Way back in 2008, I wrote about a training program for HP executives in which the company sent employees and their families to China for a deep dive into the country's culture. In a MercuryNews.com story about the program, an HP vice president predicted he'd be "shocked" if it didn't deliver "a massive return on investment."
It's hard to put a price tag on the cultural differences that can stymie global business relationships, but Indian companies obviously believe there may be a significant cost. As reported by The Washington Post, Indian companies are investing in programs designed to bring their employees up to speed on corporate etiquette such as hosting meetings, making innocuous small talk and dressing properly.
Outsourcing giants Infosys and Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) have both invested in programs designed to teach such "soft" skills. Infosys has also partnered with universities to train faculty members to produce students who possess desired skills, presumably including social ones, and TCS is working with the government to help provide leadership training for economically disadvantaged students.
The article quotes an Infosys vice president who said he lost a client before receiving training in soft skills because he was "so shy it was hard to seem persuasive" during a presentation.
In addition to training provided by employers like Infosys and TCS, the article mentions there's a burgeoning $60 million-a-year industry of schools providing courses in topics such as "Spoken English" and "Personality Grooming." Among the tips learned by 22-year-old Rehan Ahmed Khan, who is taking a course in hopes of expanding his family's sari-making business to other markets: "always smell fresh, never arrive late to a meeting with internationals and look people in the eye."
According to the article, India is still catching up to some other countries in workplace etiquette because many of its employees are relatively new members of the middle class and its schools often emphasize rote learning over critical thinking and other broad skills.
Being able to adapt to other cultures is hardly an issue unique to India, as the HP program I mentioned earlier shows. I also was struck by an anecdote related in the article by Gary Sarang, associate vice president of Industrial Finance Corp. of India, who attended an etiquette class while working at Citibank in India. Before attending the class, he had been living in California, he said, so he "needed to learn not to wear flip-flops or sneakers to a meeting."
A few years back during a presentation on Asian culture, I learned the appropriate way to accept a business card is to take it with both hands, gaze at it and then preferably place it in a small case reserved for that purpose. Writing on the cards is a huge no-no. In my last job, I met quite a few folks from Asian countries at trade shows. I cringed when thinking about how many of them I might have offended, as I almost always make a note to myself on someone's card reminding myself of topics I'd like to discuss with that person later when I have more time.