Cultural Considerations In The Workplace



Culture plays a crucial role in the harmonious functioning of any workplace. This is particularly true in expat-heavy cities such as Phnom Penh, where your office is likely to be a dynamic amalgam of cultures that interact and mingle with each other.

As Aimee Veuve, Founder of Aziza’s Coffee, explains: “[Understanding of culture] it’s very important, critical even. Culture is what binds everyone together.” Being able to single out the cultural factors that play a role in the workplace allows managers to put strategies into place to mitigate their possible unwanted consequences.

To help you to identify these cultural factors, we spoke with professionals from a selection of the Kingdom’s leading human resources, training and capacity building organisations. Here are some of the cultural considerations that they highlighted:

Saving face

To many it may seem like a cliche, but, according to a leading cross-cultural management and communication expert, “[saving] face is of utmost importance in Cambodia, as in many Asian countries.”

He warns foreigners living and working in Cambodia against “becoming emotional, raising their voice or shouting at their Khmer employees, both publicly and privately.” The French expatriate, who founded Optimal Performance Consulting (OPC) to help foreign entrepreneurs rein in the culture factor in their company, explains that pointing to a mistake is tantamount to making a person lose face: “the damage is irreparable, and the victim will never forget.” He recommends to carry all criticism “indirectly” if possible, and always “privately”.

As the founder and head of a training and development agency, The Capacity Specialists, Gabriel Helmy, an Australian who has resided in Cambodia for eight years, also knows his fair share when it comes to the “culture factor”. He says that “saving face” often stifles communication and innovation in the workplace. He explains that Khmer employees often exhibit a “reluctance in asking for clarification of instructions for fear of looking like they don’t understand.” Helmy advises foreign managers to always “ensure the message has been clearly conveyed.”

Avoidance of conflict

Closely related to the concept of “saving face”, avoidance of conflict can also be interpreted as a Khmer cultural trait that plays a role in the workplace, at least according to some of our interviewees.

“Avoidance of conflict can mean that employees can sometimes prefer to keep silent when there is a problem rather than openly communicating to resolve it,” Helmy explains. This often translates to Khmer people avoiding to say “no”.  “Khmer people always say ‘yes’, but this is not always a genuine ‘yes’”, says the cross-cultural trainer, whose professional mantra is “never take ‘yes’ for an answer.”

The role of women

Yulia Khouri runs INNOV8, a leading research and business consulting company. She tells us that, with the exception of the language barrier, she hasn’t found any significant cultural differences disrupting the work atmosphere at INNOV8’s office. She mentions, however, that Khmer women may be culturally predisposed to act differently from western counterparts: “We see that Khmer women are often less likely to take on leadership roles and have harder times asserting their decisions in front on their male colleague and/or expats.”

Khouri, who has held advisory and research roles with UNHCR, Amnesty International and a host of other organisations, proposes the issue can be easily resolved with consistent empowerment and equal opportunity practices in the workplace.

Strong family unit

Helmy points out another factor that expats need to be aware when dealing with Khmer colleagues. For Khmers, family is paramount and a great deal of importance is placed on having a strong family unit. In the workplace, this means employees seek a “sense of family”, which is measured in ”trust, respect, and loyalty” towards colleagues. Helmy advises managers to strive for a “culture where everybody contributes and cares for each other” as a way to “get the most out of your employees.”

Respect for elders

Our experts also highlight respect for the elders. According to Helmy, filial piety is a cornerstone of Khmer psyche, although its effects on the workplace are not always desireable. Helmy says that “respect for elders means employees can sometimes not value opinions of those who are younger and less experienced.”

It is important not to underestimate the effect that culture and culture clashes can have in the peaceful functioning of your workplace. Keeping an eye out for these cultural factors and being aware of these idiosyncrasies can help foreign managers in Cambodia maintain a cordial environment for everyone at the office and avoid unnecessary conflict.


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