The Art of Cultural Communicaton

Challenges our Leaders Face in the Global Work Community

I was born in a rural town in the northern most part of Maine. I had little cultural awareness as our small town culture was set in its ways, and a good 30 years behind the rest of the country. I knew even less about global culture. Even though Canada was a short drive away, my first impression of that countries culture was my parents telling me to go outside on the weekends until it was time for meals, but not to journey too far into the woods, as I may never come out of them and end up in Canada speaking French.

Now I recruit future team members across all of North America, and have had the privilege to travel the entire expanse of the eastern seaboard working with people across the globe in education and employment. I have valued the many roles I have held in my career with Sitel Group,working from home for over a decade. Sitel Group “employs 160,000 employees across locations in 40 countries, serving 700+ customers in 50+ languages” according to the companies site. That is a statistic that I proudly declare to future employees. It is an amazing feat, to say the least.

I first discovered the need for cultural awareness while working with clients in the US that hired employees from across the continent. These teams were virtually organized and managed. Early on we did phone interviews, and had meetings through teleconferences. I remember one meeting in particular, where our leaders were venting frustrations concerning the written responses phone agents would send to them when they were being supported in chat rooms, and when they spoke to these agents on the phone. The leaders felt these responses were disrespectful, and had decided that the agents who were using this type of communication would receive written disciplinary action. When I heard what the written and verbal offenses were, I had no choice but to intercede.

The agents were referring to the supervisors by their first names, which was standard procedure at the time, however, they were using Mr. and Ms. prior to the first name, such as Ms. Barb, or Mr. John. The leaders were certain they were being mocked because as soon as they would tell one person to use the first name only, later that day or week, someone else would refer to them in the same manner. They felt that this was a serious offense at the level of group organized insubordination, and demanded support in their corrective action plans to discipline the offending employees.

At this time, a majority of our leadership was from the Northern U.S. Hemisphere. We had recently expanded and a large portion of new hires were from Southern U.S. states that we had expanded into. My trips to Miami, and the Florida Keys came in handy in ways I could not have imagined. I remember by first encounter with this cultural trend. A friend and business associate giving us a tour of his business had employees who kept calling him Mr. Monty. I looked at him with such oblivious confusion he had to laugh when in a puzzled voice I asked if the people he was working with knew his last name. He explained to me that in this southern culture they were showing their respect acknowledging his authority by using his first name with a prefix.

Our leaders were about to take disciplinary action against agents for showing them respect.

Should we have then educated the agents, that their way of showing respect was wrong. Should we have enforced that they do it our way, simply because we were the leadership? After all wouldn’t this eliminate future cultural misunderstandings?

Becoming culturally aware in the global and virtual work force is not about standardizing our corporate cultures. This is the first mistake often made and best avoided. Cultural identity is what makes a global company strong. Rather than standardizing our culture, we can incorporate an understanding of what makes us different and acknowledge how those differences give us the competitive edge in the global market. We can do this by understanding how our cultural identity may interfere with communications that are coming from a different cultural identity than our own.

My experience working with a team in the Philippines exemplifies our need to expand our acceptance of differences in written structure and cultural idioms. Working in a combine chat between American leaders and leaders from teams in the Philippines, the habit of team members to be social in the work environment, joking with each other and poking “harmless” fun at our selves and our teams, created a rift that again quickly escalated to the head of the Philippines team wanting to take disciplinary action against the American team members for insubordination. In this situation I was unable to make my observations known as I was at a lower hierarchical level than the Philippines leader. Any observation I made during the meeting would be seen as further disrespect. Instead I called my supervisor into a meeting, explained the cultural issue and he, being equal to the leader in the Philippines was then able to have a private conversation and properly apologize for the misunderstanding. We did not demand that the Philippines team “lighten up”, we did however move our social and jovial team building discussions to a separate format to improve communications with the Philippines team members. We respected their cultural identity for a serious work environment and were even able to invite them to events designed to be specifically social in nature where they could be more relaxed and participate in social group activities.

Even common idioms can cause cultural rifts in team communications. One Operations Management meeting was cut short when one of the leaders from a brick and mortar complex stated they had to leave early in order to “put out some fires”. The Philippines team reacted with genuine concern for the safety of our employees, thinking that the building itself was on fire. This brought about jovial laughter from the American team and further insult to the Philippines team. They went silent and the meeting became non-productive. Due to our insensitivity and unintentional blindness to the cultural identity team members from this other culture valued, this also required follow up meetings to alleviate the damage caused.

My last example, I have learned while working with my Canadian team. Due to the benefits that working from home brings to future employees, we have had the opportunity to tap into human resources from many different cultures and areas, both locally and with immigrant populations. North America is constantly evolving as people from all over the global community settle here and seek to join our work force. Something as simple as differences in accents can manifest itself as a barrier preventing qualified people from promotions or hindering support, even preventing qualified candidates success at the hiring stage. This is due to our unintentional bias and cultural tendency to favor people whose mannerism and speech is similar to ours. Holding employees to correct grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary, when not directly related to job requirements is culturally insensitive.

We are the leading standard for excellence in Business Process Outsourcing for both Work from Home and as a global corporate community. Learning about other cultures so that we do not project our values onto other individuals on our team is essential to the development of a healthy global corporate community. Culturally diverse teams are often more innovative and offer creative results that benefit the team as a whole. Our goal should be to create a culturally diverse and inclusive work environment through understanding and cultural awareness. This is the art of cultural communication and challenges our leaders face in the global work community.

About the author:

Salie Davis has worked as a virtual employee for over a decade with Sitel Group under Legacy Sykes. Starting as an agent she has served in many roles, working with many diversified teams and clients.

She has three degrees earned through distance learning with active contributions to the global educational community and has shared her creative and written talents through virtual conferences and global communities.

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