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French Version

Respect for foreign cultures is business as usual


The problem of the Danish cartoons of Prophet Mohammad continues to roll on, but if you cause offense it can create a feud, can't it? Businesspeople know a lot more about international relations and communication than newspapers and the media generally.

You wouldn't find any self-respecting businessperson getting into the mess that the "professional communicators" find themselves in in their quest to maintain their role as the guardians of free speech.

It's very true that in a free democratic society you can say what you want and write what you want. You can satirize, poke fun and give offense. Well, perhaps the media can give offense in the name of free speech because very often for them free speech mostly comes with out any personal loss. They are far removed from any real consequences most of the time. Oh yes! We all know that lawsuits are time-consuming and ultimately a waste of time for the aggrieved. Not many people can afford to participate.

But the issue is not really one of free speech and the right to say what you want. Most businesses and most human beings in their dealings with others would not consider simply saying whatever came into their minds. Why? Because we constantly filter our thoughts in order to show respect for and not to offend the person or organization with whom we are communicating.

Most companies and organizations are likely to give a great deal of thought to the individuals they assign to particular countries and to ensure their "ambassadors" have the necessary behavioral competences for the job. These competences are likely to include things like open-mindedness, communication skills, listening ability, willingness to learn the language, ability to cope and empathy with local customs and culture. These competences are probably more important than simple business. It's not ignorance of how to do your job that causes the problem; it's how you come off to others that determines success or failure.

So companies and organizations take the time to do this because they want to build a relationship and be successful in that relationship. Businesses and organizations know that in their dealings with people they must minimize conflict, seek ways to collaborate and find the common ground that allows that relationship to develop and flourish. They know all too well that if a maverick employee offends a client or customer they may lose a contract. Major organizations know that if they put a foot wrong culturally, politically or environmentally they can see sales and share value plummet. Just ask a few of the companies how they feel about lost sales right now as a result of the recent cartoon incident in Europe - and these companies did nothing wrong.

And it's not just about money and customer confidence: most companies and organizations these days care about their image and how they are perceived.

They just have to.

It's not only global customers and clients and public opinion that matters but it's the view of their own employees and potential employees. Competitive advantage and excellence rests with the employees of any organization. If organizational principles step outside of those employees cherish, they may resign and leave - or worse still resign and stay! Potential employees will not want their CVs to be tarnished by association with a problem organization or company, starving the organization of new blood.

There are increasing concerns about ethics, values, fairness, the honesty and integrity of the senior management team, how and where the company produces its product or service and the manner in which it delivers to the customer.

This is why many companies are revisiting their mission statements and business values and asking themselves whether "they do as they say" and "walk the talk." There's no point in having a value which says "Show respect for customers and employees" if measurement and research shows the company gives this scant regard. Companies do this because they want to get it right. They neither want nor can afford to be casual about these things.

In the global world in which we now live, feedback is instant. Companies know very well that to prosper in this world we need to show respect for those with whom we interact. Our hope is that they also do so because it is the right thing to do not just because of the buck on the end of it!

Everyone needs not only to communicate but to do so responsibly and wisely. You have the freedom of choice to show discourtesy and disrespect but you shouldn't be surprised at the adverse reaction when it arises. A company knows that it could lose a contract, lose jobs and perhaps peace of mind.

But companies are too sensible and too courteous to do that. Aren't they?

Maurice Collis is a human-resources consultant who lives in the Middle East.

Beirut,03 06 2006
Maurice Collis
The Daily Star
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