By ANDREW R. MCILVAINE, senior editor of Human Resource ExecutiveŽ, sister publication of Risk & InsuranceŽ
and where this article first appeared
The recent arrest of former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn may have highlighted an ongoing issue with foreign executives who come to work on U.S. shores: We do things differently here than in other cultures.
Strauss-Kahn was arrested for allegedly attacking and attempting to rape a hotel maid in his $3,000-per night suite at the New York Sofitel. The altercation appears to be one of a number of incidents between Strauss-Kahn and members of the opposite sex.
A French journalist came forward after the arrest and said Strauss-Kahn had attacked her during an interview in his Paris apartment several years ago. The married Strauss-Kahn also admitted to an affair with a subordinate, Hungarian economist Piroska M. Nagy, in 2008, although an IMF investigation concluded that he broke no rules. (U.S. law does not apply inside the IMF because it is an international institution.)
A story published in the New York Times following his arrest described complaints from female IMF employees about bosses who routinely harassed women subordinates, to the point that some of them decided not to wear dresses to work in order to avoid unwanted attention.
Within days of Strauss-Kahn's arrest, details also came to light about a party that a subsidiary of German insurer Munich Re held for its top-performing sales agents in 2007, complete with 20 prostitutes hired for the occasion, at a resort in Budapest, Hungary. According to CNN, the agents and their guests allegedly transformed the resort into "an open-air brothel."
The cultural norms in workplaces in Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa tend to differ--sometimes markedly--from those found in U.S. workplaces, attorneys and consultants said.
Behavior that would warrant sexual-harassment charges here may result in a slap on the wrist in other countries. So, should U.S. employers be on the lookout for potential trouble regarding managers coming from overseas to work at their American locations?
Absolutely, said Suzanne Arpin, an attorney at Schiff Hardin in Atlanta. Arpin, who's worked in Europe, South America and Africa, said sexual harassment of female employees is often a fact of life in other parts of the world.
"It's a real issue," she said.
While France may have laws on the books that are similar to American laws regarding workplace harassment, these laws tend to be enforced far less stringently than in the United States, said Jerome Ternynck, a French native who's CEO of SmartRecruiters in San Francisco.
"The cultural norms in France, for example, are very different, not only in terms of the sensitivity toward what might constitute sexual harassment, but also to sexual discrimination," he said. "French businesses, in general, are fairly OK with sexual discrimination--it's OK that a female makes less money than a male, it's OK to make jokes about female colleagues--it's a Latin country."
Nor is it just limited to sexual harassment, said Arpin.
"U.S. employers also need to ensure that (these managers) understand the appropriate way to handle differences in age, race, ethnicity and, in locations that have laws addressing this, sexual orientation," she said.
Many European countries have mandatory retirement ages for employees, she said, which means that European managers may be startled to find themselves working with American employees who are still going strong at the ages of 68, 70 or older.
Managers from India may have similar attitudes about older workers, said Jeffrey Pa, past chairman of the labor and employment practice at Philadelphia-based Cozen O'Connor.
"The norm in India is that you retire at 60 or 62, even if it's unlawful to force employees to do so," he said. "We've seen the American employees of India-based companies bring age-discrimination claims because the Indian managers essentially carried their cultural norms over here with them and decided that these workers were too old for the job, too old to be promoted."
The workplace structure at foreign companies tends to be more hierarchical than in the United States, said Michael Schell, CEO of RW3 CultureWizard, a consulting firm in New York. This can result in foreign managers feeling entitled to treat subordinates how they wish, he said.
"When foreign managers come to the United States, they need to learn what the culture of the U.S. workplace is and the rules here, otherwise people will get sued," said Schell.
To begin with, employers need to ensure their organization has a well-written sexual-harassment policy "that goes into detail on what constitutes sexual harassment," Arpin said.
"There's still a lot of misunderstanding even in this country about what that is," he said.
The policy should instruct employees on who they should alert when they suspect they've been the victim of, or have observed, sexual harassment.
All employees, including foreign nationals, should sign a written confirmation that they've received the employee handbook and will comply with it, she said.
Employers must ensure that foreign nationals receive training on U.S. workplace laws before they begin supervising employees, said Celia Joseph, a management attorney at Fisher & Phillips in Philadelphia.
"They don't necessarily need to memorize every law, but they should have a clear understanding of when to recognize a potential issue, when they should seek guidance and who they should turn to," she said.
Foreign managers, especially executives, should also sign an employment agreement in which they acknowledge that harassment is illegal in the United States and that they will comply with the law, said Arpin.
Executives sent to the United States from abroad are often asked to sign an employment agreement, she said.
"You can include a provision in which the executives agree to read all the materials passed on to them regarding the treatment of people in the workplace and to indemnify the company for any legal costs associated with a dispute," Arpin said. "That's extreme, but what we're often dealing with here is the need to change behaviors, and if you hit them in the pocketbook, they're likely to pay attention."
May 26, 2011
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