Humane Human Resources

Fulbright-Nehru fellow and HR expert Arup Varma says organizations need to address contextual issues while appraising expatriates.

By Ranjita Biswas

November 2018

Humane Human Resources

Human resources expert Arup Varma at Pangong Lake in Ladakh. (Photograph courtesy Arup Varma)

It is well accepted that the performance of an organization, among other things, depends significantly on the “human” element. A happy workforce makes for a happy ambience and is conducive to good performance. Thus, the human resources (HR) department is an important part of organizations these days.

Human resources expert Arup Varma has a particular interest in expatriate employee issues in organizations. While he was working in the human resources department of two leading organizations in New Delhi, one of his key responsibilities was to help set up their performance management system. “This experience convinced me to pursue a Ph.D. and specialize in performance management or appraisal. After all, it’s well known that individuals need performance information to stay on track,” says Varma, who had earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Kolkata and Jamshedpur, respectively. In 1996, he went to Rutgers University in New Jersey to pursue a Ph.D. in industrial relations and human resources. He is now a professor at Quinlan School of Business in Loyola University Chicago.

Varma is also a 2017-2018 Fulbright-Nehru fellow. His project titled, “Performance Appraisal of Expatriates,” was hosted by the Indian Institute of Management in Lucknow. “I enjoyed the Fulbright experience tremendously and I am proud to call myself a Fulbright alumnus,” says Varma. He is developing a comprehensive model to help organizations manage the performance of expatriates.

With the increase in globalization, the flow of talent has increased significantly and individuals are moving between countries on a regular basis. Here lies the importance of having a context-appropriate model to evaluate expatriates, both inbound and outbound, and to assess their contribution to the organizations’ better performance.

From his personal experience, Varma finds that the same issues seem to dominate conversations. “The expatriates feel that folks at their headquarters do not understand their situation, while the HR folks and the managers complain that expatriates have unreasonable expectations,” he says.

While an expatriate’s job responsibilities may not differ much from someone in the same position back home, the context varies significantly. From being in a new culture with new colleagues and a new work environment, to dealing with outside-world issues like arranging accommodation and children’s schooling, and dealing with new languages and cuisine, an expatriate often has to juggle work and non-work demands. “Hence, it’s critical that organizations consider the ground realities of an expatriate’s job and adjust for these critical factors in his or her evaluations. Where organizations address these contextual issues, expatriates have been found to be more productive and satisfied with their jobs,” adds Varma.

Asked how much change he has observed, in both India and the United States, since he started out as a human resources expert, Varma says, “I have been studying and working in the field for over 35 years. I have seen steady changes in the field in terms of processes, though the basic philosophy has not changed.”

The primary function of the human resource team is to be an employee champion, and ensure that the organization creates conditions which allow every employee to do his or her best, while also growing professionally, says Varma. “Ironically, in the quest to increase profits, many organizations treat their employees as easily-replaceable cogs in a wheel, which leads to a vicious cycle—the employee recognizes that he or she is a low priority for the organization. In return, he or she reduces effort in his or her job, the organization sees a dip in performance and reduces the rewards offered to the employee, who notices this change and decides to work ‘just hard enough to not get fired.’ ”

This chain of events is often repeated in all types of organizations across the world, feels Varma. But, it can be easily avoided if organizations are willing to manage the performance of their employees properly. “Instead, the emphasis often is on using technology in HR processes. Without a doubt, the tremendous strides in technology can help organizations be more productive and profitable, but only if used appropriately,” he says.

Varma shares his experience of interviewing personnel from over 50 organizations across countries and industries. “Most conduct expatriate evaluation on ad hoc basis and don’t have context-appropriate evaluation models; well, not yet. The very few that do take expatriate evaluation seriously, report favorable reactions from both expatriates and their managers. I am confident that the model I am developing will fill this void.”

Ranjita Biswas is a Kolkata-based journalist. She also translates fiction and writes short stories.


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