ON BEING FOREIGN: Culture  Clash

03 November 2023

Mike was born and raised in Cebu province. Upon graduation from university in Manila, he worked in a multinational advertising company. After a few years and on a chance opportunity, he was offered a job in Singapore. There he stayed for some 20 years until the office closed during the pandemic. He had no complaints as he was given a handsome severance package.

By then, his father had died whilst his mother lived alone in Manila and was sickly. As an only child, he felt duty-bound to return home to care for his widowed mother. He figured that, with the skills he had learned from his years of experience in Singapore, he would have no problems working for another multinational as soon as times normalised.

As he had anticipated, he found immediate employment in a BPO (Business Process Outsourcing), a company dealing with sales and promotion. The compensation package was competitive within the industry, the work was challenging, and as a former ex-pat from Singapore, he was given the head manager position. Excited over this new opportunity, Mike thought he could likewise contribute his work ethic towards the development of the country. “Our country is poor,” he said, “partly because we are inefficient and don’t know how to create and put systems in place. These are my strong points. Also, I think we are not disciplined in our work attitudes, so I wanted to inject a sense of professionalism among my staff.”  

However, despite his thinking that he was truly Filipino, he was in for a rude awakening. Mike’s first day at work reminded him of the old times in his Manila office. Whilst office hours started at 9:00, several of his staff of 15 ambled in as late as 10:00, allegedly because they lived far away, transportation was unreliable, or traffic horrendous: at times all of the above. Additionally, it had rained heavily the previous night, and at least a couple of routes were flooded.  

It also happened that someone had a birthday that day, so in the celebrant strode with a big bag of pancit, lumpia, and cake. Drinks and ice cream would be had from a nearby grocery store. His staff planned a little salu-salo (party) in the office come merienda (snack) time.

Mike of course knew that Filipinos built their own families wherever they went. The office was simply an extension of the Filipino home—welcoming and hospitable. Moreover, birthdays are important occasions, and it was expected that the celebrant prepare a handa (repast) for his office-mates.  There would be an extended “break time,” when everyone would partake of the handa.

Whilst it was Mike’s first day of work replacing a Filipino bossmost of the staff had been with the company for several years. There was general banter until gradually people began to settle down to listen to what Mike had to say. It was “Orientation Time.” Mike wanted to install a clock-in system whereby people would have to sign in when they arrived at the office and sign out when they left. Now that the pandemic was over, he expected everyone to report to work in-person as mandated by head office, the reason being that a number of areas in Metro Manila still had poor internet connection, making hybrid work difficult. On the other hand, communication signals were more reliable in their BPO office. 

To address the problem of heavy traffic, Mike introduced flextime wherebywithin certain parametersstaff could elect to come early or late as long as they put in eight hours of work each day with an hour’s staggered break time. He gave each one a week to decide on their work schedule. Glancing at his team, he could readily see that these announcements were not welcomed by the group.

The following months were trying. He had learned that after office hours, many of the staff would often gather with their former boss and enjoy a few drinks in the nearby bar, or sometimes, especially on Friday evenings, sing karaoke well into the night. Everyone had a good time. It was in fact the social interactions that most of them liked about their jobs. What Mike was doing now with his staggered work schedule was breaking up the group. On his part, he was deeply hurt as he too could be easy-going and jovial, wanting to socialise with his office-mates and get to know them on a personal level. What better way to do this than to join his team over drinks outside the office?

In due course, Mike felt isolated. He noticed that people would whisper behind his back, or stop talking the moment they saw him pass by. Monday mornings were usually gossip time when the women would talk about their family’s outings and the men about their latest basketball match, including one Monday when Mike observed that the office was abuzz with exchanges of digital photos and stories about a big christening that happened the day before. Not only was Mike not made ninong (godfather), he wasn’t even invited!

Things came to a head when Mike called Flor, one of the staff, to remind her not to chat on her Facebook or watch the latest Korean drama during office hours. He was careful to use the “sandwich approach”, i.e., say something good about the employee, then the criticism, and end it with another good observation. Flor, however, was deeply offended. Nobody had called her attention about this beforeshe felt it wasn’t as though she wasn’t doing her job. She rushed out of the room in tears and thereafter refused to talk to Mike.

These office dynamics went on for some time until one day, Mike received an email from the head office, attaching an official petition letter signed by all 15 staff members. They claimed that Mike was unduly strict and asked to be relieved from reporting to him. Instead, they wanted him replaced!

Mike was particularly hurt to note that the first signature, written big and bold, belonged to his neighbour Freddie. Freddie and Mike lived in the same condominium building. It had seemed that both men were starting to develop a friendship outside work—they would sometimes eat dinner together in a nearby coffee shop, and Freddie would fill him in on some of the goings-on at work. This was something Mike very much appreciated. Why would Freddie now do such a thing?

Mike knew that the reason he took over was because their BPO was not performing well, especially at this time when many foreign competitors could do similar services online. Further, he knew that if they did not take in bigger revenues, perhaps they would no longer be able to justify their existence. He had thought his job was to professionalise the practices of his staff so they could be more productive. He told head office as much during their succeeding Zoom dialogue.

Confused, Mike shrugged his shoulders, asking himself—what was he to do?