Preventing culture clashes

THE CHANCE OF potential culture clashes in American IT workplaces might increase with the influx of highly skilled foreign workers, mainly in the technology field, entering the United States on H1-B work visas.

According to figures released by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, the limit of 115,000 H1-B visas for the year 2000 has already been reached, and Senate proposals exist that would call for an increase to 195,000 visas -- evidence that not only the demand for, but the presence of, international IT workers in the United States is growing rapidly. Thus, strategies for managing a culturally diverse pool of workers are becoming more and more key.

"When I first came to America as a programmer to work on a short-term project 14 years ago, most of my co-workers in Denver had never seen or met an Indian person before. They hadn't heard an accent like mine, and some people thought I was too talkative, others thought I was remarkably quiet," recalls Jayakumar "Jakes" Srinivasan, COO at zRep, a New York-based independent provider of quantifiable reputation and skills scoring systems for the global online talent-exchange market.

"So on top of the programming challenge at hand, I had to figure out how to diffuse difficulties in terms of cultural clashes," Srinivasan says. "People in Denver just didn't know how to react to the fact that I am Indian, although our team was made up of 50 people, ranging from me to people from Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand, and, of course, the States.

"Despite what you might think, tech speak wasn't a common ground for us," Srinivasan explains. "Tech speak was more of a platform, though. It provided an arena for us to show what we could do, so we could build trust and credibility, and therefore work together well as a team, a culturally diverse team, in the traditional sense."

Dealing with such culture clashes is a challenge for many IT managers. Raymond Spencer, CEO at Kanbay, a Rosemont, Ill.-based global information technology consulting company with a staff made up of American, Indian, Chinese, and Australian workers, suggests a combination of approaches to resolving and preventing cultural conflict.

At Kanbay, a manual on diversity management is made available on the company's internal intranet site for easy, international access, Spencer explains. Managers and employees are encouraged to engage in regular role-playing exercises during team debriefing sessions.

"If, for example, a project manager is aware that one of his or her team members isn't as interactive with a client or user, we ask that they act out the scenario," Spencer says. "Or a foreign-born programmer who might be frustrated with communicating with his manager will take on the role of the manager, and the manager will pretend she is the foreign-born programmer. This forces each person to think in terms of another context than their own."

Put diversity into perspective

Before arriving in Denver, Srinivasan already had designed systems and worked on various programming projects in Great Britain and Mexico, after working in Bombay. He attributes his ability to adjust to a culturally diverse IT workplace in part to those past experiences where he had to adapt to widely different work environments. He coped by concentrating on getting work done first and worrying about cultural differences, even language difficulties later.

"In Mexico, I had to learn Spanish in only six months, which I did just from looking at code itself, for example," Srinivasan says. "I made sure I got through the skills first, then worried about culture clashes later. I break down tasks into small bites, and only try to concentrate on the most objective of issues. Besides, culture clashes only seem to arise when an IT project isn't going well, because in IT it's easy to be 'objective' and focus on the task at hand."

Even in today's environment of highly diverse IT teams, Srinivasan's work-first attitude may be a very healthy way to deal with cultural differences in the IT workplace, says Jim Walsh, author of the book Mastering Diversity (Silver Lake, 1995).

Muwaffa Lahham, vice president of technology at FamilyWonder.com, a San Francisco- based family-entertainment destination Web site, agrees with Srinivasan's strategy.

"As engineers, we are used to focusing on logical problems," Lahham says. "We're pragmatic and results-oriented, and respect the engineer who's the quickest and fastest, regardless [of whether] if he's Irish or Indian."

Lahham believes that assigning a project with an urgent deadline to a diverse technical staff can help build trust between co-workers from different cultures.

"Once we had a group of engineers from Israel, Jordan, China, Ireland, India, Switzerland, and America working on a major upgrade that had to be completed in a long weekend," Lahham recalls. "No one had time to think about who was an Arab and who was an Indian, because we saw that we all wanted to accomplish the same things technically and that we shared the same drive."

"Managers have to remember that an Indian programmer isn't joining an American company for cultural awareness, but to make a living," Walsh says. "As a manager, what you owe your employees is a fair, nondiscriminatory workplace, period. Your employees might not be interested in addressing potential culture clashes if there isn't a problem in the first place. It could seem condescending."

At the same time, Walsh believes there are approaches that managers can take in terms of preventing conflict.

"Let's say there is an Asian-born programmer who feels they weren't considered fairly for a promotion because there was a bias against him, because he is perceived of as 'too quiet' simply because he is Asian, and it is common knowledge that in his culture, not speaking up is admired," Walsh says. "It would be hard for his manager to prove that the Asian-born programmer wasn't promoted for other reasons, such as unsatisfactory performance, if there was no paper trail that documented his performance."

Walsh prescribes that managers remember their duty to accurately document conversations on reviewing all candidates for jobs and promotions; documentation should be thorough for all employees. For example, document who said what to whom, and keep notes in an employee's file.

If this process becomes standard for your company's managers, then you can clear up any ambiguities that might arise down the road if anyone feels ethnicity played a part in your decision-making.

"If there is erratic documentation, say, ultra-detailed files for [foreign-born] programmers vs. American-born programmers, then that in itself can be seen as unfair, even if a manager was just trying to be more sensitive," Walsh says.

Improve company environment

Discretion in employment benefits can also help avert culture clashes, Walsh says, especially if there is potential conflict around what particular religious or national holidays are recognized.

"Implementing a cafeteria-style, menu-like benefits plan for sick time and vacation days allows employees to have some discretion in terms of what holidays are taken," Walsh says. "Allowing them to choose what days to take off from work is a way to recognize their cultural needs in a discreet manner."

Another effective way for managers, and employees themselves, to facilitate a friendly work environment is to simply offer more opportunities to communicate and get to know one another outside of the workplace.

"When I first started working in Denver, I knew that my co-workers only saw me as a mysterious person who sat in front of a computer for 12 hours a day," zRep's Srinivasan recalls. "So I invited them over to my home and threw a party. I taught them how to play cricket and asked them to teach me how to play baseball. It was the best way to try to meld cultures, but more importantly, build a sense of value in our work teams."

Kanbay's Spencer also suggests considering a physical environment change by which boundaries are literally broken down between a culturally diverse staff.

"We literally have no doors in our offices, and architecturally we have nodes or places that encourage communication, such as circle lounges in the center of each large workspace in our e-solutions center in India," Spencer explains. "We've created an atmosphere where it's physically possible and easy to go up to one's supervisor and talk about a problem or an issue."

Be flexible about communication styles

Some international IT employees might find physical approachability to be more daunting than helpful, however, because of language barriers between themselves and their managers.

Marina Liberzon, a Russian-born programmer currently working in the Tel Aviv, Israel-based office of Sapiens, a provider of e-business solutions, has found that her manager's acceptance of e-mail as a primary mode of communication has helped her avoid culture clashes.

"I can write and read English better than I can speak it," Liberzon says. "So writing an e-mail saves both me and my manager a lot of time. It's easier for us to exchange ideas on a programming problem in writing rather than my walking a few meters just to struggle with the language. I made my discomfort with verbal communication clear, and now we use e-mail to our advantage."

Robert Wilson, marketing director at the Boston office of Quadstone, a provider of software tools in the banking, insurance, retail, and telecommunications industries, also uses e-mail to overcome a more subtle language barrier.

"At first, when I would meet with the Scottish directors of the company, I couldn't understand their accents and just nodded. But then I realized that they were speaking English, and I speak American [English], and that it was OK to ask that most business be done via e-mail," Wilson says. "Plus, I prefer to have a record."

Quadstone's employees range from Pakistanis to Ukranians to Americans in its Boston office, and from Danish, German, Belgian, Swedish, and Norwegian to Scottish in its European offices, so meetings are documented in written reports in English and sent via e-mail to all employees. Minutes and action lists are now posted on the company's intranet site as well.

"We strive to be very advanced in our internal communications," Wilson says. "We're always aware that some people within the company might not understand what's spoken, simpply because our staff is from such a broad range of nationalities."

On a more formal level, Sapiens offers after-work classes in English and Hebrew to employees such as Liberzon and her fellow programmers from Russia who were having trouble communicating with their managers on the job.

"I can now speak English better than when I first came to work for Sapiens," Liberzon says. "The chance to practice with my co-workers away from the office makes it easier to learn, without the pressure of learning while on the job."

Make corporate policies clear

Despite company manager's best efforts, culture clashes can still end up turning into uglier racial conflicts. Walsh advises that a "no tolerance" policy against racial discrimination be written into the employee manual and articulated to all new employees.

"Perceived slights occur in any workplace, but if someone has made the decision to work in the IT industry, they should know they are working in an international workplace, so there really is no room for racism or discrimination; that's really absurd," Walsh says. "But a manager can't prevent an angry programmer from telling an offensive Polish joke, for example. It's the manager's job, however, to show that the company is committed to the international marketplace by making sure that in the employee handbook, it's stated that there is absolutely zero tolerance towards ethnic slurs."

Srinivasan tries to remind his employees that a culturally diverse IT workplace can build tolerance and avoid clashes.

"Employees and managers should remember that there is an advantage to having people from many different cultures working together, especially in IT," Srinivasan says. "This fosters different, unique perspectives, each feeding off of the other to create new paradigms and spur innovation. I remind people that the tech boom today would not be possible if it weren't for a healthy dose of out-of-the-box thinking. Cultural diversity is an essential part of this process."

This story, "Preventing culture clashes" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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