Back when we were kids, my brother and I had to travel half an hour and change two buses to get from our village to the school in town. It was a cosy routine, nothing ever went wrong.
Till one day.
The bus that dropped us home after school didn’t turn up. Public transport was limited then, we didn’t have a phone at home and we didn’t even know what a taxi was.
We were stranded. Everything around looked menacing and we were just scared about not reaching home before dark.
In the midst of that sinking feeling, we decided to walk home. Just as we were exiting the bus stand someone asked if we were lost. In that precise moment - one we won’t ever forget - we said we were walking home as we always did. The answer popped out instinctively with a confidence that masked how we really felt inside.
As ten-year-olds trying to make it on our own for the very first time, we had put up a face.
When we think about it now, the whipped-up bravado was the only reason we got home. It gave us clarity and calmness to keep going. Yes, we did get home some 90 minutes later.
There’s something from this story and the reality that new employees with small-town backgrounds face when they join a new corporate in the city. They are express-delivered into a lifestyle and environment they are clueless about and are ill-prepared for. Yet, they are expected to magically attune from Day 1.
Corporates seldom notice their plight.
Small town India (we are talking tier 2,3) is entering the corporate workforce in big numbers. These recruits have cultural, economic and social backgrounds far removed from a corporate and an urban lifestyle. There’s a new way of speaking, of dressing, of where and what you eat, the outlook itself - just about everything is an overbearing culture shift.
And here’s the bad part - though they will not admit it, employees from back-of-the-beyond villages feel defensive and embarrassed about their reality up to that point and go to lengths to obscure it from their colleagues.
How do they adapt? By putting up a new face.
Uma, a 24-year-old from Char Khet, a small hamlet in the Uttarakhand hills who has finished her post graduation and will soon begin work in corporate Gurgaon. It’s a big break.
There’s another side to this - deep down, she’s bothered by the acute discomfort of being thrown into a whole new world with no bridge to her village life.
In Char Khet she lives in a house attached to a cowshed. Her mother milks their two cows, tends to their small field, and washes clothes by the hand pump outside their house. Her father juggles his time between driving a taxi and running a hole-in-the-wall grocery shop where no item is priced above Rs 250 (that’s the purchasing power of Uma’s world).
Uma feels vulnerability pressing down on her - what if any of her new colleagues in the swanky, shiny corporate world of Gurgaon get to know of this?
From being a reserved girl with just 4 or 5 friends, overnight she finds herself in an ‘induction’ program packed with over 120 other socially confident, seemingly well-to-do recruits.
She has only one choice; mask up, hide her roots. It's a self-preservation tool and an instinctive one for someone caught in the criss-cross of cultural and socio-economic currents, desperate to make the most of her big break in the corporate world.
Such employees are an inseparable part of our workforce and with every batch of recruits, more like Uma pour in.
They have to deal with living under a cloud of defensiveness, embarrassment and constant switching of personalities. This overhang will show up in their work, their productivity and ultimately on the organization’s bottom line.
Employees like Uma could do with some help.
During inductions or on-boarding, HR can help by bringing in some current employees with humble beginnings and get them to share ‘embarrassing’ details, maybe even pictures of their background. This can go a long way in easing the ‘different worlds’ discomfort and will replace the sloganeering with real life examples making the message clear.
Put forth real-world examples that drive home the ‘no awkwardness about the past’ tenet. Like business tycoons, and successful entrepreneurs proudly talking about their unprivileged backgrounds. Here’s mining and metals czar, the multi-billionaire Anil Agarwal sharing with the world that he was so dirt-poor he could not afford shoes till he turned 15.
And finally, HR teams could introduce company benefits that create a more level field for all employees. Like extending medical coverage for parents (medical insurance, free access to OPD facilities, coverage on dental and medical consultations, etc). Such perks will make employees like Uma feel the two worlds aren’t so unequal after all. Unthinkable earlier, but her parents now have access to the same benefits as any of her colleagues with a privileged background have.
Companies that are successful in nurturing and channelizing the two-faced adaptation traits that some freshers possess could, in the long run, be nurturing an excellent sales leader or an exceptional client-management resource.
After all, isn’t Uma’s mask similar to the one your company co-founders wore when they had only an idea and no revenues, no business, no employees? They pitched to potential clients with cultivated bravado and confidence. It unfettered them. That’s how they were able to punch far above their weight and built a thriving organisation.
There’s a human side to all of us while we are at work. This tends to get sidelined often without realising it during inductions. Just a timely gesture could go a long way in getting employees from different backgrounds to be part of a new team. It takes a moment of pause to understand that in a professional environment, diverse backgrounds add to the team’s skills and acknowledging an employee’s small time reality can get them to get going from Day 1.