1 August 2002
Behind the curtain of corporate culture clash
By Ellen Fussell
Ask anyone who has worked overseas or for a multinational company if they experienced cultural transitions, and the answer will inevitably be, "Of course."
Even now, in the twenty-first century, cultures still clash in the corporate world, making communication and productivity a challenge.
For Americans who work for multinational companies or for those from other countries working in the U.S., the term "culture clash" may seem an understatement. While there isn't any one answer to help deal with the cultural differences in multinational corporations, perhaps understanding the culture behind the corporate curtain could help soften the blow.
Culture shock wasn't much of a problem for Bombay, India–born Gurinder Garcha, application engineer for General Electric in Albany, N.Y., who came to the U.S. at 15. He did notice a difference in how he was perceived by the U.S. culture. But he commends GE on promoting practices for diverse cultures. In fact, he said, GE has forums to promote diversity—representing African Americans, Hispanics, women, and Asians, he said.
While Garcha said he led a pretty cosmopolitan life in Bombay, he still had to learn about the American corporate culture. In his first U.S. job at Stetson Dale in Utica, N.Y., Garcha learned quickly how to fit into the American culture.
Garcha's advice to anyone working in a multinational company: When you network with the people of that country, you're much more likely to be accepted, and you become more marketable than if you stay to yourself or socialize only with those of your own culture.
Yet adapting to an outside corporate culture isn't always so smooth. Rochelle Kopp reveals flaws in the Japanese/American working relationship in her book, The Rice-Paper Ceiling: Breaking through Japanese Corporate Culture. She highlights the Japanese's love of "long working hours, refusal to take vacation time, and marathon commutes to cramped housing."
Some common problems Kopp points out for those working in Japanese-owned companies in the U.S. include the fact that Japanese expatriates make all the decisions in U.S.-based Japanese firms. "Non-Japanese employees are frequently excluded from information flow, which occurs primarily in the Japanese language among Japanese expatriates and head office employees," she said.
Transitions inside corporate walls
National cultures aren't the only things that can clash. Even within a company, cultures can change, especially after a buyout.
Vietnam-born Tien Vu, research and development manager at Siemens Milltronics in Ontario, witnessed a culture change within one company over the past 25 years.
Before it became part of Siemens, Milltronics was a smaller, 500-person company, where everyone was on a first-name basis. Now Vu is part of Siemens' 420,000-employee conglomerate. The change has been good, he said, "with no drastic effects," even though the company is more rigid and pays more attention to detail and documentation. But, he added, the bonus incentives far outweigh the extra paperwork.
Of course, the best way to succeed with any foreign culture, is to understand it, and Kopp gives a few pointers to understanding the Japanese corporate culture. Usually, those Japanese assigned to the U.S. didn't choose it for themselves, she said.
"The expatriate is likely to be experiencing a high level of stress, if not near paralysis, due to culture shock," she said. Also, many are not prepared to deal with the language. Avoiding slang, humor, and sarcasm and speaking slowly and clearly are a few ways to help yourself, and them, in the workplace, Kopp said.
From here to there
Dealing with foreigners in your own country is one challenge, but how do Americans deal with diverse corporate cultures overseas?
Charlie Gifford, director of business development at Oakville, Ontario–based ASECO Integrated Systems, had a number of opportunities to experience culture barriers while supervising information technology (IT) installation teams in France and Switzerland. "European unions don't allow employees to work a lot of hours, so in France, they'd staff up [add shifts] to meet their [installation] requirements" instead of working longer hours with those on hand, said Gifford, who works out of his Hailey, Idaho, office.
Hiring American consultants is the way to go for European employers if they want the job done quickly, Gifford said. "In Europe, they are trying to modernize their plant base as opposed to shipping it overseas. The problem is, their labor laws make it difficult for them to staff up the IT help they need. So they hire English or American consultants and then work them long hours," he said.
"When you do a plant start-up, you're basically sleeping in the plant," Gifford said. "The way their unions are, they don't allow their employees to do that. The way they handle large hours is just to get more people. IT
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