When Workplace Cultures Clash: Doing Business Abroad

When Workplace Cultures Clash: Doing Business Abroad

By Ryan Murdock

“The gardener will come at 8 a.m.,” I was told. “Please make sure you’re there to let him in.”

My landlord had hired a local expert to stop by the old house we were renting and trim the orange tree in the courtyard. It was an old tree with wonderful fruit, and it needed proper care in order to thrive.

Now I’m not a morning person, and 8 a.m. is early for a social call in my world. But I love those oranges, and so I dutifully waited around all day for this tree trimmer to arrive. I even tested the doorbell to see if it was working. But I hadn’t yet realized that appointments are optional in the Mediterranean, and something as simple as gardening would turn into a much longer ordeal.

The gardener didn’t show up, of course. Not that day, and not on the next appointed day either. The landlord finally offered to come over, and she called him 6 or 8 times, nagging him to stop by. The worst part was, he lived about 3 blocks away. It’s not as though he were flying in from Kew Gardens.

He finally arrived, three hours later, in a stained t-shirt, with puffy just-woke-up eyes. The landlord showed him around the work to be done, and he said, “Okay, I will come at 8 a.m. tomorrow to do it.”

I was standing there listening, and I cut in. “Are you actually going to show up this time?” I asked. He just looked at me with a blank stare, so I said, “What happened last week? I waited around all day and you didn’t come.”

His face passed through several expressions, from brief embarrassment to confusion. He stumbled a bit, said, “Ahh ahhh ahh… I forgot,” and laughed nervously. And then he glared at me with fury—because I had the ill manners to point out his unreliability, and therefore this was all my fault.

This sort of behaviour is incredibly common in Malta. My landlord’s father told me that he has to call his cleaning lady every week to see if she’s going to show up the next morning, on her usual day. And then he has to call her again that morning to make sure she’s coming—or to wake her up and nag her.

“Why the hell do you put up with that?” I asked. “Why don’t you fire her and find someone reliable?” But he just shrugged, mumbled a few excuses and shuffled away.

If you need to do business in a country like this, then you should be prepared for some clashes in workplace culture.

Forget the Statistics—Spend Time on the Ground

It’s a common problem for expats working abroad. Especially when you’re bringing a North American style work ethic to a place like the Mediterranean. And it will be even more frustrating if your goal is to start a business in your new expat home.

I subscribe to a few different expat newsletters, and I remember reading a column where one of my favourite writers—we’ll call him SB—was making a brief stop in Malta to check things out.

I don’t know who SB met when he was on the island. Probably government officials or bankers. But his Malta report concluded that this was a great place for foreigners to do business, because the country has a highly educated, English-speaking workforce with a strong work ethic, and the government and regulatory environment is very business friendly.

I nearly fell out of my chair when I read it. I own a small internet company that employs around 10 people. And I wasn’t living in Malta for more than a couple months when I concluded that I would never in a million years start a business or hire employees here.

In my experience, while many people are able to communicate in English, comprehension levels are low, the average ability to write in English is very poor, and critical thinking skills are nearly nonexistent. And as my stories about the gardener and housekeeper may have indicated, we have very different definitions when it comes to work ethic.

The key lesson here is to spend considerable time on the ground, and live in that culture for a while before you jump the gun and get involved in costly business ventures.

Don’t rely on online statistics or reports for your information, or you will find yourself building castles in the air. Your money will vanish as quickly as they do.

Government statistics and reports are biased, of course. Their job is to paint a rosy picture, lure investors, and convince voters they’re doing a great job. But third party economic indicators should also be treated with caution, because they're often based on these very same reports.

For example, the Global Corruption Index ranks Malta about midway down the EU, right below Bulgaria. Now being listed as more corrupt than Bulgaria is bad enough, given how often they make the news. But if you look at actual survey research, you’ll discover that 83% of Maltese polled believe there is a very high level of corruption in the country.

The view on the ground—among people who are actually living in a culture—presents a much more accurate assessment. So how can you protect your investment—and your hopes and dreams—when starting a business in your new expat home? Here are a few tips for knowing whether the local workplace culture is going to clash with your way of doing things.

Meet Other Business People

Meet other people who are actually doing business in that country. Talk to them and get their advice. Don't rely on statistics or economic indicators, or any kind of government report. You want to speak with people who are actually dealing with the same sort of problems you’ll have to navigate.

Understand the Culture

Having an accurate understanding of the culture will give you insights into your employees that a management manual can never approach.

For example, Maltese culture is deeply focused on the family. So if you hire locally, your employees will be concerned with going home on time. They’ll spend a lot of time taking personal calls from family members at work, and most people will not be willing to work extra hours no matter what you’re offering, because they’re motivated by family time or social time rather than more money.

When hiring, they’ll push to get their cousin or uncle the job, regardless of whether or not he’s qualified, because family networks are important. “Networks of influence” are also important here, and jobs and favours are traded in the expectation of getting a favour in return down the road. You need to know this stuff if you put a local manager in charge of HR.

Most people in Malta will also expect to work “summer hours.” Government offices and many businesses close at 1 p.m. during the hot summer months, and everyone takes off to the beach. Your employees will expect this too—and they’ll expect full time pay while doing it.

I asked a Maltese friend who works for a government department about this strange practice. She said, “We work an extra hour every day in the winter to make up for it.” But I still don’t see how an extra hour in winter makes up for half a day off all summer. What happened to the other 3 hours?

If an employee lives in a village, you can be sure they won’t show up for work the day after the village feast. This becomes an unofficial holiday. And if you rake them over for not showing up, they’ll wonder why you’re mad at them, and you will be in the wrong. Oh, and they will expect to go home and take a siesta between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m..

Like the gardener and house cleaner I described above, you’ll also be expected to chase people constantly to get anything done.

The culture of a country is important, because it effects how people perceive their jobs, their responsibilities as employees, and your role as an employer. You won’t succeed in forcing your North American views on productivity, time management or attention to detail onto a Mediterranean workforce no matter how hard you try. Nor will you be able to motivate your employees effectively as a manager.

But unless you do your research, you won’t actually find any of this stuff out until you try to do business there.

Read the Paper—Not the Articles, the Comments

The local newspaper is a great source of information about the country you’re researching.

Sure, the articles and news stories will give you an overview. But what you’re really looking for are the comments by local readers.

I follow the Times of Malta online. And I’ve learned far more about the country by watching the discussions that happen in the comments than I ever would from any book.

People here love to argue about absolutely everything. By reading the comments, you’ll learn a great deal about their general attitude, how they phrase an argument, their critical thinking and analytical abilities, and the way they reason.

I also learned that, while people love to argue about absolutely everything in Malta—any Maltese will tell you it’s the national pastime—nothing ever changes, because no one ever takes action on it.

You’ll also get a very different view on corruption than you will from official statistics. The main articles will tell part of the story, but the reader comments will fill you in on the backstory. “Here we go again, this is just like the time that same Minister was indicted for this” or “That same family is linked to organized crime, and his brother-in-law is chief of police”. You won’t ever know what really happened in these cases. But you’ll have a clearer sense of just how much is happening below the surface. Those things will affect your business, and they’ll form the reality of the business culture in which you’re trying to operate.

Speaking of business culture, I’ve also learned that Maltese people feel competition is unfair. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen someone open a gas station across the road from 3 other gas stations, without ever conducting any kind of market research. And when the other guy does better than them, they wave their arms and cry, “Not fair.”

Maltese friends have told me that rather than try to improve themselves and work to get ahead, people tend to pull others back down to their level. So rather than try to improve their services or offer a better product or customer experience, you’ll see people in the newspaper comments saying things like, “It’s not fair! The government should stop him from competing with me like that!”

This can get taken to comical lengths, and the newspaper is often a source of great amusement for me. But this attitude does result in a very low level of service from Maltese businesses. And an attitude of, “If you don’t like it, I don’t care. Deal with someone else.”

And we haven’t even touched on politics or political connections. But that’s another article, and we don’t have space for it here.

So there you have it. I hope this gives you a better sense of how to navigate cultural clashes in the workplace. You won’t find the information you’re looking for in a business book or government report. You need to dig deeper, and to spend some time trying to understand the culture you’re working or investing in.

There really is no substitute to spending some time living in that place before you invest your life’s savings.

Ryan Murdock is Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Outpost, and has written several features over the past decade for Outpost—on France, Jordan and Namibia, to name just a few. He’s also author of “Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America,” and you can see more of Ryan at www.ryanmurdock.com, and @RoadWisdomStay tuned for more of his columns on The Expat Life!

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