2015, and Intuit topped the list in 2017. For 2018 and 2019, however, SAP Labs India has emerged victorious on the Great Place to Work Institute’s (India) ranking of the Best Companies to Work For. Not that the Indian arm of the German software multinational has ever dropped below the seventh position in half a decade. This year, SAP Labs India has added another feather to its cap — the Best Place to Work for Women on the institute’s list. But, what makes it so good? We wanted to hear it from the women themselves, and that called for a quick trip to SAP Labs’ sprawling office in Whitefield, Bengaluru.

Onwards and upwards

Ever seen old-timers scrunch up their nose when you use the word Mumbai instead of Bombay? It’s precisely the reaction you get when you utter ‘Sap’ to any SAP employee. “It’s Ess-A-Pee,” they’ll retort. The mild-mannered Sapna Ramaiah surely will, with a cheeky smirk. One can clearly see that the senior development manager is deeply fond of the organisation from the way she recalls her two-decade journey here. “SAP has become even more beautiful than it was 21 years ago. The teams constantly try to address granular problems,” she says. Ramaiah says the organisation understands the challenges a woman faces, and is supportive. “All you need to think about is the work,” she adds. 

She is among the many SAP troopers. Shylaja Sabbani shares how she started her career in finance at Citicorp, but shifted to a developer role at SAP in 2004. Fifteen years in, she has tried every role in the company — from purely technical to people management. “I also worked in fashion and retail at SAP, a completely new domain. Thankfully, you are given enough time to develop your functional expertise,” she says, adding that the leaders are always there to support, coach and guide them. Today, as the director of the IoT platform development at SAP, she leads a 24-member team and is valued as a good mentor.

In fact, she has even designed a board game for the women at SAP — a version of Snakes and Ladders. “We want to turn the snakes in our careers into ladders. Research has shown that gamification helps people grasp concepts of group dynamics better. It is also a better way to share your personal problems,” she says.

She adds that they predominantly start working with early talents who are confused about where their career is headed. “With the help of career insights, they realise they can achieve what they want without getting frustrated. We also help them connect to other growth avenues and take up fellowship (for upskilling and inter-department exchange programme) opportunities,” Sabbani says. That’s just a glimpse of the culture at SAP — of encouragement.

The fellowship programme, which Sabbani cites, lets employees try working across departments — HR, technology, and management — depending on what interests them. “I was told that I could try a new role for about seven months if I wanted to reshape my career. One gets to work with a new team and see whether the role suits them,” says Ravneet Kaur Sethi, a developer who got into SAP through BITS Pilani’s Integrated MTech programme. This experience would also help her later if she is considering a serious career shift. 

Sethi was also coached under SAP’s Take Charge series, which guides an employee on how to build their profile. Within three years of joining the company, she has been accelerated to the post of a programming manager, and reports directly to Mahesh Nayak, COO, SAP Labs India. “Everybody in my team has at least 10 years of work experience, but there has not been a single day when I am made to feel lesser,” Sethi says.

When talent is moved around, what about the lacunae left in the earlier team? Ramaiah says, “It’s a test for the managers to handle the situation. It’s also an opportunity for other team members to step up their game and take additional responsibilities.”

The organisation believes that with such situations, the workforce evolves. While earlier maternity was the only reason an employee would be gone for months, now they are always prepared to fill in for a team member. 

But sometimes, the women may not feel comfortable changing roles; they might hesitate because there is no direct support system outside their team. SAP has a solution here, too. It’s called ‘Speed Networking’ — like speed dating, but here, instead of prospective partners, employees and seniors in the organisation get a chance to connect once a quarter. Each one has to change partners post 20-minute slots. Thus, the younger employees get a chance to ask what they want and also get comfortable interacting with seniors.

In addition, to nudge its women towards leadership roles, SAP has a programme called ‘Confluence’. Seniors are assigned to 20 high-potential women who are given assignments and opportunities outside of their regular line of work. The seniors help the women network, which prepares them for a larger role and for managing a bigger team.

SAP’s commitment to inclusiveness is reflected in most of its policies. For example, the ‘2xLead’ programme was initiated to eliminate selection bias for higher positions. After analysing previous hiring trends, HR realised that they needed a more inclusive interview panel, one that includes both men and women.

“We have about 26% women in leadership roles and 32% women overall,” says Shraddhanjali Rao, head of HR at SAP Labs India, who joined the organisation over a decade ago, just after she got married. “I have spent as much time here as I have with my husband,” she jokes. 

The company’s shortlisting of candidates follows an interesting model, similar to an audition (for a horn player) described in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. In Gladwell’s example, the applicants play behind curtains so the jurors are in the dark about the musician’s gender. At SAP, the candidates’ photos, names and even personal pronouns are held from the jury. Only the qualifications are listed. “There are seven criteria central to SAP’s recruitment process: Who we attract, who we hire, who decides to join us, who we develop, who we retain, who we reward, and who we let go. With each of these, we try to maintain gender balance,” says Rao.

Hard talk

So far, the discourse has largely been fuzzy and warm. However, there must be pain points that often don’t see light of day. According to Rao, one of the chief challenges today is that two working parents are raising children the best way they can. “Initially, only HR teams and the management would be involved in problem-solving discussions. But, we realised that we must ask employees what they want,” she says. Seven years ago, new fathers received a week off as paternity leave at the company. Mind you, it is still not mandatory for all organisations in the country. Public sector organisations offer 10 days off in total — for both before and after pregnancy. Rao adds, “Men take leave because there’s so much chaos at home, but that’s not the only time they are needed by the spouse.”

What the HR team decided next was radical. “Shouldn’t the father be present at home when the mother is planning on resuming work? So, instead of one week, we revised our policies to four weeks of paid paternity leave per year. These can be taken together or in parts,” says Rao. 

They also have a ‘Back To Work’ programme to make this process easier for new mothers. Rao proudly claims how SAP is the only company in India that offers this option for both men and women, but she admits most men don’t opt for it. This initiative allows the new parent to start with smaller jobs, for four hours a day. Over a period of time, he/she gets back to the regular schedule.

Parenting is a responsibility SAP takes seriously and it has introduced a provision to address a concern most don’t even talk about. “We started miscarriage leaves five years ago, when miscarriage was not a word you could use openly. So, there was a whole process of sensitising managers and training them in comforting people going through such life events,” Rao says. At SAP, women are always encouraged to seek help, and the company also supports men who want to take a few days off and be there for their partners.

The company believes in partnerships. “We need men as allies. On International Men’s Day, we told the female employees to take a selfie with one male employee who has been a mentor to them,” points out Rao.

Balancing act

Now, while there are several organisations that are doing much for moms-to-be, there is a trend that has Rao worried. She believes a woman has to adjust to several changes in her life including settling into a new family after marriage. The team at SAP Labs supports them by allowing them to leave the office at a mutually agreed upon time, which need not sync with the regular office timing. This was found necessary when the management noticed that women were unwilling to apply for opportunities. “It was mostly because they couldn’t let the ball drop at home,” she says. Being a manager would mean not just completing their task, but also overseeing the work of others, and the women worried about keeping their husbands or children waiting. Today, it is not uncommon for women at the company to step in at 7:30 am and log out by 3:30 pm. “A few women were very hesitant to leave at 3:30 pm, when everybody else was busy working. However, it is a non-issue now. In fact, we don’t hold team meetings after 3 pm,” says Rao.

“Sometimes, a role may require travel. A lot of women drop out of sales and consulting roles as they would have to be on the road quite a lot. How then do you run a household,” asks Rao. To get around this problem, they suggested that women take up pre-sales roles, especially when they have young children at home. This meant they had to interact with prospective customers through executive meetings and conduct executive presentations without travelling much.

By the people, for the people

Way back in 2012, SAP had childcare facilities within its premises, and in fact was among the first to introduce it. Today, SAP has tied up with KLAY, a Bengaluru-based playschool and day care chain.

Speaking to Outlook Business, Priya Krishnan, CEO of KLAY Prep Schools and DayCare, says working women need to be given every help. “To me, a woman going back to work is important not only because she is contributing to the home, she’s also driving job creation, and investing in the children’s education.” 

KLAY also works closely with corporates to probe into why women drop out. Earlier, it was the onset of maternity, but an analysis by Infosys pointed out that close to 5,000 women quit their jobs in 2019 because their children were appearing for Class X and XII Board exams. Another major reason was elderly care. “We are in the process of identifying various phases at which women drop out of the workforce and how we can help them stay on,” adds Krishnan.

According to her, SAP has always believed in progressive policies, aligning with KLAY’s ideas. “They had a workplace crèche (called SAPlings) that could accommodate 200 children eight years ago. This was back when they were barely 3,000 employees strong,” she says. Law mandates that offices provide childcare for only mothers. SAP goes a step further to offer the services to fathers as well.

There is intent at SAP, but Rao says that employee inputs are crucial to the success of any initiative. For instance, when a mothers’ room was being planned, the facilities department, largely male, came up with a plan: four walls and a refrigerator. Then the women were asked to chip in with insights, and the space was reimagined with compartments — a breast-feeding area, diaper-changing area and a section for expecting mothers to rest.

Gender pay parity is another goal towards which SAP is marching. Technology plays an important role here. For example, when a manager is planning increments during a compensation cycle and sees that an employee has been absent for six months of the year, the person would naturally be eligible for a lesser increment. But, the system asks, “Are you sure? The employee was on leave for maternity.” SAP’s systems are programmed to prompt its leaders into making better decisions, says Rao. The manager may override the system, but there’s another layer of compensation planning handled by the HR team. If the reasons for the manager’s decisions are valid, only then is the lower compensation approved.

The tech intelligence goes deeper. There are certain job descriptions for which men apply and women won’t. For instance, if the description says ‘looking for an aggressive sales executive’, women don’t apply to these roles. When the job descriptions are fed in, the computer analyses the text, catches polarising words and suggests gender-neutral alternatives for a better chance of a balanced pool of applications.

Workplaces are evolving every day thanks to technology and how organisations are adopting it. At least from the looks of it, work conditions, especially for women, are only going to improve from here on with organisations realising the many benefits of inclusive hiring. Perhaps, the next time a company revisits its policies to make its offices more diverse, it could take notes from the likes of SAP.