2014.10.16 What We Say We Stand For

By now most readers will know about Microsoft CEO Satay Nadella's unfortunate answer related to pay rise requests. More about that incident here.

Mr. Nadella is - like most other expats - navigating the dangerous waters where the culture one comes from and the culture one works in differ very much. Nadella's homeland, India, is a highly patriarchal society that within less than one generation has become a tech hub used by many multinational companies with (supposedly) very different gender dynamics.

Not only top management but all people working in a different country have to decide with themselves to which degree they want to follow the local norms. Some of the norms are coded into the law, and - depending on where we are and and which laws we are discussing - the laws are more or less enforced.

This sets us up for deciding where we want to be on an ambiguous continuum spanning:

  • Is it ethical?
  • Is it legal?
  • Can I get away with it?

I call this list ambiguous because what is ethically defensible very much depends on where you come from. In some cultures it is unthinkable that you wouldn't help a relative to a job; in other cultures you would help if asked but you will not likely be asked, and giving preferential status to a family member would be frowned upon.

In some cultures, it is impossible to do anything involving permits without paying an official under the table. In USA, for companies to pay bribes abroad is strictly prohibited by the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. How FCPA is enforced is a little unclear. Siemens got a very hefty fine; Walmart is still not prosecuted.

In the Indian culture, "It's not really about asking for the raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along." may be a good advise to everybody - if that is how their system works. Giving the same advise in the U.S. is pretty clueless because that is not how the U.S. system generally works. And giving it at a womens' conference was downright...well, "patriarchal" is a word that comes to mind.

But before we get all up in arms about Nadella, shouldn't we ask ourselves the question on where we operate on the continuum between right and possible?

As an organizational psychologist, one of the fields my colleagues dabble in is how to build the procedures that assure an unbiased hiring process. If a company only wants to hire people with for example a graduate degree in software engineering, they have to justify that the people who have this degree performs significantly better in similar roles as the one they are trying to fill than people without such a degree. It is not legal to have arbitrary hiring criteria; particularly not if some protected section of the population will be adversely impacted by a criterium.

The companies that want to test how you function under stress by having you play a first person shooter game are on the wrong side of the law because many more men than women play first person shooter games for fun and will hence score differently. They have to find a different test.

So the real question I think Mr. Nadella's statement should raise is that as the current "system" for rewarding bonuses and promotions evidently is laden with adverse impact trip lines, what should we do about it?

Meanwhile, it is up to each and every one of us to determine if the way we behave when "just following the norms" and the decisions we have made in the past are something we would be comfortable explaining to our children - and in this case, not the least to our daughters.