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Getting the best from international employees

With Romania and Bulgaria joining the EU and a 51 per cent increase last year of overseas nationals working in the UK, more and more business leaders need to learn new skills to manage multi-cultural teams.

A challenge for managers is to work out whether a problem with an overseas employee is because of poor skills, attitude, language or different cultural perspectives.

Bradford University School of Management has produced a guide to help managers understand the key cultural issues that could affect performance. The tips are based on the School’s experience of helping international MBA students settle into the UK quickly and working with businesses of all sizes.

The guide covers particular issues such as the need to avoid loss of face with some cultures, the impact of different teaching styles around the world such as by learning by rote or through creative or challenging thinking, how different cultures view success and failure and how some cultures have little grasp of team-working.

Professor Arthur Francis, Dean of the School of Management, said: “This guide should help managers to spot cultural issues that they may not have considered. In researching this guide, we realised many difficulties at work are often attributed to language problems – and it can take months for a manager to realise it is a different cultural approach.

”Business leaders need to understand and develop techniques to manage cultural differences, which can affect health and safety, product quality, and efficiency – to say nothing of just not making the most of the skills of employees.”

Katya Trubilova from Estonia joined a Yorkshire company on work placement. She said: “The company asked me to do various research projects and gave me lots of praise and thanked me. After several months, the boss sat me down and said my projects were great but I wasn’t making a contribution in the office and she didn’t understand why.

“As I listened to her explaining the problems, I just thought ‘oh no, it is this British teamworking thing again’.”

Katya explained that as her country had moved out of the communist culture, people did not trust each other in the same way and everyone now concentrates on doing their own tasks, not helping each other.

“I don’t know who was crosser about this. My boss kept saying she was so sorry she hadn’t realised and so did I. We laugh about it now, but we both wish we had thought about different cultures much earlier.”

Dr Deli Yang from Bradford School of Management highlights another cultural issue: “British people are brought up to think critically – this can initially be quite shocking to other cultures. In Pacific Rim countries students are encouraged to learn by imitation.”

Alan Needle, former CEO of a Filtronic division, explains how this affects working in multi-cultural teams: “Our western culture encourages a proactive approach to thinking – we are

used to trying out ideas and putting them forward. Other cultures do not want the risk of losing face if an idea is not accepted.”

He says that you need to plan problem solving meetings to allow for different cultures: “If you ask a team with a mix of westerners and Chinese people to look at a problem together, the westerners can talk too much and Chinese people stay silent. You need to get the best from everyone’s skills.”

The concepts of success and failure also vary around the world. Students in some countries expect to get nearly 100 per cent if they are achieving well. In others, marks as low as 68 per cent are considered excellent and could achieve a top grade. The guide gives tips on managing expectations and how to avoid loss of face – both at work and in studies.

Sarah-Jane Ormston runs Simply Recruit, an agency specialising in recruiting EU employees to work in the UK. She says she often sees managers who struggle with an employee and initially put it down to language problems: “They don’t want to upset an employee, so they don’t say anything. The employee thinks they are doing a good job, because in their own country they would be told straight away if they were not doing something right.

“The British boss puts up with things for far too long and then suddenly breaks. The employee cannot understand why, after doing the same thing for weeks, their boss is now so upset with them!”

Bradford University School of Management is ranked by the Financial Times as second in the UK in its European business school of the year league table. The guide is based on materials produced by Colin Neville, who heads up the School’s Effective Learning Service.

Free copies of the guide are available from Clare Haynes on 01274 236679 or c.l.haynes@bradford.ac.uk.

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