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Joining the foreign legions

YOUR CAREER: Cultural training

As a civil engineer, the chances are that you will have worked abroad at some point in your career. If not, you will almost certainly have worked alongside engineers from outside the UK. Consequently, you may feel you are well versed in overseas working practices and workplace etiquette. You may know, for example, the correct hand with which to distribute business cards in Korea, but if the experts are to be believed, a familiarity with such cultural quirks is not enough to win contracts and establish good business practice.

What is needed is a much deeper understanding of how different cultures approach work and workplace relationships. Hence the burgeoning availability of inter-cultural management training courses.

Jeff Toms is director of marketing at the Centre for International Briefing, an organisation offering advice and training on protocol and work processes to expatriates from the UK and incoming foreign nationals. He believes that focusing on different management styles provides an insight into the way one culture can work most beneficially with another. 'For example, Scandinavians are consensusdriven, so the concept of an employee of the month award simply does not work for them, ' he says. 'And while Americans think nothing of holding as many as ten meetings in a week, this is untypical in Arabic culture.'

Toms relates the story of an American executive on a business trip to the Middle East who, after waiting nearly two hours for the person he was to meet, got up and left for his next appointment. In doing so, says Toms, he offended this person so much that rearranging another meeting was out of the question.

Rob Yeung, a consultant at Kiddy & Partners, a firm specialising in managing the people and cultural issues of business, highlights another characteristic of the North American approach to business: In the US, he says, not only is it acceptable to disagree with your seniors, it is actually considered a positive sign that employees are engaging in debate. 'This contrasts sharply with Far Eastern cultures, ' he adds, 'where the notion of hierarchy is all important.'

In a culture where confrontation is seen as a delicate issue, problems tend to be passed to a junior who is then expected to filter them through to their equivalent in status at the negotiating company, from where they will be passed back upwards.

Closer to home, the Dutch and the Germans share a workplace directness - or straightforward honesty - which does not, as yet, exist in British culture. This leads to confusion when working with the British who will instinctively say 'good point', before rejecting an idea.

Conversely, the casual British approach towards use of first names can cause surprise, and often offence, to people from many other cultures.

Thankfully, many civil engineering firms are aware of the pitfalls of a cross cultural working environment, and offer some form of guidance, if only informal, before sending staff abroad.

Mott MacDonald, for example, recognises the importance of briefing staff before sending them to a foreign, sometimes remote, working environment. It relies, says a spokesperson, on experienced staff to provide colleagues with pertinent information on a specific culture and its working practices.

Contractor Edmund Nuttall takes a similar approach, providing overseas staff with guidebooks and literature on the countries or regions they will be working in.

Edward Twaite, associate director at recruitment firm BBT Overseas, says: 'We can offer indepth knowledge to our clients on the cultural pitfalls and expectations of a number of countries.' The company also offers general advice to clients who may not have worked overseas before.

'For example, ' says Twaite, 'if you are working in the Middle East, it is important to understand that you have to be tactful when dealing with clients - there is no room for hotheadedness.'

Key points

Cross cultural competence encourages respect and understanding of cultural differences and traits Such awareness is vital for businesses dealing with overseas clients Preparation can be the difference between success or failure

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