Awareness of different working cultures pays off at the workplace

One of my tasks in our Catch Up with Work project is to visit workplaces and give a lecture or workshop for staff whose responsibility it is to give new employees with migrant background an orientation into their jobs. The topic of my lecture/workshop is Orientation into the Finnish working culture. In addition, my colleague offers workshops on easy-to-read Finnish. 

Working cultures are culturally specific 

For an immigrant, it is essential to learn the working culture of their new homeland in order to be able to function appropriately at work. It is equally important for employers to understand and have an awareness of their own working culture with its underlying assumptions and unspoken agreements, so that they can explain the basics of it to the new employee.  

To have an awareness of one's own working culture should not be taken for granted. I often hear from employers I meet that they haven't really thought about this earlier. Oftentimes, we are not aware that our customs are culturally specific. We think that our way of doing things is the norm.  

Despite their origins, people tend to think that their own cultural traits are the most rational ones. In the field of anthropology, this is called ethnocentrism. It is useful to keep in mind that every cultural trait has a specific history and logic behind it. When we aren't aware of these logics, we can consider those traits irrational. That's why it can be difficult to understand why an employee with a migrant background may be thinking and doing their tasks differently than what we are used to. One example of this is the role of the supervisor. 

Low hierarchy between worker and supervisor in Finland 

Equality is a very important value in the Finnish society. The value of equality is also present in the relationships between employees and their supervisors. In Finland, the hierarchy between them is quite low.  

A good supervisor is expected to have an active dialogue with the employees and for example ask them about new ideas for how the work tasks could be organized better. That's because the employees are often the best experts on their own daily work. Therefore, working teams in Finnish workplaces often have high-level autonomy and they decide independently how they perform their work tasks. 
Tea Tetri giving a lecture for the supervisors of Helsinki Service Centre

In many cultural regions in for example Asia, Africa and Latin America, the supervisors' duty is to make all decisions in the workplace. A good supervisor is expected to know everything better than the employees do. It is common that the supervisor decides everything independently. The employee is only allowed to do the tasks they were directly told to do, and they shouldn’t do anything else. 

The way the supervisors' and employees' roles are understood in different cultures can cause challenges in Finnish workplaces. Finnish supervisors typically expect the employees to take initiative, but an employee with a migrant background might think it is not appropriate to challenge the supervisor’s authority by questioning their requests or suggesting alternative solutions.  

The hierarchy issue was also brought up by the staff during my lectures. The staff needs to encourage the new employees with a migrant background to tell their ideas and opinions about the work. The supervisors also need to remind employees of their responsibility to ask if they don't understand or remember their new tasks. 

Beneficial to learn about different working cultures 

It's important for employers to realize that new employees with a migrant background should be orientated into the working culture as well as into the tasks assigned. This means explaining the logic and the reasons behind certain ways of doing things.  

In addition, it would be beneficial to offer training on different working cultures for staff responsible for orientation. This could make them understand the differences in working cultures in other countries more deeply. 

We must keep in mind, however, that people are individuals and not everyone falls into certain cultural generalisations. However, being aware of the traits of different working cultures prepares us to deal with cultural differences and especially understand our own culture better. 

Fida Secondhand familiarizes the new employees with the ground rules for working and the working culture. Supervisor Jukka Kärkkäinen has years of experience in working with people with a migrant background. Abdirisak Hussein Mohamed participates in the integration training at Helsinki Institute of Adult Education and is an intern at Fida Secondhand. 

Tea Tetri, Career Guidance Instructor, Integration training for immigrants
Helsinki Institute of Adult Education