Thursday, June 04, 2009

The language of work

My classmate, who is pursuing her post graduation in Mass Communications, recently joined a mid size company of 400 people for her industrial internship. The first thing she noticed when she joined the company was that the owner of the company, an NRI was a man of principles. Employees at this small IT unit were given all the benefits given to employees in the US without any bias. He did not believe in blocking Internet or Chat or Webmails. The working atmosphere in this company was however not very nice thanks to the Indians who work there.

To begin with the NRI who is a second generation Indian from US has no clue about the social dynamics in India. This led to exploitation of the situation by employee’s especially senior managers. The Sysadmin for instance had ensured that all his team members were from his religion. The technical head on the other hand had ensured that all his teammates were Gult. The facility manager had ensured that his team consisted of Malayalees only and so on.

All the team members talked in their respective language and soon enough a situation developed when there was a total communication breakdown between employees, teams and departments besides fierce protection of team members by team manager even if they were not upto the mark. Performance appraisals were similarly rigged in favor of team members.

An interesting thing to note about this phenomenon was that employees who have grown up in metros were resentful of this ghettoisation. It was people from smaller towns who fell prey to this trend.

The NRI boss was totally clueless to the problems on the ground and regarded hiccups like severe attrition as part of the industry trend. Into this scenario walked in an HR manager. The lady summed up the situation pretty quickly and rolled out rules and regulations that totally wiped out chances of managers from hiring only from within their community and or caste or religion. She also banned the use of any vernacular language including Hindi in the office premises and after a rough ride of implementation, peace and a lot of progress has returned to the company.

The NRI learned a valuable lesson and the divisions and misunderstandings caused by use of regional languages vanished. People became more professional and managers were left red faced when they realized their unprofessional conduct.

I was reminded of this incident when I read about two nurses in Delhi who were reprimanded for talking in Malayalam within hospital premises. On the face of it, it does look discriminatory. But such rules and regulations go a long way in providing a conducive work environment in a country like ours. It is not language chauvinism but prevention of language chauvinism. And the fact that such rules are increasingly being applied goes to show that Indian employees are yet to develop a professional attitude at their work places.


DS said...

Good one there. Makes sense. I do have a couple of clients from the konkan belt who does the same with the language.

നിലാവ് said...

Agree with you. The malayalam news papers tried their level best to picture it as a discrimination towards malayalees. They were on duty and were not in Kerala are out of focus!!

Karthik Sivaramakrishnan said...

Regionalism runs very deep in our veins. It isn't cleansed on foreign soil either.


Can't help admiring the HR person for her level headed approach.
You have presented the situation very well. I really like this post.

Vivek Venugopal said...

excellent article. I have heard similar stories in the US as well, where we have Gult Managers hiring Gults, etc. Thankfully in our University we have always spoken in English to prevent any sort of discrimination.

Smitha said...

Really interesting post.. And so apt..

I guess regionalism does run deep.. people do tend to gravitate towards people from similar backgrounds - and it is fine as far as it is out of professional areas..
Fantastic post!

kallu said...

Interesting. And candid.

Sreejith said...

Regionalism exists to this day in academic institutions in some advanced countries - places you would least expect it to happen!! No prizes for guessing who's perpetrating the trend.. :-|

scorpiogenius said...

Very true, and well said.

I think things worked out in the NRI boss' favour as this thing happened in Bangalore. I dont know what the outcome would've been if it was Kerala.;)

Anyway, I dont have a bit of sympathy for those nurses who got the boot for babbling in thier local language. (Even though now they've been taken back) I dont think the general public can percieve how unethical and unprofessional it is, especially for medical personel to converse in thier own local languages. I'm a malayalee and a proud one at that, but this is something my fellow statemates need to understand. Whatever be the public opinion, what the Supt did was right, 100%. Ask any Manager or Administrator, you'll get the same answer. (not the Managers you mentioned in the post though ;);) )

Anonymous said...

Disclosure: I have never lived or worked in India, so I cannot speak based on experiences in India, rather I'm basing it on my personal observations.

I didn't read the article as Malayalees being discriminated against, but of two people who were at the worksite, standing in the lobby on the elevator going up, having a personal conversation. Reading these comments make me feel like language division or professionalism in India leaves companies extremely fragile.

I work with people from many different countries and religions. People have private conversations in Spanish or Chinese or Arabic and others aren't offended, as long as it doesn't affect their work or their interaction with clients or colleagues. People also don't over-identify with someone because they share the same culture or heritage as someone else. Friendships and professional relationships are based on more than mother tongue or skin color.

silverine said...

DS: I so know what you are talking about. Blr is full of Konkani's. :)

Nilav: Very true. One must be sensitive to fellow colleagues and talk in English around them which will prevent misunderstandings.

Karthik: I have heard so too!

Raji: Thank you! :) HR people everywhere are battling this problem.

Vivek: Your Univ is doing the right thing and I have heard the same about Indians abroad too!

Smitha: Thank you! :) You are is fine outside your work premises!

Kallu: Thank you! :)

Sreejith: I don't need to guess who! :))

Scorpiogenius: I shudder to think of the consequence if this happened in Kerala! Hartal probably followed by a bundh and rail roko! :p Jokes aside I myself feel suspicious when two people speak in their language in front of me in office. It is natural to think they are talking about you!

Aleyamma: Language is becoming a problem here as it leads to what you termed as 'over identification'. I do not think you have to face that in the US. Hence such rules are needed here.

~==[[[ Abhi ]]]==~ said...

This is what exactly happened in my plant. The chemical top boss was a gult and he only trusted the other gults in the chemical dept. Thus even if the junior gults told dumb things and the other chaps told genuine news he only trusted the gults and gave the gults great appraisals in the reviews. I just hope someday an HR manager like that walks into my old office and gets things straightened! Good post,!

emmanuel said...

I have some difference of opinion here in the post as well as some of the comments.

The problem in India or Indian context becomes visible only when you realize that we have different people talking in different languages. I have heard that in UK, even when the common language is English, there are people in urban areas who make fun of the accents from inside regions. And their intention is just making fun of that accent and not the person. But the person who faces that, I believe, has the right to feel offended. Because, his/her language is part of his/her identity.

So when you come to the multicultural, multilingual context of India, I always feel that there are two categories:

1)The one who wants to make others feel offended by speaking in their own language in the groups.

2) The ones who want to take offense when others speak in their language.

So, when my friends from another company (I'm talking about a global MNC here and not an Indian born one!!) told me that the Kannadiga manager gave all the Kannadiga ones under him a 20% pay hike and left others in despair, or about the experiences like the harassment people face from autorickshawwallahs ,BMTC buse conductrs and drivers, vegetable vendors etc. only because they didn't know Kannada, I can understand that they take offense right away, which I feel that there is nothing wrong in it.

So as you have mentioned in the case of the malayali nurses, in a hospital where 90% of the nurss are malayalis, at least in lobby, don't they have the right to greet each other in their language? I also agree with the fact that the Supt. in that case has the right to ask for explanation and also the reprimand, but I don't think it was a reason to oust them or they were forced to resign.

Now, there are major companies where the management is from Oriental world. And if you see some mails from some of them, you may feel laughing you guts out because the English will be so poor. But you can't or you won't do anything, because he/she is above you. And to take global examples, when I had to represent my team at our management site, if two of them and myself along with them, they start speaking in their own language. I never felt offended because if I have to do something they would tell me in English and I reply in the same. Other things I shouldn't care. And when another malayali was there, we talked in pacha malayalam. And when I receive the number of mails ridiculing Malayalis, I don't care because individuals stoop to such levels to have fun and to polish their ego and feel good about their own selves.

So it depends from person to person. I heard from a lot of people that favoritism borne out of regionalism or language chauvinism has made things really difficult and when a Govt. doesn't give recognition to English medium schools, do you think the situation will improve? I hope not.

For that we have to go beyond our education. And the identity of Indian should be the prominent one over your regional identities.

And it's a secret fetish or vice of everyone to take pride in their lingual identity and to take fun of other lingual identities.

And it's sad to see terming Indians as so unprofessional. Which office outside India will have such a number of diverse people as in Indian context? I think the chances will be very minimal and so we are not seeing much of any unprofessionalism there. And if the diversity was there, I think it would be definitely there.

Sorry for such a long comment. :)

Anonymous said...

i work in a software development team with quite a bit of diversity... kannadigas, mallus,UP-Bihar, Tams, Oriyas, Bongs, you name it.
what i notice is that people who are master coders aren't really master english speakers, and so at times they resort to their mother tongues to explain the code to others.
and since their intention is not to discriminate or exclude people, the rest of us understand and don't yell blue murder when someone's speaking to others in their language. at worst, we'd say "do explain to us non-[insert name of language] speakers too".
we all take it that everyone's intent is to just get the message across, and hence might aid others to learn english, but never put their mother tongue down or ask them to stop speaking in their mother tongue as long as it doesn't bring down productivity.
Regionalism is in the mind. combating it symptomatically doesn't work; people always find workarounds.
we have a lot of national integration crap like dances and themed floor decoration contests, apart from celebrations of various festivals... and i think those work, sorta.

silverine said...

Abhi: It is when you go through it that you appreciate what the HR lady did. The exact same thing happened at this office too!

Emmanuel: While I appreciate your point of view I believe that when you leave for office you should only take your professional identity with you.

Knitnumbskulls: No one made fun of anyones mother tongue or asked them to shun it. They were free to speak their language outside the premises! Even the HR lady has a mother tongue!! The policy I mentioned here ensured that people speak in English and most people who were not so good at it became fluent and better able to communicate with their peers, clients and customers. And that is what we want to do at work don't we? As a professional you got to appreciate the move.

Ramesh said...

If they had a policy, they should have stood firm to their stand on dismissal. Neither they have a policy nor an ethical standard. Other wise the dismissal would have followed a procedure and they would not have resorted to unethical way of confiscating their certificates etc(ie. what I read in the news papers, the hospital authorites did not return the certificates after the so called dismissal drama and hence they got the nurses union leaders involved in the matter).
Some over enthusiastic HR working over time :)

Anonymous said...

The two nurses were merely reprimanded for the incident but were never asked to resign or terminated. The hospital insists on the use of English instead of other regional languages because all Nursing notes and Doctors orders are in English. The Nursing Director, is herself a Malayali. Do not blow this out of proportion.

laddu said...

yup....we indians r biased..we prefer our ppl (same caste, same religion) to work with....m lucky my work place is not like dis..
my manager is a northi, my TL is a southi, half of my team is from south, other half 4m north..
being a northi, i have never experienced any ill-treatement in coll or work place....but it is dere, not in my co. thou but at several other places....