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Business Across Cultures: Equality in the Workplace

"I like people to call me by my first name. I have an open door policy and I treat my employees as equals", stated William Fish, a recently arrived American executive. William, or Bill as he was often called, had been assigned to Jakarta by his home office to head up a planned expansion into the retail market in Indonesia. Successful and confident of his abilities, he prepared to reorganize his Jakarta office along the same lines that had worked well in Akron, Ohio. The concepts of equality and responsibility are very strong in the American business mentality and Bill is acting here as if its business as usual.

But, as is the case with many other foreign professionals in Indonesia, he began to run into small but irritating cultural barriers. First, his staff keep calling him Mr. Bill. Coming from a culture where Mr. Bill was a character in a comedy show, he finds this somewhat annoying. What is more, his attempts to convince the staff to call him just Bill with no honorific like Mr., Pak or Tuan are met with agreement, but no effect.

After implementing his open door policy, he finds that the door maybe open but no one is coming in. By such a policy, Bill means that the employees should use their own judgment to come in to see him to talk about problems in the office, sales or marketing campaigns, and any other areas that concern the business. Here he is running up against two very strong currents in Indonesian business culture. The concepts of Asal Bapak Senang and that of individual responsibility.

First, Asal Bapak Senang, or 'As Long As The Boss Happy', in part dictates that employees will be reluctant to talk to a clear superior concerning problems or concerns in the performance of their own duties. It is expected in many traditional offices here that any problem should be solved by the subordinate without informing the superior, thus sparing him the unpleasant experience of receiving bad news. This, of course, can result in situations where the foreign manager, who wants and expects to be told about such situations, is not informed of problems that could adversely affect the business.

Second, individual responsibility is not a characteristic encouraged or developed by traditional Javanese culture. Because responsibility to kelompok, or the group, remains very strong in modern day Indonesian business culture, an employee may not want to come to see the boss on his own initiative. This is especially true if the employee has knowledge that could cause himself or a co-worker to lose face or in another way become embarrassed.

In Indonesian business culture, relationships are not equal. This is one of the important lessons that a foreign manager or executive has to learn and understand in order to operate effectively in Indonesia. Everyone has status and that status is different in every situation. In a situation where there are several people with equivalent status, the group consensus decides. In a situation where there is a clear superior, that person decides. A foreign executive at the general manager or president director level is going to come in to Indonesia with a very high status. This will influence the way that Indonesian employees treat him and he must understand and respect the obligations that his status places upon him.

This article was generously contributed by George B. Whitfield, III when he was a Technical Advisor with Executive Orientation Services.