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Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

For expats in India, the top challenge is cultural alignment

Expat talent can bring a new outlook to business, but such talent also needs to be managed differently. Experts talk about how that can be achieved

Make value proposition clear

Ramesh Loganathan, vice-president (products) and centre head, Progress Software Development

Expats are generally hired for two main reasons. First, in the initial stages of operations, for their knowledge of and connections to relevant people or stakeholders in the business, said Loganathan.

Second, it is for their specialized knowledge of a given domain or technology that the company is trying to work on in India. Both cases are needed for operations to start and work successfully. The expats mostly come in senior positions and are generally paid well, he said.

“Before hiring an expat, the need should be very clear. The value the person brings to the table has to be clear and made clear to all concerned people, especially the leadership team in India," added Loganathan.

Besides, the person too needs to be aware of or open to working in the Indian environment and culture given that hiring and retention is a big challenge in India, he pointed out.

“The management has a simple professional expectation from expats. Culturally we are neither fussy nor do we have any strange expectations from expats. Many expats do make an effort to fit into our work conditions, like we do when we work in other countries as expats. People these days work in multicultural settings, especially in global corporations—they are most likely sensitized about other cultures, and India certainly isn’t an alien culture to them," said Loganathan.

Of course, an abrasive personality can make retaining people difficult. While hiring an expat, one should look for traits that show that he or she is proactive.

Loganathan also warned of a possible mindset that expats can come with. “Some of the expats consider India as a low-cost, low- value and low-capability country; this, at times, insults sensibilities here. Low-cost is true, but the low-value and low-capability perceptions need correction," he said. Viswanath Pilla

Need to clarify on the role upfront

Anish sarkar, country head, Mercer India

Cultural alignment within the organization, and understanding the role and expectation for which an expatriate is hired by a company are critical, according to Sarkar.

“When we get in foreign nationals or senior executives of Indian origin in most cases, the hygiene factor is taken care of very well. The compensations, benefits package and a lot of those financial things seem to be taken care of," he said.

However, the biggest challenge in this case is cultural alignment. When you are talking about the people coming from the US or from Europe or Australia coming to India to work here, companies do take care of all financial matters but the question is are they able to adapt to the company’s DNA and Indian working style, said Sarkar.

For instance, expats may have to adapt to something as simple as the way companies in India would conduct a meeting or follow-up on task, he added.

“That alignment becomes absolutely critical when it comes to specific sectors like e-commerce where a few senior executives from high-profile companies in the US have been hired in the recent past. And these sectors are dynamic and have their own set of challenges. So it’s important to make sure that the person is able to adapt not only to the culture but also to the market dynamics of the particular sector," he said.

According to Sarkar, it is important to clarify on the role upfront and how one will fit in the larger organization because people are coming from outside the country.

“It’s all the more important for the individual who is leaving his or her established market or existing organization where he or she has been quite successful. This applies either to Indians coming back to India or for a Westerner who is just here to try something new. It is very important to be very clear on that and when that doesn’t happen, things unravel quite quickly," he said.

Even more important is to be clear what’s the role, how will the individual fit in with the rest of the leadership team, how will the individual play his role in terms of riding the company’s destiny over the next couple of years, Sarkar added.

It’s important for the company to clarify the role quite clearly and also the expectation. Things do not work out by just luring candidates with nice-sounding titles and with an attitude of let’s wait and see. Bidya Sapam

Sensitization issue is key

Sameer Bendre, chief people officer, Persistent Systems

Companies are becoming more global than ever. And if you are a global company, you need to be open to bringing expat talent, said Bendre. In fact, if a company has operations in more than two continents, it must have expat talent in leadership.

At times, having an expat in a leadership role can send the message that companies don’t value local talent; to avoid this, Bendre said an expat’s credentials should speak for themselves and send the message about his role in the company.

Of course, bringing in expats requires sensitization of both the person who is coming in and also the employees in the organization.

“When you are in a hurry to go to a meeting, you may just grab the pen of your colleague in the next cubicle, without asking him or her, and the colleague too won’t be offended by that. But it would be a violation of an individual’s space if you did that with someone who is from the West," he explained.

Similarly, a lot of confusion stems from language too, said Bendre. Overall, language, body language and concept of space are some of the basics that will prove to be problem areas, he pointed out.

When it comes to business too, the Indian market is very different from other markets, right from buying patterns. So it needs to be recognized that there will be a steeper learning curve, he said.

Even though there are a few initial challenges, the advantages expats bring with them are enormous. “Sometimes, we need people with a totally different outlook who will be able to spot our blind spots and have the ability to bring newer ideas as a result of that," said Bendre. Arundhati Ramanathan

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