Non-English Speaking Countries: Adjusting to Cultural Differences

By Buon, Tony | The Journal of Employee Assistance, July 2006 | Go to article overview

Non-English Speaking Countries: Adjusting to Cultural Differences


Buon, Tony, The Journal of Employee Assistance


Managing poor performance may be one of the most unpleasant tasks of management and also one of the most difficult. Appropriate work performance intervention rests on the ability of supervisors to detect declining work performance, and there is great danger in assuming they are able or willing to fulfill this role.

A referral to an employee assistance program (EAP) is often described as the most appropriate method of preventing supervisors from inappropriately getting involved with an employee's personal problems. Unfortunately, most supervisors in non-English speaking countries know little about EAPs despite the fact that EAPs increasingly are being implemented in these locations, often by U.S.-based transnational corporations attempting to "harmonize" their human resources efforts. The reasons are twofold:

1) Supervisor training typically is offered by local EAP providers with little or no knowledge of the EAP Core Technology or is conducted by U.S.-based corporate trainers or EAP staff with a limited understanding of the local culture; and

2) Most EAP training material for supervisors is from North America and (occasionally) the United Kingdom or Australia and thus is written in English and describes settings and challenges common to these countries.

For example, I recently observed a situation in Kazakhstan (formerly part of the Soviet Union) where the local company doctor of a joint-venture oil and gas business had been instructed to conduct a one-day EAP training for supervisors. The training utilized materials written in English (though most of the supervisors in attendance spoke only Russian) and described problems that might arise at a worksite in a U.S. city but were unlikely to confront the local Kazakh and Russian workforce.

Similarly, a human resources manager in the Middle East told me recently he was bemused by the corporate EAP supervisory training video, which features material about the requirements for substance abuse professionals (SAPs) and depicts a supervisor dealing with a drunken employee. In this particular Middle Eastern country, alcohol possession or use is illegal and intoxication would certainly lead to dismissal, jail time, and possibly corporal punishment--not referral to the friendly EAP counselor!

COMMUNICATING EFFECTIVELY

Clearly, if you are going to be conducting EAP training in cultures that are different from your own, it is vital to learn as much about them as you can. Simply showing an interest in other cultures often helps break down barriers. A manager in Kuwait told me recently that he was impressed that his supervisory training program was not scheduled during Ramadan, something that is never done in Muslim cultures.

But the challenge of conducting EAP training for supervisors in non-English-speaking countries goes beyond what is taught and when it is taught to how it is taught. Good training depends on effective communication, and culture affects both the substance and style of communication.

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