New Delhi: In every office, there are the select few—the grouches, the grinches, the snakes— who make the workplace a little more difficult for the rest.
In some offices, it’s the person who calls in sick on the busiest day of the month—every month. In other workplaces, it’s the guy who doesn’t do much work but talks his way into most of the credit. Everything—from the blaring of a personal music player to body odour to the number of times a co-worker takes smoke breaks —can draw the ire of colleagues.
Graphic by Malay Karmakar/ MINT
“Small issues keep happening in a group of 10 or 15 people,” says Shreya Nangalia, an account executive at Paradigm Shift Public Relations in Mumbai, “and the possibility that you won’t like one person is there”. When it happened to Nangalia at a previous job, she says she told her group manager, and started working with someone else.
It’s not your imagination. From the petty to the pesky, conflicts in the office are on the rise due to a younger and more diverse workforce, according to experts. A recent study by a Canadian professor found that “workplace bullying,” meaning things such as yelling, criticizing, spreading gossip, excluding workers and insulting colleagues’ habits, can be even more harmful than sexual harassment.
In India, the problem is exaggerated by just how young the workforce is. “A lot of problems in the workplace come from the transition from student life to a career,” says Rajiv Krishnan, managing director of recruitment and training agency Development Dimensions International. “In the workplace, things change dramatically.”
For example, he says, deadlines are not that sacrosanct in academic life, while individual achievements are. In companies, deadlines and group goals matter.
One techie at Infogain Corp. in Noida describes an instance when he created a software script and delivered it to a colleague who then passed it off as his own. The credit thief was caught though, when a manager asked for a few changes that he couldn’t fix. “He got a good scolding,” the Infogain employee says, declining to be named due to company policies against speaking to the media.
Company guidelines on transparency can help defuse office tension, but in workplaces where old Indian temperaments collide with new corporate culture, difficult co-workers can become all the more difficult to handle. “If someone doesn’t deliver in three times,” says T. Muralidharan, chairman of recruiting and talent management consultancy TMI Group, “usually, you would say I don’t want him. Here, they would slowly sabotage him.”
Krishnan, too, assigns some blame to the old Indian way of doing things. “Don’t ask questions, just do this, the boss is right,” he says, describing the stereotypical Indian office, “at times there are those kinds of legacies of hierarchical organizations”.
Legacies also lead to other office conflicts. Muralidharan, for example, identifies gender as the biggest challenge for the Indian workplace. Men believe women will put family first, he says, and the mindset among managers is that women can’t stay beyond 7pm. “With tough deadlines,” he says, “the attitude is ‘please get the boys in’.”
Several female call centre employees in Gurgaon had similar complaints. “I can see it from their faces,” says one, who sometimes provides feedback to reticent male colleagues. “Their attitude is ‘just give it to me’,” she says.
To address office conflicts, some managers rely on casual get-togethers to help colleagues get along. “When people have free time to talk to each other in informal settings, they can discuss potential problems,” says Mohan Joshi, president of glass maker Schott Glass India Pvt. Ltd. “It helps to create good bonds among employees.”
It’s true that most workplace problems—especially in India—boil down to communication.
“You still have situations where questions are not encouraged,” says Krishnan, “in schools, colleges, in Indian families”. But it’s an attitude that doesn’t translate into a corporate workplace, especially in terms of setting expectations between employees and their bosses, which in turn affect horizontal relationships.
Indians don’t think in black and white, they think in grey, says Muralidharan. But they don’t just think in grey, they communicate in grey. “Bosses don’t discuss, ‘this is how I work, this is what I want to do’,” Muralidharan says, “they are normally soft in the beginning, and hope to assert themselves over time”.
Since many junior workers think of their current jobs as short-term stages rather than companies with which they’re building careers, it’s often the employee-manager relationship that affects a workplace more than the employee-employee one.
“You are not building a bond with the company,” says Muralidharan, “that is a loose relationship. The only bond is with the boss.”