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BBC Capital

Work Ethic

Cross-border culture clash

About the author

Chana is a journalist based in New York City, writing about business, finance, and workplace life. She has written for The Wall Street Journal and spent more than a decade at Forbes, including three years as a Tokyo-based foreign correspondent.

Conducting work expectations across international borders. (Thinkstock)

Conducting work expectations across international borders. (Thinkstock)

Q: I work in a regional office of a global company. My country’s unit has a reputation back at headquarters for being slow to implement initiatives that are rolled out around the world. That's because we take longer to plan our strategy before we take action. I think the company's top executives don't really understand our national business culture or how it's different from their own. What can I do about this?

A: What you’re describing is the clash between a corporation’s global strategy and the reality of its local operations. Somewhere far away, someone dreams up a plan and this edict is sent out to offices worldwide. While the headquarters executives may expect uniformity in how each office puts the plan into place — for introducing a new product, perhaps, or switching employees to a new computer system — typically every country’s division has its own way of doing things. Inevitably headquarters will grumble about how certain countries are slow, or too fast, or don’t comply with instructions from above.

Every company has its internal politics. Where this becomes an ethical dilemma is at the intersection of a centralised corporate strategy and local customs or mores. You need to balance the need to follow your local boss' instructions without making the head office think you're taking too long.

“Increasingly, in a globalised economy, multi-national corporations and other organisations are internalizing a ‘one size fits all’ mentality, such as global advertising campaigns, that might be at odds with what regional managers perceive could violate cultural values or sensitivities,” said business ethicist Gene Laczniak, an emeritus marketing professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Companies are generally aware of the most obvious local customs: “gift-giving in various Asian countries, the tolerance of bribery in many developing markets, the restricted role for women in parts of the Middle East, and so forth”, Laczniak said. At the same time, to streamline their own processes, companies are increasingly adopting global policies and expecting local offices to carry them out as close to identically as possible.

There may be a way to make your local colleagues aware of how headquarters perceives your unit's work. Consider holding a meeting to discuss ways that you can all band together and give the company what it wants without sacrificing too much of the deliberative culture you want to preserve. 

Global companies frequently send their managers out on expatriate assignments so they can develop an understanding of local practices and, more broadly, learn to work with people who came up through different business cultures. Try to find someone currently based at headquarters who either shares your nationality or once worked in your country. That person might be able to help make this presentation. The goal is to let headquarters know that your team is not lazy or slow; you’ve been trained to consider all the angles before implementing a program. Help them understand that this bias can be an asset to the company.

The trouble with global companies is that you may not be able to alter top executives’ perception of how your on-the-ground team gets things done. “In the end, there will always be some level of tension between the richness or peculiarity of local practices and the globalised policies that are preferred by large organisations,” Laczniak said.

Work Ethic is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the ethical and interpersonal dilemmas that workers face around the world. We welcome knotty questions from readers at workethic@bbc.com.

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