You Call Your Boss What? Bridging Cultural Gaps Between Western Employers and Indian Workers
New employees may struggle with everything from learning how to use the closest copier to squeezing in a lunch break in between meetings. But Ravi Prakash’s school-to-work transition had an additional wrinkle: He had to learn to address his superiors by their first names.
Prakash took a job in the India office of an American company after graduating business school in 2010. In his home state of Bihar, India, he had grown up understanding that everyone, including adults, addressed their elders with honorifics. Even in college, Prakash says, he called students just one year his senior "Sir" or "Madam." At his new employer, however, addressing everyone by their first names was standard, regardless of employees' ages and titles.
"Initially, I was not very comfortable calling my boss, who was 15 years older than me, by his first name," says Prakash, who now works at an India-based joint venture between State Street and the tech firm HCL Services. "But that was the culture there."
In a globalized business environment, workplace culture clashes are inevitable…and India is home to many of them. Since the liberalization of Indian business laws in the 1990s, more and more foreign companies have set up shop in the country and quickly found themselves struggling to address challenges that varied from region to region. "The diversity of language and people in India make it impossible to take a cookie cutter approach to managing Indians," says Professor Neharika Vohra, of the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIMA) in the state of Gujarat.
Nevertheless, there are some cultural gaps between Indian workers and their Western employers that manifest themselves throughout the country. A key one, says Keith Warburton, CEO of the UK-based consulting firm Global Business Culture, is a dedication to hierarchy that clashes with Western companies' emphasis on flat organizational structures.
In a globalized business environment, workplace culture clashes are inevitable.
Warburton, the author of Global Business Culture’s “Doing Business With India” report, calls India "potentially the most hierarchically structured business culture in the world." Indian society is historically caste based, and that legacy carries over into the workplace, in everything from—as Prakash’s experience shows—how employees address their bosses to employee turnover, which Warburton says can be as high as 50 percent in some Western-owned Indian offices.
"The Indian workforce is massively aspirational," Warburton says. "People want promotions. They want better job titles, but very often, when Western businesses introduce a flat system into India, there are no promotional possibilities or very few. That's a high driver of attrition."
Attrition notwithstanding, Western companies may be reluctant to abandon flat structures because of concerns that hierarchy limits innovation, as workers feel it necessary to confine themselves to certain tasks in deference to their superiors. And yet there are ways to encourage employees to take initiative even within a hierarchical structure. One simple one? Be direct and explain exactly what’s expected. In Harvard Business Review, Erin Meyers, a professor at the French business school INSEAD, advises that if "you want your staff to present three ideas to you before asking your opinion, or to give you input before you make a decision, tell them. Old habits die hard for all of us, so reinforce—with clarity and specificity—the behavior you’re looking for."
As in any workplace, Indian employees are more motivated to provide valuable contributions when they have a sense of purpose, something that's often lacking when Western companies opt to give only the least interesting duties to their Indian operations, says Warburton. It's an issue that also contributes to attrition, he noted.
"You very often find that the work in India is being done by people who are massively overqualified. They might have two degrees. They might have a PhD. Not unsurprisingly, they're not going to do that work forever — they're going to look for more interesting work,” Warburton says.
Vohra, of IIMA, agrees that foreign companies must bring more meaningful work to India and remove "the invisible ceilings and walls for growth of Indian employees," which includes considering Indian employees for promotion opportunities when they do exist. Too often, Vohra says, Indian professionals are still overlooked for top positions in multinational companies.
That brings us back to hierarchy. What may surprise some Westerners is that the hierarchical structures in the Indian workplace don’t preclude the formation of close, caring working relationships between managers and their direct reports. In fact, it’s common for bosses and employees to discuss their personal and family lives at length during working hours, to a degree that may seem strange to Westerners accustomed to a “let’s get down to business” mindset. But the personal approach to workplace interactions has its benefits, says Vohra. “The fact that there are human connections within the workplace reduces stress and keeps people engaged.”
The bottom line, experts agree, is that Western companies must approach their Indian workforces with an open mind and a willingness to learn more about how they function best. Communication is key, especially sharing specific expectations, to bridge cultural divides.
As Western employers take a proactive approach to understanding and communicating with their Indian employees, Warburton says they’ll also find that Indian workers are more than happy to do their fair share of adapting.
Prakash says that he eventually did grow comfortable with calling superiors by their first names. In fact, he now prefers to do so because it leads, he says, to “more open conversation.” In his work today with State Street and HCL, Prakash is pleased to see aspects of both Western and Indian business culture incorporated into the workplace. “When we mix the cultures,” he says, “we can take the best of both.”
1. Warburton, Keith. “Doing Business with India.” Global Business Culture. 2017
2. Meyer, Erin. “Being the Boss in Brussels, Boston, and Beijing.” Harvard Business Review. July–August 2017 Issue
Topics: Global Inclusion
Greg leads the Global Human Resources and Corporate Citizenship function for Asia Pacific and India and is the Senior Business Partner to the regions executive management. Currently, Greg spends most of his time living and working in India, executing on the people related aspects of State Streets growth strategy there.