Managing cultural differences when outsourcing

Angela McDonald • 03/07/2016

When companies begin outsourcing, they tend to focus on the ‘hard’ processes – the hows, wheres, and whos. Just as important are the ‘soft’ components of the enterprise – relationship building with your new remote staff.

To build a good relationship, you will need to be aware of the differences in culture. While the Philippines has had significant western influence, there are still some notable cultural differences which can be positive or negative in your relationship with your offshore staff.

 

Filipinos are very conflict-averse

For many western countries, it may be the norm to speak your mind. This is true even when doing so may cause a minor disagreement – telling a supervisor something can’t be done a certain way, for instance. However, Filipinos are very unwilling to disagree directly. They may say “Yes” when what they mean is “Yes, but…” or “Yes, except…” They rely on tone and body language to imply that there are caveats to what they’re saying. These are hard to pick up from phone and video calls, and impossible in email exchanges. The way to work with this is to ask plenty of confirming questions, and to structure your dialogue with your employee in a way that they can voice problems or limitations without contradicting you.

 

“Hiya” – Losing face

Hiya is hard to describe in western terms. It encompasses things like shame, social decency, and compliance to public norms of behaviour. Like other Asian countries, it is important to avoid losing face in the Philippines. Hiya is a significant motivating factor behind behaviour – if a Filipino doesn’t live up to expected standards of behaviour, they bring shame upon themselves and on their families.
If a Filippino is publically embarrassed, criticised, or does not live up to expectations they feel shame and lose self-esteem. This can result in some difficulties in the office – an employee may give an answer that they are not sure is correct to avoid the shame of admitting they don’t know the answer.
When addressing an employee in the office, it is advisable to do so in private, rather than in front of others, to lower the potential for the employee to be shamed or embarrassed.

 

Hierarchy is important in the Philippines

An egalitarian society may be part of your cultural norm, even in the workplace. It may be common to call your boss by their first name or a nickname – even up to the CEO. In the Philippines, hierarchy is more prominent and more important – a worker respects their boss by calling them sir or ma’am. They are more likely to follow the chain of command and to ask permission or confirmation from their senior rather than showing initiative. This can work to your advantage – if you have processes which need to be followed, Filipinos will follow them to the letter.
However, this combines with the previous two points to make communication more difficult – contradicting the boss on anything is a definite no, even if the boss is wrong (and happy to be told so.) Be aware of this when communicating with your employees. Even if you’ve told them to call you by your name they may still greet you with an honorific. And if you’re looking to get their input, make it clear that you want to hear their ideas and opinions – but don’t expect them to directly point out if you’re making an error, as that would cause you to lose face, and cause them embarrassment in shaming you.

 

“Pinoy time”

If you organise a meeting at nine, then it starts at nine. Five or ten minutes’ grace might be given for reasonable excuses, but to arrive at 10:30 would be considered both extremely late and very rude.
Not so in the Philippines. Where something is organised to start at a certain time, it is understood that time actually means an hour or two later. It is not considered rude to be late – it is expected. This causes a lot of consternation for overseas employers – when you say a time you want something done by, you want it done by that time, not a couple of hours after that time. You can manage this by ensuring that your team fully understand when the expected date is and reinforcing and confirming with your staff member that your meeting is at this specific time and they should not be late – try and be flexible where you can.
It is worth noting that a major factor in timekeeping is the traffic around Manila – which ranges from bad to horrific. Because of this it can be difficult for your staff to accurately predict when they will arrive at the office. A two-hour commute isn’t unusual, and if the traffic is particularly bad that can stretch into three hours. Even leaving at five in the morning is no guarantee of being in the office by seven.
Because of this, it is important as an employer to be as flexible about hours as is possible. You may find your staff are occasionally late into the office, but they will always make the time up at the end of the day.

 

When you go into outsourcing, if you do it properly, you will seek to include your offshore employee in your company’s culture. It is important to remember that your employee brings their own culture into the workforce. Be understanding and accepting of these differences.

Deployed can help you work with your new staff and ensure that you are able to build a great working relationship without the details getting lost in translation.