Australia Culture in the Workplace

Below is an excerpt from G’Day Boss that discusses Australia culture in the workplace.

GDay Boss! Australian Culture and the workplace by Barbara West and Frances Murphy

Understanding Relationships

Equality versus Recognised hierarchy

Australia: Equality is to be honoured (including gender, race, class, etc).

Contrast: Society is better organised if status and hierarchy are recognised.

Perhaps the most important value orientation for a newcomer to Australia to understand is the overall importance placed on equality. In contrast with most of the rest of the world, Australians generally favour equality over recognised hierarchy. In his book Cross-Cultural Business Behavior (1999), Richard Gesteland writes that Australia is a deal focused, extremely egalitarian and informal society (p 263) and that this egalitarianism leads Australians to look very negatively on anyone, especially newcomers, who express anything that even approaches boastfulness or showing off.

In our research we have found that migrants from Asia almost immediately notice the relative absence of recognition of hierarchy and status in Australia. In addition, most migrants from North America and Europe likewise realise very quickly that their own societies have taught them to value hierarchy considerably more than does the average Australian. Attitudes and behaviours that in North America or Europe seem acceptable or even a requirement for securing employment, such as discussing one’s tertiary degrees, are often seen by Australians as pretentious. It is certainly important to let potential employers know your skills and background, but this must be done carefully to avoid the impression that you are ˜putting on airs”.

Australian’s perspective repatriated after eight years in Hong Kong

I find that getting served in a restaurant or shop is very difficult in Australia. I think the service staff see themselves as equal to their customers, which is fine but they refuse to cater to customer needs. You almost have to make an effort to get them to serve you and if you complain about anything the attitude is ˜Whatever”.

The particular form the value of equality takes in Australia is general rather than specific. At least at the level of ideas, hierarchies are seen by Australians as disruptive of positive and productive social relations. This results in a situation in which women and men, at least on the surface, are supposed to be equal and equally able to interact with each other and serve as group leaders or managers. Women and men actively engage in discussion and even argument with each other. They may greet each other with a handshake and spend time together both inside and outside the workplace. Newcomers to Australia from more hierarchical societies may have to adapt their behaviour when interacting with the opposite sex, from being deferential or domineering to more familiar and equal.

In Australia the differences between people in terms of race, religion, ethnicity, nationality and socio economic level are likewise believed to be merely differences, not hierarchies. Workplaces in Australia are expected to be free of language and behaviours that denigrate or degrade any individual or group, and there are even laws that protect people from this kind of thing. The very word ˜class” to refer to socio economic differences is not generally recognised as valid in Australia, despite the obvious differences in wealth.

Australian management consultant’s perspective

I often see Australian employees taking the time to talk to the security guard, the cleaner and the tea lady more than you would in a more hierarchical culture. Even top management will make sure they ask about the families of these workers and will personally get involved if there is an issue. In both individual and group interactions, Australians tend to ‘level’ or downplay superior skills and talents in order to bolster the illusion of equality. The Australian phrase ˜the tall poppy” refers to this kind of levelling. The poppy that grows taller than the others in the field gets its head knocked off first, in the same way that a person who attempts to portray him or herself as above others will be brought down through joking or even gentle (or serious) mockery of his or her accomplishments. US-Americans, who are taught from a very young age to value individual accomplishments in themselves and others, are particularly vulnerable to this kind of levelling mechanism in Australia. Australian politicians are also common victims, as anyone who has watched Australian television comedy can attest. Comedians often infiltrate press conferences and other public gatherings to ask impertinent questions. If the politicians refuse to play along with the mockery or try to have the stirrers thrown out, they are seen as bad sports. Doing the latter would also be considered an abuse of authority.

Switzerland to Australia perspective

What I would say to a new migrant: ˜The tall poppy syndrome must be understood.  This means that on a daily basis nobody wants to stand out. And, at least where I work [which is currently undergoing major restructuring] there are very few people who provide any leadership or decision-making. Everybody is waiting for the big boss to do everything because they don’t want to take responsibility and thus stand out from the crowd themselves. Yet, at the same time, having titles is really important and you should put all of them on your business card. I don’t really understand the contradiction.

Of course, Australia is a hierarchical society. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, on average Australian men earn 10 r cent more than Australian women (see http://ofw.facs.gov.au/publications/wia/chapter5.html). They also garner more respect in the workplace and dominate the upper levels of corporate, academic and political life (see http://ofw.facs.gov.au/publications/wia/chapter4.html). While government policy has made significant contributions to the status of women, there is still a huge boys network and deliberate actions have to be taken to continue to improve the position of women. In addition, racial, religious, ethnic and national groups that fall outside the dominant Anglo-European sphere in Australia can face racism and discrimination of various kinds. In the workplace, there are bosses and subordinates. Nevertheless, the value of equality means that bosses are not automatically believed to be superior, and vice versa. Bosses must earn the respect of their employees. If you enter a workplace as a manager, your Australian employees will use your first name and expect you to use theirs. They are more likely to follow your directions if you earn their respect rather than try to rely entirely on your title or position.

Brazil to Australia perspective

It certainly depends on your workplace, but in general hierarchy is more subtle here than in Brazil. People have a more consultative style than a hierarchical one. Managers have to be seen to communicate with all levels of the organisation, not just those immediately around them. It’s also not uncommon to see managers having lunch on the shop floor with the employees because they are trying to mix with everybody. Everybody here uses only first names as well. I really appreciate this mixing between levels because I think it’s good for an organisation. However, it can also be hard because you can forget your position when out socialising and make a mistake. Hierarchy is subtle, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

India to Australia perspective

I was raised in India, where it was unacceptable to question the directions that someone of a higher rank has given you. It was normal to follow directions without question. When I came to Australia I joined the Australian army and was amazed to see that the orders we received came with explanations. I could not understand why my superiors were justifying their orders. In India, respect was a given if you were in a higher-ranked position and approval did not need to be sought.

Don’t expect to get any kudos in Australia for your status alone. Borrowing from Trompenaars’ notion of the relative importance of ascribed or achieved status, Australians are solidly of the opinion that only achieved status needs to be acknowledged and even that is done in an understated way. Status that comes to you through your position in an organisation will generally go unrecognised, whereas if you earn people’s respect through your mentoring or support of their efforts you will be held in high esteem. Of course, this esteem will play itself out in terms of relationships, rather than outward displays of honour and respect.

France and Britain to Australia perspective

Hierarchy is so much stronger in France and Britain than it is here. I am used to having to use quite formal language with my superiors such as Mr or the formal French word for you, vous. I also had to go through many steps to get to the big boss. I love it in Australia where you can go straight to your CEO and address him by his first name! I find that using people’s surnames in Australia puts a glass between you and them that is very uncomfortable for everybody. Here there is great openness and more opportunities to network across levels of the organisation. People are seen more on the same level as human beings rather than as holders of titles or positions. This is not so in France because of all the structures and procedures that people have to follow. In Britain as well, work is more structured; there’s always a sense of ˜I am the boss and you are the worker”. As an exporter the lack of hierarchy in Australia can unfortunately work against you because hierarchy is so important in places like China and the rest of Asia. Australians can be too forward, too intimate for many Asian peoples comfort levels.

United States to Australia perspective

In the US I was occasionally invited to my boss’s house with other staff members for parties, to celebrate Thanksgiving or to welcome new staff members. In these situations my boss was the host and to some extent it felt like an extension of work. I thought nothing of being asked to perform little tasks for my boss, even though it was at a party. Here in Australia I have never been invited to my boss’s house. I don’t think he has ever hosted a party for his staff . He does go to the pub for drinks on Friday nights and will occasionally be involved in weekend activities but only as one of the group; usually someone else has organised it. Socially everyone seems very relaxed around each other and work is the last thing on their minds. Socialising outside of work is separate from work and no one is going to ˜pull rank” on you at the pub or at a barbecue. You’re expected to be more relaxed and informal and not fall into work roles outside of the office; that makes people uneasy.

South Africa to Australia perspective

South African work culture is very hierarchical. It’s always “Yes, Sir” to the boss, while in Australia it’s much more on a first-name basis. At home, people give orders and others accept them; it’s a very top-down, directive discussion style. But Australians don’t like anything that sounds like an order. They don’t give them and they certainly don’t take them well. It’s not that there isn’t hierarchy in Australia, but it’s insinuated and maybe flatter.

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