HR Professionals See the Old and the New Meet in India

By May 22, 2007
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In the streets of Delhi, a tour bus carrying HR professionals visiting India with the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) came to a standstill. It was too big to fit on the city’s old streets.

In moments, the tour group’s coordinator had rounded up several two-person rickshaws to carry the delegation to its next appointment, a mosque. As the HR professionals settled into the centuries’ old mode of transportation, they asked the coordinator how he found so many rickshaws so fast.

He said he called them on their cellphones.

The incident was one of several that showed the HR professionals how Indian companies and workers are combining old and new technology to create one of the world’s most rapidly growing economies.

India is the world’s second-largest country, with 1.1 billion inhabitants. Almost one-third of that population lives below the poverty line. The population is segmented by caste, and marriages are still arranged by young adults’ parents. But residents with college degrees and who live in urban areas are experiencing unprecedented success. Universities struggle to prepare students for the changing business world, but national and multinational companies still clamor for educated workers’ skills.

To learn more about how Indian HR professionals are meeting these challenges—and how U.S. businesses can prosper in India—SHRM led a delegation of HR professionals to India in April, visiting senior HR professionals in Indian and U.S. companies, professors, and leaders of national HR organizations.

The delegates discovered that Indian HR professionals face challenges similar to the ones at U.S. companies—turnover, retention and so on—if on a somewhat larger scale. Some of the most striking differences between the two countries and cultures, said some delegates, surfaced in the ways those challenges were met.

Over the 10-day trip, from April 3-13, the 22 HR professionals and two SHRM senior staff members visited Indian companies and universities in New Delhi and Mumbai. They sat down with academics at the Management Development Institute and SP Jain Institute of Management and Research. They heard from the leaders of two HR organizations, the National Human Resource Development Network and the National Institute for Personnel Management, as well as from the National Association of Software and Service Companies, an organization that represents and helps create public policy for India’s software industry. And they spoke with senior HR executives from Genpact, Johnson & Johnson, JP Morgan Chase and Zenith Computers. Indian companies included Reliance Retail, Mahindra and Mahindra, Wartsila India Ltd., and Walchand People First.

HR Similarities …

A SHRM delegate, David G. McCoy, is vice president of HR for Jarden Consumer Solutions in Boca Raton, Fla. Jarden produces small appliances under the brands Mr. Coffee, Oster, Crock-Pot and others. According to McCoy, Jarden wants to expand its sales and distribution efforts to India. He took the SHRM trip to learn more about the country, meet HR professionals there, and understand staffing, retention and compensation challenges.

On the trip, he met Charles Snyder, who is the former head of training and development for Wal-Mart and the current vice president of talent transformation for Reliance Retail, the second largest company in India. Reliance is modeling itself after Wal-Mart, McCoy said, establishing megastores in urban areas and smaller stores in more rural spots to serve the highest number of customers possible. Jarden and Reliance might be tapping similar markets, McCoy said, citing Indian employees at Jarden who report that significant numbers of Indians in America are repatriating to their homeland—and taking their American spending habits and expectations back home with them.

“It was extremely valuable to chat with him and understand what to expect, how to begin doing business there, setting up and registering a business, finding office space and a distribution center,” McCoy said.

The group visited the offices of Genpact, a business process outsourcing company, and was impressed with the HR practices there. Companies need cutting-edge HR practices to combat extremely high rates of turnover, the delegates said. Because so many businesses are growing so quickly, the demand for qualified employees is huge. Some Indian companies are tackling that problem in creative ways.

“We hear how pay scales are accelerating” to attract and keep employees, “but they don’t throw money at it, ” said delegate Mary Helen Waldo, vice president of global HR at Serena Software in San Mateo, Calif. “There’s a science around return on investment, investing in upfront costs … how extending length of service goes straight to the bottom line. They see HR as elemental to the business.”

Instead of offering applicants more and more money, only to lose them when another company makes a better offer, Genpact focuses on screening applicants, onboarding, continuing training, career progression and engaging the employees’ families.

“The HR department [at Genpact] is so buttoned up,” McCoy said. “Six Sigma is applied to programs I’d never considered. There is a world-class HR department in that company that could compete with anybody. That was a real eye-opener for me and for what we do in the U.S.”

… And HR Differences

While the companies and universities that the delegation visited were top of the line, delegates said, they couldn’t help but notice the abject poverty outside school and business walls.

“In professional settings, talking with highly educated, intelligent, cutting-edge HR [leaders] and CEOs, it seemed like I was in a country on the brink of breaking forth as a powerhouse, with the great tools and models they are using,” said Marilyn Kendrix, SPHR, senior organizational development consultant for AT&T. “But then they are in this country with hundreds of millions of people living below any kind of poverty we encounter here. It’s almost inconceivable how they can achieve the things they want to achieve in that environment.”

One of the encumbrances to succeeding in India is lack of infrastructure, though people find out-of-the-box ways to get around the lack of roads, water and electricity—such as combining rickshaws and cellphones.

“They don’t always give up on the old ways,” Waldo said. “Just because there’s a new way to do something, you don’t do it. If a horse cart works, you continue using that. We [in the U.S.] take new technology and throw the old away.”

Delegates learned that students and professors interact in very different ways from their peers in Western schools. From childhood, Indians are taught not to ask questions—it’s a sign that the student isn’t learning and reflects poorly on the student and the teacher, Waldo said.

“Translate that to a manager-subordinate role, and there’s a completely different set of expectations” than in Western companies, Waldo said. A Western manager might be frustrated to find that Indian employees don’t alert their bosses to potential problems and instead might tell their bosses only what they want to hear.

“ ‘Candid’ responses might not be so candid,” Waldo said.

Also, direct feedback might be perceived as far too harsh.

“Instead of saying, ‘You goofed,’ I might say, “Here’s the ideal way to do this,’ ” Waldo added. “Interactions are much more indirect.”

Learn More About India

Nina Woodard, SPHR, GPHR, is director of business development for Strategic Human Resource Management India Private Limited, SHRM’s subsidiary company in Mumbai. Woodard helped coordinate the trip and said one of the top lessons learned for the delegation should be that everything has an “Indian context.”

Because so many Indians, especially in business, speak English, Americans tend to overlook differences in culture. They might assume that a product that sells well in America—like a toaster—would sell well in India. But American businesses can’t make that assumption, Woodard said.

“You must Indianize your product.” During a conversation with India-based businesses, McCoy “came to understand that women buy the products but the housekeepers use them. You have two potential buyers, and you may not have realized that before,” Woodard said. “You have to change your approach to make [your product] work.”

SHRM plans educational seminars in India for Indian HR professionals, Woodard said, along with a column to be written with an “Indian contextualization” for business publications. Pages will be added to the SHRM web site for Western HR professionals to learn more about performance management, training and development in India, Woodard added.

“Right now, HR is very valuable in India. There is a lot of economic activity, and at the core of that is how people are treated,” Woodard said. However, “there is a huge gap between qualified HR professionals and the requirements of businesses. What we bring to the table—SHRM, our programs, even though they are not Indian in nature—could be helpful. I think the timing is just right for us.”

Beth McConnell is senior editor for HR News. She can be reached at

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