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Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, here’s the real definition of karma

Nadella in India
AP Photo/Manish Swarup
He should know better than that.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Talking about “faith in the system,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella had singular advice for women asking for a raise. The ones, he said at a women’s tech conference today, who “don’t ask for a raise” have an advantage:

“It’s good karma. It will come back.”

That is sure an interesting theory, but based on a somewhat loose understanding of the concept of karma.

Perhaps, the Indian-born Nadella has let his American citizenship have the better of his Sanskrit. Essentially what Nadella was saying is that it’s unethical for women to ask for a raise. (Later in the afternoon, Nadella tweeted that he had been “inarticulate” and the industry needed to “close the gender gap.”)

Nonetheless, karma does indeed appear to be pretty trendy (albeit misunderstood) in America than it is in India.

In the interest of clarity, it may be good to look at what karma is—through its Indian origins.

The Hindi word कर्म (karm, from the Sanskrit karman) simply means action, and it refers to a conscious act, which will have natural consequences in this life, or the next. Its dictionary definition:

The force generated by a person’s actions held in Hinduism and Buddhism to perpetuate transmigration and in its ethical consequences to determine the nature of the person’s next existence.

The concept has peaked in popularity in the west from the 1960s—around the time when India became popular among hippies (and the Beatles made egregious music with Ravi Shankar).

Out of its religious connotation, the concept of karma came to represent life as a cycle where ethical actions are to be rewarded—and unethical ones punished. Or in the words of Justin Timberlake, “what goes around, comes around.”

As a concept that originated to operate over multiple lifetimes, karma doesn’t really work on a clear timeline. Just see this for what we mean:

So even if we were to assume Nadella’s comment was made with genuine belief, he would suggest that women hold off on asking a raise in the hope that one unspecified day that choice would pay back (not necessarily in money, of course).

But it’s what he is implying beyond that—consciously or not—that is the troubling part. For women, first of all. And for all workers.

Nadella essentially equates asking for a raise to a bad action.

The women who hold off on it deserve for life to reward them. Nadella failed to see that a raise is in many cases something an employee—whatever the gender—deserves. In this life.

If we were to apply some sound karma to his logic, here is how it would actually work: the Microsoft CEO should walk in his office tomorrow and give a raise to all the women who work for him, without waiting for them to ask for it.

That, indeed, would be good karm. 

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