Ask any HR executive when there is a preponderance of one community in the workplace, there will be complaints of language alienation. And we are talking not just about Indians. “There were three Japanese women in our Bangalore office. When they started speaking in their mother tongue, others felt left out,” says an executive of a multinational firm.
The problems stemming from cultural diversity are stretching beyond the Indian complexities. Domestic companies are going global and India is becoming more attractive as a job destination. And to leverage the best from this multinational mix, companies—and their HR departments—are busy managing diversity.
Over the years, the proportion of foreigners on Indian payrolls has risen considerably. Take, for instance, Ranbaxy Laboratories Ltd. Almost 30% of its workforce is located outside India and is made up of local nationals. Nearer home, Cisco’s globalization centre in Bangalore, is headed by Wim Elfrink, Dutch by origin. His all-foreigner, seven-member team plans to bring one fifth of Cisco’s global talent to the centre in the next five years. In infrastructure companies such as Bangalore-based GMR Group and Hyderabad-based GVK Industries Ltd, which have been involved in modernizing the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi and the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai, almost 50-60% of employees are of foreign origin.
Cultural cauldron: Ding Defen, a Chinese Infosys Technologies employee (second from right) works with her Indian colleagues in Electronic City, Bangalore
The foreign wave is manifest across sectors and at all levels of the corporate ladder. Though the IT sector has been an early adopter of diversity, core sectors such as telecom, infrastructure and retail are following suit. “Apart from retail and telecom, the aviation industry and construction companies, which are into building highways and airports, are banking on migratory skilled employees,” says Venkat Shastry, partner, Stanton Chase India, an executive search firm.
The number of fresh graduates and hires at junior levels, too, have gone up. “The number of foreign nationals working for India has gone up by 12-15%. And all don’t get a fat pay packet. A lot of them are in the Rs70,000-80,000 (a month) salary bracket,” says Shastry.
Diversity has reached such levels that the success of businesses, to some extent, depends on a firm’s ability to treat it as an asset, say experts. A firm is as good as its people. And when they are from diverse backgrounds, what they bring to the table can be intrinsic to improving efficiency.
“At IBM, we’re successful at leveraging diversity. Diversity means that difference is expected, respected and encouraged so that every employee can be productive, innovative and achieve to his full potential,” says Anita Guha, chief diversity leader, IBM India.
Companies are now investing in diversity management to gain competitive advantage. Nokia conducts a yearly internal survey, which targets diversity and inclusion. So does Cisco Systems. Managers at Microsoft Corp. are coached in embracing diversity, which is then monitored through polls and feedback platforms. The goal is to identify practices that have translated into a more inclusive workforce and to establish action plans for continued change as required.
“Diversity is no longer ‘nice to have’, but ‘necessary to have’ as it has significant implications for a business’ success and high performance,” says Rekha Menon, lead, Accenture India Geographic Services and lead, Human Capital & Diversity. For Ranbaxy, which has 10,500 employees, representing 51 nationalities, in 49 countries, diversity is an asset. Ramesh Adige, executive director, Ranbaxy, says, “We hire local talent and operate as local companies. Diversity is a source of strength and we have invested in robust systems and processes that bond our people across the globe.”
As companies become serious about managing diversity, the chief culture officers are sharing the spotlight with the chief executive and financial officers. Google Inc.’s chief culture officer Stacy Savides Sullivan, and Kanbay International Inc.’s chief culture officer, Cyprian D’Souza are important people in their companies.
Even companies that do not have culture officers are spending more time and resources in understanding diversity. Tracy Ann Curtis, senior manager, diversity and inclusion, Asia Pacific, Cisco, says a culture of inclusion helps her company “to apply the widest range of perspectives to understand its customers’ problems and find the most innovative solutions”.
Focus on diversity also helps attract talent. “Recruitment and retention are influenced by an organization’s focus on diversity,” says Menon.
Diversity, however, can affect productivity, if not managed, well. Conflicts arising from cultural differences have to be resolved quickly as they can keep one from giving one’s 100%. “If an employee doesn’t feel she belongs, the whole exercise of employee engagement fails,” says Subhash Rao, director, HR, Cisco India. HR managers feel the onus lies more on the leadership, which has a larger role to play in fostering a more-inclusive work culture. “Anything that the leadership does has a more significant impact on an employee than her peers. So, managers and leaders have to be 10 times more aware and trained in handling such issues,” adds Rao.
Diversity management has seen a paradigm shift since it came into play in the US about seven years ago. Earlier, firms expected people to hide or adapt their cultural differences to fit the mould of the firm’s dominant culture.
The new way is to treat diversity as an asset that brings a range of problem-solving skills. The idea is “to keep a balance between egalitarianism and generalization, and heterogeneity and individualism of processes,” says Holger Siemons, a diversity management trainer. He says companies are yet to fully realize the potential of diversity. “Managing diversity requires extensive research and most companies do not have the requisite framework to harness its extent and complexity,” adds Siemons. This is a challenge that has to be managed carefully.