The best managers will recognize the cultural basis of certain job criteria and the challenges they pose for some employees.

By Craig Storti

Conscientious managers throw up their hands when it comes to performance evaluations for a multicultural group of direct reports. They want to be fair to everyone, but they don’t see how that’s possible because it means choosing between two unpalatable options: evaluating everyone by the same criteria, which might contain unfair cultural bias, or using different criteria for different staff members which is inherently unworkable.

The problem is the belief that because the job criteria might be culturally biased, they will therefore be unfair. Culturally biased they almost certainly will be—and should be—but that doesn’t make them unfair. Job criteria naturally reflects the attributes needed to perform a particular job, and there’s a good chance that many attributes will reflect the prevailing values of the local culture. If that culture values people who are self-starters and require minimal supervision, then these factors will be part of the evaluation criteria, and people who are not self-starters will be evaluated poorly.

Granted, some people will come by those attributes more easily than others (anyone raised in and conditioned by the local culture), and this will give such people inherent advantages in performing their job over foreigners who have not been exposed to the same cultural attributes. While this makes such attributes culturallybased, it hardly makes them unfair.

The best managers will recognize the cultural basis of certain job criteria and the challenges they pose for some employees. They will sit down with those employees, point out the U.S.-centric elements of those criteria, and discuss how to help those employees overcome any disadvantages posed by cultural differences.

An example: Yang, raised in a Chinese family in the U.S., is uncomfortable disagreeing with higher-ups in a meeting and prefers to bring up his objections afterwards, one-on-one (because he has been taught that it’s disrespectful to argue with one’s superiors in public). But this behavior would frustrate many American managers who believe the purpose of a meeting is to hear everyone’s views to make the best decision. The more Yang keeps his opposing views to himself, the more he defeats the purpose of a meeting. Sooner or later, Yang is going to hear from his manager that he “doesn’t perform well in meetings” and be evaluated poorly.

And none of this, incidentally, is being unfair to Yang. What would be unfair, not to mention patronizing, would be to pretend that Yang’s behavior is ok, that not speaking up in meetings won’t have any negative consequences for Yang’s career.

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