Have you got any advice for me concerning HR issues that involve a clash of cultural or Biblical values? I want to pay my workers equally for doing the same job and in Nepal where I run my business, men and women don’t usually receive equal pay. It’s not so much an ethical dilemma for me, but a practical question about how I can approach this well. How do I best communicate and lead my Nepali team through this issue?
The first issue that needs to be discussed in regards to anything to do with money is how the local community views foreigners working among them. It has been our direct experience and that of other BAMers that we have talked to the mere fact that you are in the country – and can leave at will – indicates that you are filthy rich and can do whatever you want to do. Foreigners, therefore, are often viewed as walking dollar signs no matter who they are.
The Biblical point of view in Proverb 31 does give us the illustration of the industrious women in a Middle Eastern context going out and buying a field (which my wife did once when I was on a business trip, much to my surprise). The Proverbs 31 woman was not from a poor background as far as I can determine, so it’s applicability to this situation is uncertain. However, it is clear that women are encouraged to be industrious, be self-motivated and be allowed to manage staff if they are able and willing to do so in whatever culture they are in.
Since every situation is different there is no standard answer to making difficult decisions.
However, the following steps need to be followed in most decision-making situations:
1. There needs to be an agreement on how to proceed among the “key decision makers”, (as much as possible) as to the “correct” course of action. If this isn’t done then it will appear that you’ve made a seemingly arbitrary decision that unjustly favors someone. This will cause local cultural or interpersonal difficulties. The overall operation of the business will then suffer due to these problems. The key decision makers are those that influence and control your local employees. It may not be obvious at all who they are but you must know who they are.
2. How do you achieve this agreement? You can’t simply call a large meeting and ask for opinions because interpersonal relationships are at work which will sabotage the purpose of the meeting. Most things like this need to be discussed privately. Information and points of view need to be gathered.
3. You, as the boss, cannot do much of this information gathering. If you try and do so you will simply be told what the employees think you want to hear. As the CEO of my former successful company I know this to be true. You need to identify a local, very trustworthy, intermediary who understands how you communicate culturally and how the local folks communicate culturally. This person needs to be your eyes, ears and mouth.
4. Ask your intermediary what issues they are facing in gathering this information and communicating your questions and expectations. If you fail to do this then it is unlikely you will understand the information and opinions they gather.
5. Understand the local decision making process. For example, does “no” really mean “no”? In our situation in a closed country, five years of work was put into jeopardy because in the local context the word, “no” is viewed as merely is one step in the negotiation process. When we said “no” to giving away large sums of money the local people got very angry because in the local context foreigners always gave away money.
6. When the information is presented to you make sure you “gently cross-examine” your intermediary to ensure your views and opinions were accurately represented. I have run across intermediaries whose sole agenda item was to benefit themselves and their family. It is helpful to quietly ask other local person(s) who you trust about what your intermediary has communicated.
7. Once you have all the required information and opinions then the long process of finding a good solution to the issue you are facing starts. Run the various options you come up with past the key decision makers, both privately and perhaps in a group. Ask them to advise you – this will drastically increase their buy-in to your eventual decision. However, the final decision is yours and this must be apparent to all concerned. If you come across as a push-over then this will cause even more problems.
8. Once you have decided on a course of action then you must announce it in the appropriate manner. I used to do this in a company-wide meeting so that no one could say they didn’t receive the information. Say something like, “After discussing this issue with many people (elders and trusted local leaders etc.) I have decided to do this….” Outline the pros and cons of the decision. This is important to do because your decision will never make everyone happy. If you outline how difficult it was to come to this decision and outline the various problems you faced, then the naysayers will realize that you did consider their opinions and will likely accept it more readily than if you just impose a seemingly arbitrary decision on them.
The above approach, however, may need to be altered to suit local circumstances. For example, consulting numerous stakeholders in your adopted culture may not be appropriate – this is up to you to decide. However, this doesn’t give you license to completely ignore other views. The information gathering process needs to be done in one way or another.
Garry is part of the ‘Ask a BAM Mentor‘ panel of mentors. Garry is a retired businessman who has been mentoring small businesses for the last 20 years. He has been involved in cross cultural business activities for the last 10 years and has visited 20 countries during that time. Garry and his wife are doing small business training and funding in a restricted access country in Asia. Having started, grown and sold his own business he understands the trials, potential pitfalls and necessary success factors of day to day business activities. He continues to learn and share about the cross cultural aspects of business and especially the need to learn about and manage expectations in the local cultural context.
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