Absolute freedom to blue-collar workers could hurt workplace performance, cautions Nalina Kesavamurthi. Instead, it is vital to bring them in line with organisational goals.In most organisations, the management and HR heads want empowerment at all levels, especially at the labour level. But what is empowerment at the labour level in practice? For instance, is it having a trade union for labour to represent their issues? Is it choosing to work with freedom at the machine they want, or the time they wish to work, or choosing the job they like? However, such freedoms can draw organisations into a circle of poor performance or lead to a situation where supervisory management has no say in performance. After all, many companies, especially those that are factory-oriented, are managed by labour and are at their mercy for survival.The eventual dangers experienced are:• High attrition at the level of supervisory management• No technical growth• Long-term settlements through labour courts that are often a bottleneck for growth in the challenging scenario of the markets• The workplace becoming a place of recreation and sabotage for labour.Case studyAnna, a union leader for 20 years and a senior skilled labourer in an organisation with about 120 labourers, has excellent command of his fellow men. Generally given all the freedom he needs at work, his behaviour on the shop floor often irks the supervisors and management. Yet the supervisors often yield to his pranks of shouting at fellow workmen or ladies who assist at work.One day, the floor was busy with ISO inspections in progress. At the stroke of 5 pm, when all other members on the floor were present to cooperate for the inspection, he filed the papers, shut down his machine and closed his operations five minutes early. Following a brusque call to his supervisor amidst the inspection to say goodbye, he left. The management was informed of this behaviour; they asked for an inquiry and directed him to work in a different department.The moment the inquiry was arranged and the changes announced, he went into a flurry, throwing things around in the office and proclaiming that it was a shame to work in an organisation with no welfare or concern for the labour community. “If people can be moved to the whims and fancies of the management, what is the respect given to one’s experience?” he thundered. He also threatened the other workmen of expulsion from the union if they continued working.Work, obviously, was stalled and the HR manager walked in to pacify Anna; but he refused to talk. The works manager then came down to negotiate; he urged the labourers to get back to work, pleading that work had to move on to ensure that goods were despatched to customers. He also apologised to Anna, offering him rest or paid leave, if he would only allow the others to work. With so many negotiations taking place, the HR head got annoyed, remarking that even in situations involving powerful trade unions, he had never seen a similar situation that disturbed the flow of work. This caused Anna to spring back, again, saying, “Are we too small and spineless to take your mastery?” Eventually, after an hour of pleading and negotiations, he took to silence and allowed the rest of the workers to work.The lessonsIs this empowerment? Should the freedom enjoyed by labour take precedence over the commitment of the organisation to deliver to customers? Or do we need empowerment that fosters the growth of the organisation? Here are some recommendations:• Freedom to work is a must, but setting goals or having rules and policies is not against freedom to work. In fact, it makes the working atmosphere more disciplined.• Decision-making is often the job of managers and any suggestion or decision that improves the working environment is rarely taken from the labour. If decision-making at the level of jobs handled by labour is given to labour, the environment will spring back to healthy growth.• Internal job rotations in a periodical manner will ensure that most labour is skilled in every critical area, thus reducing dependency on a few. This not only creates a situation of balance amongst workers but restores a healthy system of human resources who are assets to the organisation.• True freedom at work is not the choice of taking up easy tasks but accepting challenges and being an active participant in the growth of the organisation. An organisation that recognises this is sure to succeed and the labour will show concrete support and commitment towards its goals.Hence, empowerment is about the ability of an individual to adapt and excel in any given situation and maximise their potential. This comes with better understanding of organisational goals and freedom to participate in decision-making towards these goals, remaining committed to organisational growth.