12 Things Global HR Leaders Need to Know About India


We are delighted to formally launch HR Policy in India and to invite you or your senior HR leader in India to an inaugural meeting to be hosted by Accenture in their Bangalore learning center on 21st January 2020.  We already have 37 companies committed to join.  To find out more what HR Policy in India will offer to members click here. To make a reservation to join our first meeting – open to members and those considering membership … click here.

To offer a taste of the many issues we will be talking about … Alan Wild and our leader in India, DP Singh offer their thoughts on twelve things global HR Leaders should know about doing business on the sub continent. 

12  things … Global HR leaders need to know about India 

… including eating Jalebi

India is complicated 

… a diverse population in terms of language, culture, emotional maturity, education, income and moral values.  

… India’s 29 States compare to countries in terms of population size and economy. Uttar Pradesh houses a Brazil load of people, Rajasthan - France, Gujarat - Italy, Maharashtra - Mexico.  

… State identities preserve and encourage diversity whilst the national government focuses on welfare, education and economic growth. The relationship between state and nation is not always simple.

… businesses have driven rapid economic growth since the 1990s and business success holds the future to India’s social development. Sustained economic growth through inward investment is an essential ingredient.  The rewards are there for getting it right.

Here are twelve things (some obvious … some not so much) you need to know to get beneath the surface of India and crack the code to running a successful business.  

HR Policy in India will dig deep into these issues … and many, many more ….

  1. Let’s start with some stereotypes …  North Indians are transactional and courageous; West Indians entrepreneurial and disciplined; South Indians strategic and scholarly; East Indians strong in liberal arts and intellectuals; Central Indians mercantile and relaxed; and Kashmir in an awakening phase of potential and identity. Young Indians generally are more materialistic, technology savvy, questioning of tradition, assertive, impatient and high on expectation. When you invest they are more than ready to grow … when expectations are dashed they take it badly.

  2. India is young. In fact, no country in the world has more young people.  One third of the population is between 15 and 24 and a half under the age of 25 … that’s 600 million young people … or almost two USA’s. Indian youth is witnessing major economic, cultural and political change and is well and truly hooked on social media in all aspects of their life.  Moreover, technology has been the parent of much of the new wealth creation in the country.  

  3. Culturally, and compared to the USA, India is high on hierarchical power distance and risk averse.  Whilst high on long-term orientation, this doesn’t stop India’s workers looking for a step up the ladder every six months.  If a person in power asks for advice, people feel obliged to give it - even when they have no idea what the answer is. Don’t ask an Indian in the street for directions! 

  4. Don’t get confused with what you see … contradictions are everywhere.  The finest offices in the world are surrounded by street hawkers, poor housing and mountains of litter and rubbish.  An increasing number of quality cars drive on some of the worst roads imaginable.  High technology is hampered by an unstable power grid. Animals graze on the central reservation of major roads. High fashion outlets exist amongst street begging. Extravagant weddings, parties and celebrations are organized by “ordinary” people. A robust legal system (although resolution can take forever) combines with a lack of respect for queuing, traffic violations, dumping. A ban on polythene packaging conflicts with the visual of the litter you see every day … and at work the law is respected only through complex “work arounds”.  The bad stuff is painful to experience, but don’t let it color your judgment on Indian capability.

  5. Despite strong laws, gender stereotyping and instances of discrimination are everywhere and a source of tension. The protection of minorities and womens’ rights is an issue international companies must get right. The Indian and international media report frequently on gender-based violence and international companies are expected not just to follow the rules but to raise the benchmark in leader and employee behavior. Fall short on diversity at your peril … India was the #2 ranked country in the world (after the USA) for amplification of #MeToo tweets.

  6. Instances of bribery, document falsification and cheating are seen often … and permeate the business of HR. Companies need to take extreme care in recruitment to guard against often elaborate scams involving fake qualifications, CVs, work experience and references. Corruption often sits silently in the backdrop of personal and business transactions … maybe even inside your HR function. Data sensitivity and respect for privacy are low and software piracy and data stealing/ brokering happen as a matter of course. Beware.

  7. Nowhere is the paradox between law and practice more prevalent than in the nature of the employment contract. Workers on regular or “permanent” contracts are almost impossible to dismiss – particularly in a collective redundancy situation.  Permission has to be given by the authorities – and this rarely happens.  Employers are left to find a solution – which usually involves a combination of money and pressure.  These laws were hard fought for after independence and no government has yet dared to amend them.   Employers responded by hiring massive numbers of short term or contract workers – sometimes up to 90% of a manufacturing workforce.  Traditional unions fought hard for permanent workers’ conditions and ignored contractors … and new unions have sprung up to represent them.  Tensions between these two groups and the people who represent them in the workforce can be high.   Add to this that the laws on contract workers are changing in order to define the “real” employer.  Watch this space closely. 

  8. Don’t take a strike personally … most strikes are political and not against companies.  These types of strikes are called Bandhs and the latest have been against economic reforms, diesel prices and water rights. In 2016 India hosted what was described as the “largest strike in the world” – involving around 180m people for 24 hours. Bandhs are frequent, short, loud, disruptive and sometimes violent – often people are unable to come to work.  High participation in Bandh strikes in a company that are not caused by traffic congestion or power outages can be a signal for concern.  On the other hand, company strikes are less frequent but can escalate into violence with damage to property and people – the Maruti Suzuki HR Director was murdered in 2012. Remember most workers live from pay check to pay check and cannot afford protracted disputes … so escalations can be fast and unpredictable. Where strikes are protracted they quickly become hard core.

  9. With individual grievances, getting justice through courts is extremely time consuming, expensive and drawn out. By losing a job in India, people have a lot to lose … it is hard to be engaged elsewhere after dismissal for performance or behavior. Employees resort to anything and everything before going to court. Protesting through escalations to Chairmen and business leaders outside of India calling out harassment, personal or regional favoritism, nepotism, etc. are common. Expect a lot of noise … and don’t mistake “noise” for “truth” … but be prepared to accept that the employee may be right.

  10. Natural collaborative instincts at work are low, and competitiveness between employees is high.  The education system does not feature teamwork and collaborative thinking in curricula. You should expect to have to work on that in-company. Beware of individual incentives that turn up the heat on an already competitive environment Think about training, coaching, work organization and reward to encourage teamwork. 

  11. Don’t forget the family.  When many of today’s generation of young Indians gets a job it is often as a result of family sacrifice to give their child the best education and pulling strings in family networks.  Parents and grandparents are intensely proud of the achievements of their offspring … particularly to extended family and friends. Sometimes the employee is the only breadwinner in a large rural or urban family. When hiring, promoting or letting go younger staff member... don’t forget that there is a lot of family pressure on them to prove that what happened is “not their fault” and a result of poor management, nepotism, favoritism, jealousy or discrimination.  The pressure on employees to complain is high.  

  12. In spite of a large and increasing professional pool in India, finding world class leadership talent is a challenging proposition. A large number of older senior managers built their career in a bureaucratic and hierarchical system where senior executives tended to “preside” rather than “manage and direct”.  Hence modern people management and leadership skills are scarce. The young leaders that exist have to be invested in intensively - with training, mentoring, coaching and overseas experience - to be able to succeed. When you think you are doing enough … do more.

India is a land of huge potential with a strong appetite for growth.  The more you expose yourself to India and learn to navigate through its society and businesses, the more success comes your way. 

Try Jalebi - an Indian sweet specialty that is intensely complex, messy to eat and yet dripping with sweetness – just like India.