Enterprise Software

Culture shock: Integrating Indian immigrants in the IT workplace

IT workers from India have been enormously successful, but many Indian workers who are new to the U.S. still experience culture shock. Learn how to help your coworkers overcome this barrier.


Given the current shortage of hi-tech workers, some American IT companies are going overseas to find the talent they need. Every year, thousands of IT workers from India immigrate to the U.S. to work in the technology industry. In this article, you’ll learn how to help your Indian employees integrate smoothly into the workplace.

Often, newly immigrated Indian workers say cultural differences make it difficult for them to interact with their coworkers. That may affect work performance, or it may simply have an impact on an employee’s social interactions.

Rajan Sharma, a Michigan-based Java developer from India, described one of her initial misunderstandings: “When I first came to this country, I didn’t know how to respond to the greeting, ‘How you doing?’ I’d just say, ‘Fine, thanks,’ and walk away. My coworkers perceived this as rude and standoffish. My first assignment here was a friendless one simply because I didn’t know enough to say, ‘Good. And you?’”

Sanjeev Mishra, another Indian IT professional, echoed Sharma’s experience.

“The first time I went out for lunch with some of my colleagues, I walked straight into the restaurant and sat down at an empty table, the way we do back home. My colleagues were horrified that I hadn’t waited for the maitre d’, but they followed me in and sat down. I was never invited out to lunch with them again.”

Obstacles to overcome
Many managers seem to agree that the top three issues they face with Indian or other foreign workers are:
  • Communication
  • Cultural incompatibility
  • A perceived lack of initiative

As an Indian himself, Sudhir Kamath, account manager at Crescent Systems LLC, a Bethesda, MD-based IT consulting firm, sees both sides of the coin. He puts the “perceived lack of initiative” down to an intrinsic cultural difference.

“Historically, Indians have lived with thousands and thousands of years of subservience. Obedience is a deeply ingrained trait. Many Indian professionals will carry out orders to perfection but will rarely take the bull by the horns and make an independent decision. As a people, we are not used to the aggressive ‘just do it’ attitude that today’s IT industry requires. Initiative is something that has to be [learned],” said Kamath.

He suggested several ways to help foreign workers succeed:
  • Clearly delineate the full extent of an Indian professional’s authority. If you are not explicit enough, the worker will assume that he or she does not have the authority to make decisions in certain areas.
  • Encourage them to solve problems independently. Make it known that you have confidence in their skills and abilities, and that you’d rather they solved small problems themselves instead of bothering you with them.
  • Tell them at the outset that they are expected to take a certain amount of independent initiative.

“When you tell an Indian employee to do something, you can be confident that it will be done,” said Kamath. “So tell them to take charge, if that’s what you want them to do.”

Your leadership role
Chris Piazza, chief technical officer at an interactive design and production firm in New York, has been impressed with his Indian coworkers and appreciates a diverse group of employees.

“I can honestly say that I have never had a problem where an Indian employee ‘didn't fit’ into our organization,” he said. “From a technology standpoint, we are an aggressive company, and if the candidate is qualified, then there is respect and acceptance across the company.”

Piazza believes that any acceptance issues that do crop up should be addressed at a senior level.

“In cases where there is a problem with acceptance of any employee, regardless of national origin, I would say that management has to get involved,” he advised. “These issues can be avoided simply by the way management presents the hiring of that employee. Stressing the technical aptitude and how much of an asset the employee will be to the company will engender respect …. It's important to remember that talented technical people will have a passion for their work and will be very accepting of people of the same caliber.”

Workplace integration
Sharma and Mishra contend that assimilating workers into the workplace also requires effort from management. They suggest a structured approach to dealing with workplace integration.

“I think that companies serious about hiring and retaining foreign workers should give this issue serious consideration,” Mishra said. “Sure, I am good at my job, and my colleagues know that. But it would help if I were able to talk to them and share work as well as personal issues without feeling apprehensive.”

Among his suggestions:
  • Hire a relocation services firm or a human resources company to provide a brief cultural orientation course for foreign workers.
  • If possible, extend the program to include existing employees with the intention of giving them the opportunity to learn a little about their new coworkers.
  • Assign each foreign worker a local “mentor” who can provide advice on matters ranging from acceptable corporate behavior to establishing a credit history.
  • Conduct periodic performance assessments, and let your foreign employees know what you perceive as their strengths and what areas they need to work on.

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