Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Dignity of Your Workforce

Because of India's caste system, employees in India can have issues reporting in to a senior staff member who comes from a lower caste. Foreigners don't have any caste, but can be seen as either not applicable or unclean, depending on the caste of the person you are meeting. I've seen countless indignities forced upon members of the workforce based on their positions in the company and these other societal issues.

Every office has "tea boys" or "office boys" that run errands for staff, fetching lunch, picking up laundry, what-have-you. These "boys" can be any age, but many start very young. I've watched elder men slicing up apples and serving tea to really rude junior staff, not even acknowledging their presence unless to yell at them. They think it makes them look important to THEIR junior staff. Not so. You just look like an idiot.

I'm usually pretty friendly with this low level of staff because no one ever seems to interact with them, tea boys, cleaners, security guards... It's a shame. They're human beings and deserve at least a friendly hello just like any other worker. They're part of your team, no matter what level they are in your office structure. Without them, the office couldn't function. They should be treated as part of the team.

I once moved into a new building at a company I worked for a while ago here in India and noticed that the washroom cleaner was squatting in a corner on the floor. She wouldn't even look up at me. I'd say hello, and I'd get a very quiet, "Hello maam," while she continued to look at the floor. First - why is it necessary to have full time cleaners you ask? Bathrooms here are typically a nightmare. Water all over the floor, toilet paper either missing or fallen on the floor, soaken wet (if available at all), unflushed toilets, hair in the sinks... seriously, ladies, you're not the only one using these stalls. Clean up after yourself when you leave. Be considerate of your fellow workers.

Because of this, many offices have bathroom staff. Just to clean up after people who think they're "too good" to clean up after themselves. Second, I really felt it was unnecessary to force this young girl to sit on the floor, so I asked the admin guy to get her a stool. He refused. "Madam, she is a cleaner. No chair required." I insisted. He said to talk to the CEO. I went and got her a stool myself, which she happily accepted. It lasted two days. The admin guy removed it because, "She'll start to put on airs," he said.

Until a week ago, I thought this was typical only to very traditional old school Indian firms, but then a friend told me that she had recently been visiting the subsidiary of an American car manufacturer here in India and while using the restroom, saw the same thing. I have a problem with that. I'm sure that if the people at the company in the US knew about this, they would immediately put a stop to it. Americans don't treat their staff like that - we'd have all sorts of issues, societal and legal, if we did this. It could be a PR nightmare if this information were leaked out. Americans are very sensitive to child labor, indentured labor, and slave labor issues - just ask Nike.

I'm not passing judgement, but I'm frustrated. India does so many things well, but one of its main challenges that I see, is empowering its workers, not from a union point of view (which is another problem here), but from a "team" point of view. Your company is only as good as its weakest member. When you continually stratify staff into certain levels and only see them as going up to a certain point based on caste, religion, or state where you were born, you could potentially be missing out on the vast talents that they may be able to contribute to your organization.

For me personally, since I have no caste and my skin is white, I can enjoy stepping to the front of the line, as people will let me go first whenever I approach. They immediately see me as a "guest", and here in India, "a guest is next to god." While that is an awfully nice premise to work with, I prefer to wait my turn, as I'm really nothing special and shouldn't be treated like that. They've been waiting longer than me. But people feel uncomfortable when I wait because I'm not working within their societal rules and one of us ends up both feeling uncomfortable no matter which option I choose.

I love India. The lifestyle, the natural beauty, the amazing people, all have built castles in my heart. Someone asked me the other day, when I said I had no intention of moving back to the US, if I planned to apply for Indian citizenship. I immediately said, "No". It's not that I don't love it here, but I self-identify as an American and the most problematic? Visas! I travel a LOT. Indians need a visa to go just about everywhere. The mountain of paperwork is incredible. As an American I rarely need to apply for visas - only Brazil and Myanmar have required it, other than India. So I'll be keeping my American citizenship for the near future, thank you.

What are your thoughts on life in India? How do you interact with foreigners? What's the most difficult aspect of life here in India as an expat? I look forward to your comments.


  1. Hello Jeanne,

    I feel the same way like you about how certain parts of the work force is being treated in India.

    It starts with the fact that, when having a maid, there are the ones for the whole apartment and then the others for the washroom. Attending the washroom is a "lower job" and usually the pay is poor (worse than for the other maids).

    Office boys, cleaning personell, security, etc. are being invisible for the rest - unless they make a mistake.

    Being disrespectful to others is - of course - not typical Indian. I worked long enough in the social sector (also in the US) to know that we in the West are pretty good in discriminating and acting on our prejudices. But the problem in India is that the behavior you describe is widely accepted and that the affected individuals have nearly no chance to speak out.

    And to top that these people get a salary which barely allows them to survive and the hierarchical structures allow - at least for poor people - zero to no vertical movement.

  2. Salary parity is another issue. When I first came here, no one would explain why some staff doing the same job were making 8,000 rupees per month while others were earning 25,000. I attributed some of this to gender discrimination, but there were clearly other factors in play. I once had a full time female Spanish translator working 55 hour weeks for 5,000/month and the company hired a part time male Brahmin who made 6,000/month for 9 hours a week! No amount of debate corrected this. Eventually she left and found excellent work at Google making far more money. Karma does provide payback in some cases!

  3. So true!

    I really liked the point you made regarding the company being "only as good as it´s weakest member". A company culture which allows and even promotes disparity to this extent is - in my eyes - not operating on a healthy basis.

    A simple "thank you" goes long ways and a work environment in which people are comfortable and not struck by fear is usually supportive of creativity and good work results.

  4. Hi, I'd like to send you an email but wasn't able to sort out your email ID. Please email me :-) Many thanks, Angela Carson

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. jeanne (dot) heydecker (at) gmail (dot) com.

  7. Yes you are right Jeanne, it happens in almost every office, school, college, company, etc. of every city and village of India.

    There are much more issues than you know which I know as I am an Indian and also belong to that lower cast. If you like to know then you can mail me at

  8. Thanks for the comment, Ajay. One thing I learned a long time ago is that you never know who your next boss will be. I'm looking forward to the day when I'm hired by someone I used to mentor. I've stayed in touch as much as I can and I couldn't be more proud to see many of my ex-employees securing great jobs, working in positions of responsibility at MNCs, or building their own companies. It's especially good when you see someone who was considered a low level employee reaching for the stars and achieving their goals. That's true job satisfaction, worth more than money to me. :-)

  9. hey Jeanne... what all you share here is sad but true here in India..
    People must know how to behave with others. At least they can consider the humanitarian ground.
    This fast growing life is making us like this more egoistic and arrogant. :(

    Nice thoughts...