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Work Ethic

When cultures clash: How to say no to shocking gifts

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.

Cultural disconnect can lead to lines you don't want to cross. (Thinkstock)

Cultural disconnect can lead to lines you don't want to cross. (Thinkstock)

Q. A company client took my boss and I out for dinner. After the meal, he brought two women to the table, and announced they were ours for the night. Neither my boss nor I had any interest in engaging the services of these ladies, and we sped away in a taxi. How should we have responded to the situation?

A. What you’re running into here is a significant difference in expectations. Clearly, your client thought he was being hospitable; he must have felt he was behaving in a perfectly normal manner for a business dinner. You and your boss, on the other hand, don’t consider this behaviour okay at all. (Consider yourself lucky that you work for someone who shares your values.)

If the client had realized how shocked you would be, he might have acted differently

But, that’s not your trouble spot. For you, it’s not clear how you could extricate yourself without insulting your client. The situation juxtaposes two conflicting ethical standards, said Gail Golden, an organisational psychologist and leadership consultant in Chicago: “One is showing respect, courtesy, and gratitude to your host. The other is honouring your personal sexual morality and boundaries, especially in a business context.”

While this particular situation is unusual, this type of disconnect can be more common when working abroad, where your cultural expectations collide with those of another country. Views most commonly differ on bribery, nepotism and the role of women in society. Even within national borders, “customs and morality vary from one part of the country to another,” Golden said.

To deal with this in a broader sense, you have to decide how comfortable you are with stepping across a line you wouldn’t cross at home. For example, you may not be a big drinker, but when travelling to meetings in places where drinking is an important part of socializing for work, you might choose to have two or three drinks instead of the one you might have at an outing or evening meeting at home, to avoid offending your hosts. Other activities, though, might have a line you’d never be willing to cross.

Prostitution crosses that line for you. (This, too, is cultural. In a handful of countries, it’s legal; in others, it’s not considered a big deal. In the US and large parts of Asia and Africa, on the other hand, prostitution is extremely taboo.) In this case, Golden advises that you could have thanked your client for his offer but explained that you can’t accept his gift. And keep in mind, too, that accepting such a gift might very well be a fireable offence for many executives anyway.

In a sticky situation where you risk insulting a business associate by being forthright, you could perhaps blame company policy (“Sorry, but we’re not allowed to accept any gifts from clients; I’d get fired if I did”).

“Even if the writer is horrified by the situation, he should take care not to humiliate his host or embarrass himself,” Golden said.  “In this way, he can honour both the ethic of courtesy and his sexual ethic.”

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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.

You have to decide how comfortable you are with stepping across a line you wouldn’t cross at home.