Foreign Worker Employment: Culture's the Thing

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By Rick Vollmar

June 24—Let's start with a variation on an old joke (courtesy of Dean Foster). Three people share a compartment on a train—a German, an Italian and an American. There is a notice beneath the compartment's large window in three languages, not exact translations of one another. They read:

  • English: Do not open the window.
  • German: It is forbidden to open the window.
  • Italian: It is dangerous to open the window.


A fourth passenger, fluent in all three languages, silently commends the author of the notices, who has phrased each warning in the way most likely to elicit compliance from the nationals to whom it is directed.

But why do there need to be different phrasings, and why are these particular phrasings best addressed to their target audiences? The answer, which we'll provide below, is a matter of culture.

From My Point of View . .

As Dean Foster, president of DFA Intercultural Solutions, told attendees of the Society for Human Resource Management's annual conference in Washington June 20, we see things as we are accustomed to seeing them, not necessarily as they actually are. Americans see things from an American perspective, Japanese from a Japanese perspective, Saudis from a Saudi perspective and so on. Failure to recognize and make allowances for the fact that others may not see things exactly (or anywhere near) the way we do can be disastrous for any relationship and especially for a business or employment relationship.

Foster noted that 60 percent of foreign assignments fail, and 30 percent of employees return prematurely from a foreign posting. With the average cost of a foreign posting $1 million, failure can be very expensive for employers. Assignment failure is often the direct consequence of the assignee's inability to adjust to the culture of the country to which he or she is posted.

Among other ways, cultures differ in approaches to work, attitudes to punctuality, pace of life and social or business etiquette. Foster gave the following examples of differences in business etiquette that can damage a business or employment relationship if not observed:

  • Americans expect participants in a conversation to make eye contact and tend to be suspicious of anyone who doesn't. In Japan, however, which is a much more hierarchical culture than the egalitarian U.S., making eye contact with the boss is viewed as being disrespectful.
  • Similarly, in South Korea, however slowly your boss may be walking, you never pass him or her in the hall, which would be disrespectful, and however late the boss works, you never leave before he or she does.
  • And what might be most puzzling to an American: in Saudi Arabia, it's regarded as disrespectful to cross your legs when seated with others.


Americans unaware of these and many other often subtle social mores are likely to make a bad first impression on meeting a colleague, a superior or a customer and have no idea why.

Squeaky Wheels and Dead Birds

These differences result from the culture in which one is raised, Foster explained. In an individualistic culture like the U.S., for example, colleagues are expected to express their own opinions and workers often to make their own decisions, while in a consensual culture like Japan, no decision is made or action taken or opinion expressed until the group of people involved has reached a consensus. So if an American boss or colleague asks a Japanese employee to express an opinion before the group of which that employee is a member has reached a consensus, the employee will be put in a very embarrassing situation and is likely to give at best a noncommittal or ambiguous answer that an American not versed in Japanese culture is likely to regard as evasive.

Foster noted that this difference between the individualistic American culture and the consensual Japanese culture is illustrated by the idioms each nationality uses. While the American might say “the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” for example, the Japanese would say “the nail that stands up gets hit harder” or “the bird that honks gets shot.”

Foster gave attendees another way of looking at this culture clash by contrasting confrontational cultures (e.g., the U.S., Germany, the U.K., France), for which achieving the goal is paramount, with harmonious cultures (e.g., Japan, China, Mexico), in which the principal concern is to avoid endangering the harmony of the group. Similarly, some cultures (e.g., the U.S., the U.K.) value taking risks and accept occasional failure as the price of progress, while other cultures (e.g., Japan, Germany) are risk avoidant, regard failure as shameful and will never, as an American might, just “roll the dice.”

Taking another cultural variable, for a member of a transactional culture like the U.S. getting the job done is the paramount consideration, and relationships with colleagues grow out of the process of doing the job. The reverse is true of a relationship-based culture like Japan's in which the relationship is primary, and tasks are performed based on that relationship. In other words, “If I don't know you, I can't work with you.”

To take a final example from Foster, in an objectivist culture, rules are to be followed, while in a situational culture, rules can be broken if the situation justifies it, and employees are often praised for “thinking outside the box.”

Foster illustrated this latter concept by imagining three people—a Swede, an Italian and an American—standing at a traffic light waiting to cross the street. A Swede, from an objectivist culture, is unlikely ever to cross on red. An American, from a situational culture, may cross the street on red if no traffic is coming. The Italian, from a highly individualistic and situational culture, is likely to cross on red even if there is traffic coming. None of these actions is necessarily right or wrong—it's how the individual's culture has conditioned him or her to act.

And that makes this a convenient point to get back to our train compartment and its variously phrased warnings about the window. What is it about the three travelers that makes them more likely to follow one phrasing of an instruction than another? It's culture:

  • English: Do not open the window. Americans want directions that are explicit and direct.
  • German: It is forbidden to open the window. Germans are inclined to follow rules and are more likely to comply with an instruction if told that noncompliance breaks one.
  • Italian: It is dangerous to open the window. Italians, highly individualistic, don't generally like to be told what to do however the instruction is phrased, so the sign warns them of the consequences of noncompliance—“it's dangerous”—and allows them to make their own decisions.


Watch Your Step

If this seems like a mine field, that's because it is, and the first step to safely crossing it is to recognize the danger.

While the apparent globalization of culture resulting from mass communications (smart phones, the internet, Facebook . . .), mass migration and a global pop culture may seem to have homogenized national cultures, Foster warns that this apparent standardization is only superficial, and the fundamental cultural differences remain.

Culture is a “programming of the mind,” Foster said, and children are acculturated by age 4 and thereafter will interpret the world in terms of their own cultures.

Multinational corporations need to adapt their business strategies to the cultures of the individual countries in which they operate and educate their expatriate employees in the cultural norms they will have to observe. It's to no one's advantage to just drop an employee into a new culture and hope for the best—remember that 60 percent failure rate.

Foster summarized the importance for managers of multinational corporations to understand and adapt to local cultures very simply: those that “get it” will succeed; the rest won't.

To contact the reporter on this story: Rick Vollmar at

For More Information

Additional information on Dean Foster and DFA Intercultural Solutions is available here.

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