Why Did Isha Leave? - The Importance of Setting Explicit Career Expectations in a Culturally Diverse Team

April 27, 2022 by Melinda Meszaros and Elroy Jumpertz

Colourful concrete stairs
Image credit: Will Henson via Unsplash

Employees leaving for no obvious reasons is one of the classic pains caused by not addressing cultural diversity. In this article I share Isha the software engineer's remarkable story. I share some insights on the unseen friction which caused an excellent engineer to leave the organisation. Let's dive in!

Isha is from Jalandhar, Punjab and for the last two years she has been working in the Netherlands as a junior software developer at a tech company. Life treats her well, she loves her job, her team is great and she has no financial issues. Besides, leaving in Europe is a thrill! On her yearly evaluation, her manager Tom praises her performance and everybody seems to be happy.

However, a few weeks after her evaluation meeting, she decides to hand in her resignation with no obvious reason other than she found a new job at another company. Everybody is surprised. Tom calls a meeting with several other managers to find an explanation to the curious case. Especially, because it seems to be a pattern. A very similar thing happened with Isha's previous colleague, also from India.

What Tom didn't know is that Isha called her family every week and she was expected to tell how she feels and what progress she made. After the first year there was a huge family pressure on her to show progress. Her parents kept asking what her evaluation said and when she will become a senior engineer. After the second yearly evaluation her parents were very disappointed that she didn't advance o the career ladder. They saw this as a complete lack of progress and expected Isha to find a 'proper' company where she can develop further.

Isha was a bit sad to leave but her family meant everything to her and she wanted to make them proud. Letting them being disappointed again and again was not an option. At the same time, she really liked Tom and she wouldn't have wanted to be impolite with him or appear to be too demanding. Also, she didn't think Tom would understand her so, she decided to not give any specific reason on why she leaves the company. Tom was left puzzled and felt powerless.

In the Netherlands, formal job titles mean relatively little and don't change too often. (...) In India, especially in the fast developing tech world, there is a much stronger emphasis on formal job titles.

Approaching Isha's case through our cultural competence gives us a full explanation on what happened, and guides us in solving the issue in the future. We observe a pattern of reoccurring miscommunication, misaligned expectations, and having to fill the same positions every year, because employees leave for no obvious reasons. These are caused by not addressing cultural diversity on a strategic and operational level.

The key insight here is that professional progress is expressed and appreciated very differently in different cultures and countries. Usually organisations place us in a position based on our level of expertise. Depending on our performance, qualifications and ambitions, we can 'climb the ladder' to reach more senior positions. The issue, however, is that there might be fewer or more steps on the ladder. Moreover, a person's motivation to climb the ladder is also highly dependent on their cultural background. Let's look at two concrete examples: the Netherlands and India.

In the Netherlands organisational hierarchy is generally quite flat. Formal job titles mean relatively little and don't change too often. In practice, however, personal development is highly encouraged and supported. It's quite common for any person to pick up new responsibilities over time, with the manager's support. Progress is measured in terms of what a person accomplishes, how one invests in their own development. In this sense, we could say that progress is measured 'internally'.

In India, especially in the fast developing tech world, there is a much stronger emphasis on formal job titles. This is because one's title carries a strong social status. As a theoretical example: in order to be regarded as successful by his or her family, an engineer must reach at least senior status within three years after graduation. If the career progression (as observed from the outside) is not rapid enough, it might be reason for the employee in question to worry, both for him- or herself, and on behalf of his or her close personal circle. Success in one's career is a matter of family pride. Therefore, Indian professionals tend to climb the ladder in smaller, more frequent steps. Compared to the Netherlands, progress is measured 'externally'.

Understanding these two very different views on career progression, it's easy to imagine how an Indian professional in the Netherlands, or vice versa, might run into trouble when it's time for the yearly assessment. Some Netherlands-based organisations solved this issue by adding intermediate 'ladder steps' to their existing model (imagine adding a 'medior engineer' title in between 'junior' and 'senior'). This is a relatively easy way to facilitate the expectations of those who value smaller, more frequent career steps.

This is just an example. It is not always possible to alter the organisational structure so it caters to everybody's needs. Instead, introducing clear, transparent and measurable systems to indicate progress is a good alternative. In the general sense, it's always good to start a dialogue and aim to align expectations. Ask what people expect. What does progress mean for them? How is it measured? Where do they want to be on the short, mid and long-term, etc.

Keep in mind, we don't need to know what the expectations are per country's. On the contrary, we should try to refrain from stereotyping. These anecdotes are here to expand our horizon and should encourage us to ask questions instead of jumping to conclusions.

Most importantly, don't expect diversity to happen by default or inclusion to work out just fine without working for it.

Next up: Scrum Doesn't Automatically Solve Your Diversity Issues

Previously: Understanding (Cultural) Diversity & Inclusion - Your Vocabulary for Success