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Working with non-Indian colleagues: Get savvy!

Last updated on: January 23, 2012 11:36 IST

Working with non-Indian colleagues: Get savvy!

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Urmila Rao

While working in a multi-ethnic workplace, there are certain etiquettes that you have to familiarise with, says this author. Illustrations by Uttam Ghosh

When Roshan Goel, accountant, 35, got an impressive offer from an overseas firm, he joined.

However, a year later, he continues to feel a little alienated in office. According to him, the 'whites' keep aloof. He misses his previous office.

"We used to break into random chit-chats, discuss movies or celebrate boisterous anniversary parties," he remembers, flagging up the earlier office culture as warm. Most Indians can relate to Roshan's sentiment.

However, a foreign national dominated workplace, as cold it may seem to Roshan, is really 'a different style of working', concur HR experts.

As businesses are growing, global companies are opening in India and domestic ones expanding abroad, a mixed ethnic workforce is becoming an increasing reality.

When you work with professionals from other countries, then typical home-bred attitudes may not find favour in global office corridors.

Holding a cup of tea and walking over to next colleague's desk for a casual ten-minute sports chat may be a common Indian sensibility but not necessarily sweet music to a European or an American.

Working in an office which comprises people of different countries and varied cultures may offer you certain challenges.

How do you ensure settling smoothly in such a team, sustaining your motivation, productivity and obtaining work recognition during organisational assessments?




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Challenges that may crop up

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Actually some cultural influences are so deep-rooted that we tend to act on them instinctively.

Our organisational behaviour, on conflict management or on communication is all guided by our historical behaviour. When Josephina, Roshan's colleague, was delivered of a baby, congratulatory e-mail messages were bandied in office. Roshan was surprised at the seemingly 'muted jubilation '.

When his office cut a major marketing deal in India, an e-mail invitation for a little party was sent to him. "There are no personal (vocal) invitation," he rued. Now, Roshan has somewhat adjusted to the culture that had initially rattled him. So, when it comes to working in a globally diverse workplace, one needs to acclimatise

"Challenges can range on multiple fronts such as adapting to and understanding different styles of communication, including non-verbal and styles of working which may or may not be apparently hierarchical," says Shanthi Naresh, Principal, Human Capital Practice, Mercer.

Having worked with people of different nationalities including German, Dutch, American and others, Sunil Kalra, ex-head, Manpower Consultants, a global HR consultancy firm, says that he has noticed three things in foreign nationals.

"Their time commitment is sacrosanct, they value private space and don't throw about their opinions indiscriminately," he says. "Their idea to know you better is after work hours, not during it," he adds speaking from his Daryaganj office where he now runs a firm, Indian Sports Design, specialising in sport documentaries. Inability to adjust can lower morale of the employees, say experts.

Naresh agrees adding that a sensitive Indian might feel left out from the team. But what about people who assume senior position, who have hailed from a uni-cultural background so far and have multi-ethnic team to head?

Lata Dyaram, Asst. Professor (Organisational Behaviour & HR), Dept. of Management Studies, IIT Madras, talks about how senior leaders should approach this issue. "They especially need to learn to relate to people from other cultures from a position of equality rather than a position of cultural superiority, "she says.




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Working with foreign nationalities - Is it a cultural shock?

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Lata Dyaram, Asst. Professor, Organisational Behaviour & HR, Dept. of Management Studies, IIT Madras says, "For a typical first-timer Indian techie, learning to work with people from other cultures would be usually a culture shock. If they work in North America, they would strictly adhere to timelines -- even if there is something urgent and critical. Once their 8-hour clock is struck, they would move on, as compared to Indian knowledge worker, who would sit back and work"

"However, there is a contrast in the 8 hours effort put in by an American worker, wherein all the 8 hours might be used to focus on work -- nothing personal creeps in. If an Indian works with East Asian workers, he would be facing the trouble of long hours. Every day without fail, the work starts at 8:00 a.m and closing hours are not known, it can be as late as early morning 3:00 a.m."

"If they work with European clients, they will be surprised at the number of vacations they take. Every quarter, they would be away for a week but when in office they are focused. A majority of South Asians seem to be diluted in their focus, unlike their European or American counterparts".



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Why are we like this only?

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The attitude of 'we are like this only' doesn't work in professional environment; especially when it has a negative bearing on output, hurting the company's revenue goals. Kalra, who has hired an European for his creative work says he can't get bossy and dictate him.

"I don't behave like a typical boss," he reasons.

"We need to trust a person's skill, domain expertise and give him freedom," he adds. At the end of the day, Kalra gets his work done, keeping his 'boss-like' attitude aside.

"And the output this extremely creative European guy gives me are the ones which I can take to my grave," he swears. The European designer, with bohemian sense of dressing; red shirt, yellow trousers and bidi-smoking habit, has time and again delivered to Kalra, exceptional works, one being Kalra's coffee table book on Cricket World Cup ,which was released in early 2011.

"IT/ITes companies in India are known to conduct training programmes for persons who need to work with non-Indian clients or in other regions," says Naresh of Mercer.

The idea is to apprise them on different sensibilities. Anu, who was employed at the British Council Office narrates her experience, "Unlike usual Indian bosses, British bosses don't poke too much in your work. They give you your freedom." Nirmala Murthy, commercial manager (after-market services), GE Energy, agrees. "My ideas are respected. I am given space and credit for my work."

Working with an American conglomerate, Murthy, who also interacts with Hungarians and Italians in her official capacity, refers to them as 'extremely polite' and 'highly knowledgeable'. "Their mails at times sound rude, but that is because of their lack of command over English," she says. But as a woman, her personal experience with Dubai markets, however, has not been 'all that good'

There are instances when discrimination is felt. Anu shares that as employees of the British Council she and other Indian staff members were as part of the British High Commission, and had access to the Commission's club, but not to the pool.

She further narrates, "The maternity leave wasn't at par because the whites enjoyed a six months' leave whereas an Indian's leave was restricted to three months." She also found that monetary awards with regard to work recognition were less in Indians' case.

Sakshi Mehta, working with an American conglomerate too felt the preferential attitude adopted by her company.  "All strategic positions were filled by the host country executives and domestic workforce was allotted less important roles," she shares.

When biases like these exist, how should one handle them? Dyaram says that there is no one way to address such issues. She offers, "One can approach in-house diversity council and company HR." Rituparna Chakraborty, co-founder and senior VP, says that as an employer, the global company is likely to give certain privileges to its nationals over locals. On issues like maternity leave, Chakraborty says that one needs to check whether the labour laws of the employer's land and the company's HR policies are extended to all employees or to just their nationals.




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Learning how to recognise and adapt

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In order to adapt well, understanding socio-cultural history of the land helps.

People of a certain culture behave in a certain way because their sensibilities are rooted in history. Japanese workforce, for instance, place significant importance on professional hierarchical ladder unlike Americans, who may call their bosses by their first names.

In Japan, traditionally, families have had a strict hierarchy command. The other way of adapting is to read current affairs, take cognizance of topical events, keep comments on sensitive issues reserved. Bouncing off an opinion on religion may not be a good idea.

"Instead, one should focus on identifying mentors or buddies for guidance, especially on the unspoken rules within the team and building networks in the workplace," sums up Naresh.

One should also recognise that e-mail is the backbone of communication where every plan or meeting that has taken place get documented. So, it is important to learn this new language of communication; proper e-mail usage and e-mail etiquettes.

Roshan, who fondly remembers hearty celebrations at his previous office, in the mean time, is drafting a nice congratulatory e-mail message for Josephina's new baby, her second one.



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Tips to help you settle down smoothly

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  • Try and have a mentor in the organisation, who can guide and help whenever doubts arise.
  • In high stress jobs like knowledge outsourcing, tempers may flare due to timelines. Japanese are known to be very sensitive towards loud voices, while it might be alright with other cultures during a debate or discussion.
  • It is better to be up front about a mistake and apologise, rather than trying to push it under the carpet.
  • Foreigners are committed to time, value, private space and don't throw about their opinions indiscriminately, says Manpower ex-head Sunil Kalra.
  • If you are an Indian boss working with a team of multi-ethnic workforce, give them their working space, which they are comfortable with.
  • Senior leaders should relate to people from other cultures from a position of equality rather than positions of cultural superiority, so in face of bias, seek professional intervention.




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