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Time and Punctuality

Many cultures have a different understanding of time and being “on time.” Time is a culturally determined concept that can be thought of in terms of nanoseconds or centuries. In this context, does arriving for work ten minutes early or ten minutes late really matter? Yes, it matters to some employers and, no, it may not matter to some employees. Maintaining relationships, socializing and talking, then getting the job done may be the priorities among some cultural groups. Americans may believe that all paid time on the job must be productive. “American time” is a concept that new immigrants and refugees will learn, adjust to, and eventually accept. Employers can enhance understanding and alleviate potential problems if expectations for punctuality and paid time are clearly explained to the employee.

Question: Why is my employee late?
The concept of time is different in every culture. In some Latin American cultures, for example, arranging to meet at 7:00 p.m. may mean that anytime between 7:30 and 9:00 is acceptable. One American teacher in Tanzania found that her school staff meetings often started an hour late and routinely lasted five to six hours! Employees from those cultures may not be aware that the concept of time and its implications differ in American culture. Explain and clarify your expectations about being on time as soon as the employee is hired. What seems to be the obvious may be new information to the employee and may need to be repeated or explained again.

Question: How can I make my employee work faster?
Americans tend to focus heavily on productivity in the workplace — “time is money.” We value completing work quickly and efficiently more than developing relationships with co-workers. Other cultures often place more value on the social interactions that take place during work. Consider how this employer and employee see the same situation differently:

Employer: “Hassan is always so slow getting started. I don’t know why he always lags behind at the lockers. He needs to punch in and get started. We have a lot of work to do! There’s no time for chatting with everyone.”

Employee: “Why don’t people talk to each other here? No one seems to care how others are doing. In my country, you don’t start working until you’ve exchanged news with everyone. It’s so rude that no one stops to greet each other when they come to work!”

Question: How can my office be productive and culturally sensitive?
The output of an employee is directly related to his or her ability to master the skills of the job, to sustain the relationships needed for organizational success, and to feel comfortable and appreciated in the workplace. These combined factors require effective management and excellent communication within a homogeneous workforce. In a cross-cultural workplace the challenge is significantly greater. Try the following recommendations:

  • Take the time to get to know the employee. Daily greetings are especially important as a sign of respect in many cultures.
  • Ask your employee how a similar job would be done in his/her country. This will give you a perspective on your employee’s background, culture, and his/her expectations for how the job should be done. This will allow you to anticipate misunderstanding and clearly indicate what is expected.
  • Ask questions about your employee’s culture, especially if there are behaviors or customs you don’t understand. Knowledge, communication and respect are the keys to a successful cross-cultural relationship. It is not impolite to ask a question if it is done with respect and the intent is to gain knowledge.

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