Of Australian workplace

Australian workplace culture


Below is an excerpt from G’Day Boss that discusses Australia culture in the workplace.

GDay Boss! Australian Culture and the workplace by Barbara West and Frances Murphy

Understanding Relationships

Equality versus Recognised hierarchy

Australia Equality is to be honoured (including gender, race, class, etc).

Contrast: Society is better organised if status and hierarchy are recognised.

Perhaps the most important value orientation for a newcomer to Australia to understand is the overall importance placed on equality. In contrast with most of the rest of the world, Australians generally favour equality over recognised hierarchy. In his book Cross-Cultural Business Behavior (1999), Richard Gesteland writes that Australia is a deal focused, extremely egalitarian and informal society (p 263) and that this egalitarianism leads Australians to look very negatively on anyone, especially newcomers, who express anything that even approaches boastfulness or showing off.

In our research we have found that migrants from Asia almost immediately notice the relative absence of recognition of hierarchy and status in Australia. In addition, most migrants from North America and Europe likewise realise very quickly that their own societies have taught them to value hierarchy considerably more than does the average Australian. Attitudes and behaviours that in North America or Europe seem acceptable or even a requirement for securing employment, such as discussing one’s tertiary degrees, are often seen by Australians as pretentious. It is certainly important to let potential employers know your skills and background, but this must be done carefully to avoid the impression that you are ˜putting on airs”.

Australian’s perspective repatriated after eight years in Hong Kong

I find that getting served in a restaurant or shop is very difficult in Australia. I think the service staff see themselves as equal to their customers, which is fine but they refuse to cater to customer needs. You almost have to make an effort to get them to serve you and if you complain about anything the attitude is ˜Whatever”.

The particular form the value of equality takes in Australia is general rather than specific. At least at the level of ideas, hierarchies are seen by Australians as disruptive of positive and productive social relations. This results in a situation in which women and men, at least on the surface, are supposed to be equal and equally able to interact with each other and serve as group leaders or managers. Women and men actively engage in discussion and even argument with each other. They may greet each other with a handshake and spend time together both inside and outside the workplace. Newcomers to Australia from more hierarchical societies may have to adapt their behaviour when interacting with the opposite sex, from being deferential or domineering to more familiar and equal.

In Australia the differences between people in terms of race, religion, ethnicity, nationality and socio economic level are likewise believed to be merely differences, not hierarchies. Workplaces in Australia are expected to be free of language and behaviours that denigrate or degrade any individual or group, and there are even laws that protect people from this kind of thing. The very word ˜class” to refer to socio economic differences is not generally recognised as valid in Australia, despite the obvious differences in wealth.

Australian management consultant’s perspective

I often see Australian employees taking the time to talk to the security guard, the cleaner and the tea lady more than you would in a more hierarchical culture. Even top management will make sure they ask about the families of these workers and will personally get involved if there is an issue. In both individual and group interactions, Australians tend to ‘level’ or downplay superior skills and talents in order to bolster the illusion of equality. The Australian phrase ˜the tall poppy” refers to this kind of levelling. The poppy that grows taller than the others in the field gets its head knocked off first, in the same way that a person who attempts to portray him or herself as above others will be brought down through joking or even gentle (or serious) mockery of his or her accomplishments. US-Americans, who are taught from a very young age to value individual accomplishments in themselves and others, are particularly vulnerable to this kind of levelling mechanism in Australia. Australian politicians are also common victims, as anyone who has watched Australian television comedy can attest. Comedians often infiltrate press conferences and other public gatherings to ask impertinent questions. If the politicians refuse to play along with the mockery or try to have the stirrers thrown out, they are seen as bad sports. Doing the latter would also be considered an abuse of authority.

Switzerland to Australia perspective

What I would say to a new migrant: ˜The tall poppy syndrome must be understood. This means that on a daily basis nobody wants to stand out. And, at least where I work [which is currently undergoing major restructuring] there are very few people who provide any leadership or decision-making. Everybody is waiting for the big boss to do everything because they don’t want to take responsibility and thus stand out from the crowd themselves. Yet, at the same time, having titles is really important and you should put all of them on your business card. I don’t really understand the contradiction.



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