17 Mar 2016 16:36 IST

When in Rome...

With companies expanding, it is important to understand culture and expectations of local workplaces

As India moves forward with the world, the interaction between young managers from India and abroad is becoming more frequent. It’s a learning experience for both sides.

While the work culture and expectations of the expat worker may seem strange and new to us Indians, remember, they would also find it difficult to understand our ways. Let us decide if we should ask for assistance or a meeting at our workplace, based on where we are.

If some incident, an action or reaction of your overseas colleague has left you feeling hurt, slighted or angry, take a moment to consider it from the other person’s point of view — chances are, no slight or slur was intended.

This week, I present the art of adapting to local practice at work via two stories.

Scene 1

An expat manager has joined the company. The team is new to her — there are a set of direct reportees under her, and a group of people who, in turn, report to the second rung.

The manager, Angela, is keen to bond with the extended team, so she sets about systematically scheduling meetings with the members. She starts off by arranging a meeting with one of her direct reportees, Dinesh, and sets up another with a couple of people — Mahesh and Amir — who report to him.

Dinesh is upset. The reason? Angela directly scheduled a meeting with Mahesh and Amir, who report to him, without informing him. He came to know about it only after Mahesh made a casual mention of it.

These are some of the thoughts that swirl around in Dinesh’s head: “Why has she scheduled a meeting with people on my team secretly, bypassing me? Is my position secure? Is she trying to find something about me from them? What if they give her a bad report about me? Or is it that she has some prior connection with Mahesh and Amir which she doesn’t want me to know about?”

Dinesh isn’t the only one who is flummoxed by the meeting — Mahesh and Amir are taken by surprise too. When they realise Dinesh would not be present at the meeting with Angela, each has a different take on the matter.

Mahesh is worried. “Oh no, I must’ve goofed up on something,” is his initial reaction. Thinking it over, he becomes even more alarmed. “It is must be really serious — my immediate boss is being bypassed, and it’s gone all the way up to the US.”

Amir, on the other hand, is upbeat. “Angela has scheduled a meeting with only Mahesh and me. She must realise we’ve something special to offer. Maybe they’re going to give us some special assignment, maybe we’ll be sent to the US or to Europe… what should I pack?”

Angela picks up the unsettled vibes and is bewildered. She mentions the situation to her mentor, an expat who has had long-term experience with India, and he immediately tells her how her casual step has set the cat among the office pigeons. He explains to her the deep-seated hierarchical system in India.

Situation handled

Here’s how Angela handled the situation. She immediately apologised to Dinesh, explaining to him her intentions in calling the meeting, and the fact that going directly to Mahesh and Amir had been an oversight, caused by her unfamiliarity with Indian working protocol. She invited Dinesh to sit in on her meetings with Amir and Mahesh, and sent e-mails to all, explaining the purpose of the meeting. Ruffled feathers and pounding hearts were soothed.

Scene 2

Sanjay, a Tier-2 manager, was sent by his Indian company as an on-site consultant to the European firm they were partnering with. It was his first exposure to the work culture in the West.

He quickly settled into the cubicle allotted to him, and as far as work went, proved to be an asset. However, he found he wasn’t getting the cooperation he expected from some of the staff.

For example, he would ask people to make photocopies of various documents for him, just as he was used to doing at home. He found the staff strangely reluctant to do this simple task. Then there was the coffee break. Sanjay was used to the office assistant back home bringing him a cup of coffee at 11 o’clock, hot, sweet and foamy, just as he liked it. But at the Europe office, when he asked for a cup of coffee he got it the first couple of times — a Styrofoam cup of vending-machine brew. Later, his requests were just plain ignored.

Sanjay felt he was getting second-class treatment, and thought of complaining about discrimination. He took up the matter with an official in HR, an Indian. Tarun at HR explained that in the West, unless one happens to be at the very top of the ladder, everyone makes their own photocopies and fetches their own coffee — irrespective of race or colour.

Sanjay was hard to convince, but he did pay a little more attention to what was going on around him. After a couple of days, he sheepishly admitted to Tarun that he was right.

The next time Tarun saw him, it was at the coffee vending machine, enjoying a joke with the very people he had accused of cold-shouldering him!

Moral: When in Rome, or the US, the UK or wherever, do as the Romans, the Americans, the British do … When Rome, the US or the UK come to India, take a mental trip to these places before you start taking offence.