When a consultant travels to work abroad, he makes many choices. One of them is whether to leave his / her ethics at home or take them along. Quite a few unfortunately pick the former.
I delivered once a leadership training for a group of managers from a well known international company. They were country managers who gathered from different countries of operation for the training. A segment of the training focused on ethics and professionalism. It was not long before participants stopped me and objected that ethics and professionalism cannot be applied everywhere. “In more advanced countries and cultures, people will respond positively to good ethics, respect, and professionalism, but not in under developed countries,” most of the managers said. I was surprised of the reaction but not too surprised. I have noticed this trend for years: A professional leaving his home base assumes that everything he learned about values, integrity, and professionalism do not apply outside the “civilized” world borders. Trying to talk them out of this gets one into accusations of being unrealistic and naive.
Another personal encounter with an HR manager from one of the biggest corporations worldwide shows more of the same. During our conversation, she got frustrated with me focusing on one of their corporate values which is stated clearly on their website. The policy was to to help build professionalism, ethics, and high standards of fairness and partnership at countries they operate in, especially under developed or newly developed countries. She said, “we go in, get a job done and get out. I am not going to get entangled into their unprofessional conduct. I will accept their behavior temporarily to get the job done and leave. I do not condone their behavior in my country, but they can do as they wish in their country.”
When I first came back from overseas to work in the region, I remember the advice I got from managers and colleagues around me:”If you show leniency, they will eat you alive,” was the advice on how to deal with employees. Another CEO I worked with told me clearly: “Ammar, the employees have to fear you to perform.” A third assured me that “you have to show strength and superiority with clients and employees to get ahead here.” I also got a lot of advice to “keep reminding others of your international experience and how it is superior to theirs.” I think all these offering advice mean well, and they really think this is what they have to do to get the job done.
What I found out in real life is different than the advice I mostly got. I found out that regardless of the difficulties and challenges of the workplace anywhere I have worked, employees and stakeholders mostly react positively to ethical and professional behavior. The important thing is for the manager to have conviction in doing the right thing. A manager can persevere. The key is not to give up after the first unfavorable encounter when trying to be ethical. Persevere. If an employee, or client, or any other stakeholder has had bad experiences with unprofessional conduct, it is normal for them to be skeptical. Once they can trust your professionalism and integrity, the skepticism will fade and a long term fruitful relational looms. Giving up too early leads to losing a great opportunity to build bridges of trust and a chance to demonstrate that doing the right thing works.
Giving up on ethics and professionalism just because very few around you observe them is in itself unprofessional. Be a beacon and an example for doing the right thing. Isn’t this leadership? Assuming “outsiders” do not deserve the same level of ethics and professionalism as your countrymen is just not right, to say the least. I believe many of the world problems today stem from this attitude of assuming that one nation deserves professional and fair treatment while others do not. I cannot think of a better definition of hypocrisy than applying fairness and professionalism in a discriminating fashion. Is not that the definition of racism?