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Friday, March 17, 2017

Culture Club

Written by  Richard Finger

Last week, I was facilitating a discussion in class regarding cultural differences in the workplace. Specifically, we had a lively discussion regarding differences in the approach to performance management practices across the globe. For example, in the U.S., we are always focused on formally documenting performance discussions, mostly to protect us from potential employment related lawsuits. In most Latin American countries, as well as in southern Europe, the attitude toward performance management is very informal, usually completed as on-the-spot conversations, and not at all focused on anything written. Perhaps this distinction is a direct result of civil law vs. common law approaches to employment, or a consequence of American at-will employment rules vs. contract employment? As the conversation progressed, we concluded that the primary cause of these differences goes deeper than the law, but rather to cultural principles.

As I drove home from teaching the class, I began to think more on the topic of cultural principles, and how they might carry over to other aspects of employment practices – and other aspects of life. The real question is one of values and beliefs. With the current spotlight shining brightly on the merits of the Affordable Care Act, I see the same theme emerging. The U.S. is the only country in the world that has privatized health care. One could argue the ACA took a step at government involvement in aiming to provide access to all citizens of the country. The crux of the debate is one of principles. Republicans argue the ACA is an “entitlement” and exhibits government overreach. The Democrats see health care similarly to the rest of the world, which is a responsibility provided by the government to its citizens. I realize I am oversimplifying the argument on both sides, and the complexities are numerous. The bottom line is, like most things, change takes time. Shifts in culture take even more time. Asking groups of people to change their beliefs and principles is a challenge.

Having lived abroad for a number of years, I was exposed to other cultures’ norms and values, and began to question my own. In the U.S., we had always heard about “death panels”, and waiting lists for people to get medical procedures, and, in general, negative opinions about socialized medicine. After a few years, I began to learn that these opinions were baseless. Dutch citizens were very happy about their healthcare, and in fact, they have among the longest lifespans on earth, as well as higher rates of life satisfaction, and lead in the number of knee/hip replacements provided. Rather to seek to understand, it is easier to create false narratives and hold on to your core beliefs. It may take decades for the masses of Americans to jump on board the “health care is a right” bus, just as it took decades for them to jump on the marriage equality bus. For Europeans, the right to health care is equivalent to the right of Americans to own guns. This is something Europeans cannot fathom, but again, it is not part of their belief system, and not something they grew up with. Whether or not European culture develops a gun ownership culture is yet to be seen.

Given this space in the paper is focused on business, I will conclude on this notion. Business owners and leaders make decisions about how they recruit people, compensate them, develop them, and manage them. They make these decisions based on their own system of ethics and philosophies. Providing health care is another opportunity to demonstrate that value system. Until the debate is resolved on who bears the responsibility of providing it, companies or governments, or a blend of both, understanding an organization’s approach to such topics will be critical to attract and retain its employees. The key will be paying attention to public opinion and attitudes as our own cultural norms are developing.

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