Remember to Change Your Attitude When Working for Foreign Bosses

Akuppa John Wigham/Flickr

Akuppa John Wigham/Flickr

Work culture varies from country to country. How (and how much) should you change your approach when working for foreign bosses?

How can you avoid stereotypes and encourage a productive, respectful work environment? Should you learn to speak their language?

There are many ways in which a person is shaped by their culture and environment. Bosses aren’t immune to customs from their country of origin, and foreign bosses can bring their country’s office culture with them to work. When working for foreign bosses who are likely to have very different cultural backgrounds, life experiences and customs than you do, it can be helpful to know a bit more about their home country’s work culture.

While the business etiquette in one country might involve ensuring that entertainment is provided for visiting business partners, for example, the very idea of mixing work and play is foreign in others. Likewise, dealing with people according to hierarchy within a company and making sure to treat those in higher positions with added respect is the norm in some cultures and not so much in others.

Adapting to a Country’s Work Culture

The question of whether you should adapt to a country’s work ethic while working in that country or for a foreign boss might be viewed as unnecessary by those who deem their experience, qualifications and hardworking nature enough to please, come what may. However, interpersonal relationships are key to your success in the workplace. Study after study finds that EQ (emotional intelligence) is a better predictor of workplace success than IQ (intellectual ability). In order to empathize with your boss, it’s important to have an idea of where he/she is coming from.

Not making an effort to understand or adapt to a country’s work culture is risky, to say the least. The difference in how companies are run can vary from country to country and what one country might interpret as being open and to the point, another might regard as being rude and disrespectful.

Taking on a job abroad without learning about the country’s culture and customs beforehand is likely to lead to problems and embarrassments that could have easily been avoided.

In Brazilian work culture, it is common for both parties to chat before diving into business discussions and in Brazil it can be something of a faux-pas for a businessperson to begin discussing business before their host does.

Such situations could cause damage to the employee’s reputation, especially if they remain oblivious to what they are doing wrong and continue to offend.

What to Expect

There are plenty of country-specific customs to look out for as well as general quirks that apply to whole continents and regions.

Some countries can be a little laxer on punctuality than others and have a tendency to keep guests waiting way past the time stated on the schedule.

Rather than complain or show your frustration at having your time wasted, it’s better to wait it out. Your complaints will be falling on deaf ears if your boss (or client) deems such behavior totally acceptable.

In Dubai, it is fine for a host to take phone calls during business meetings and for quite the number of interruptions to occur throughout. Complaining will not get you anywhere: this is customary.

The egalitarianism of The Netherlands can cause confusion amongst many business people, as high profile employees make coffee and run errands, and perform many tasks that foreign employees might associate with jobs lower down on the hierarchy.

The Dutch like to consult before making decisions and the idea of a couple of people imposing a policy from afar without consulting the team would not play well.

Work Clothing and Gifts

Before you start packing your suitcase with the usual clothing you wore at business meetings in your native country, think about what business attire is appropriate wherever you are headed.

Latin American countries welcome brighter, more colorful shades in the boardroom and think nothing of a businesswoman dressed head-to-toe in canary yellow. Three-piece suits on men can imply executive status, while the vast majority of men will opt for the two-piece.

Fashion is embraced by Latin American countries and Europe, both in and out of the workplace. Investing in a well-tailored suit and garments that come with designer tags will not harm your reputation in the workplace in these regions.

Europe is home to several of the world’s fashion capitals and prides itself in being fashion-forward; the reaction to a woman wearing trousers in the workplace would be very different in Japan and the Middle East, where workplace clothing is more traditional.

Revealing outfits that show cleavage and knees are ill-advised for businesswomen trying to make a good impression in the Middle East, China, and Japan. Loud colors are also unlikely to be well-received.

Refusing food and non-alcoholic beverages can be a sign of disrespect in parts of the Middle East and Asia. Giving alcohol as a gift is unwise when in the Islamic Middle East, but is fine when in China and Japan.

The business culture of each region is unique and demands careful study before you begin working for foreign bosses. Ambitious employees would be well served to research the business customs in their boss’ country of origin, and even take a business-focused language course. Learning the language, or even making the effort to gain basic proficiency in your boss’ native language is the highest compliment you can pay your new boss.