“National employees are just not interested in doing a good job.”
How many of you have heard that statement or have even said it themselves? Well, I disagree. National employees are just as interested in doing a good job as everyone else. It is, after all, human nature: People, of all races, colors and ethnicities are to varying degrees, competitive by nature; they like to be praised and rewarded; they take pride in their work; and they derive some identity from their profession. With that in mind, I refuse to believe that the only fluke of nature are the national employees who seem to defy everything we know about human nature!
The problem, I believe, is not so much the national employees themselves; but how manage them. And by management, I don’t mean the traditional controlling, organizing, planning, and decision making definition of management, but also the human resource side of every managerial function like training, motivating, and leading. The difference is not at all subtle. On one hand, people are a resource available to accomplish a mean, on the other hand, employees are an essential organizational capital that should, and must, be invested to achieve organizational results. Frequently, managers assume that the latter aspect is the domain of the Human Resource Department (or Human Capital department as it is becoming increasingly popular to call it). The reality is that managing human capital is an essential aspect of every manager’s job which we might have failed to fulfill successfully. Had we been successful, statements like that above would not be so common! Had we succeeded we would have understood perfectly the culture we work in and how to manage for improved performance rather than just managing in the traditional sense.
Culture is perhaps a key variable that we have not dealt with as effectively as we could have. As expatriates, have we really understood the culture that we are living in? And I don’t mean just knowing it, but also accepting it as a different culture that is neither better nor worse than our own. Let me give you an example. An HR manager complained to me that his national employees are prepared to drop everything and disappear from work for days on end when a ‘family crisis’ occurs. The HR manager, who happened to be from the UK, was perfectly justified. But the national employee, who is prepared to forgo everything for the well-being of his family, is also justified. Their priorities are merely different: For the national employee, family relationships and harmony are the top-most priority (after religion of course). Arabs are collectivist cultures – meaning they are more oriented towards the well-being and goals of the larger group, whereas the UK is individualistic – meaning people are more oriented to their own goals and objectives. Neither culture is better – or worse – than the other.
While this article is not about culture, it is important to remember that as expatriate managers; a lot of our pet peeves with our national employees are in many cases nothing more than profound cultural differences. Cultural awareness programs are becoming almost mandatory for multinational employees who are about to relocate to other countries. In a country like the UAE and especially Dubai, where so many cultures work and interact on a daily basis, I often wonder why cultural awareness has not become a core competency for all organizations.
The national employee who is prepared to ‘drop everything’ when a family member is taken ill is not careless or dispassionate about her work. She is simply willing to suspend her own objectives for a while in favor of the well-being of her family. If we understand that and are willing to accept it ‘as is’, we can work on the premise that if and when a crisis does occur, some form of compromise on both sides is the best solution. The national employee may need to come a little later, or leave a little earlier, or be absent altogether for certain week-days, but she also needs to ensure that her work does not suffer. It is the expatriate manager’s role to ensure that this compromise is ‘peacefully’ achieved.
Even when the national culture is well-understood and managed, national employees seem to attract numerous other complaints. One of my favorites is “they always want to go to training, and they do, but it never has any effect on the work.” When a manager complains about her employees ‘not doing anything with the training’, she is in reality, complaining about herself! National employees, admittedly, get the biggest piece of the pie in terms of training, but that is perfectly natural. The issue is not whether they get training or not, but why. Most of the time, the topic is chosen haphazardly and the employee is not properly briefed prior to the training. Moreover, once the employee completes the training, the manager does not enforce any systems to monitor and evaluate the effects of the training on the employee’s performance. In the final analysis, it is not the employee’s job to identify how he will apply the learning or what areas will actually need to improve as a result of the training; it is the manager’s job. If the employee fails to demonstrate improvement, then the supervisor has failed to manage that employee’s performance (for more on training national employees, see “to train or not to train”).
It is hard being a national employee. A local lady told me that when she first started working, a fresh graduate with no experience behind her, she understandably made a few mistakes. Who wouldn’t? The reaction to those mistakes, however, was nothing short of surprising. Her manager after the third or fourth mistake, lost interest in trying to coach or train her and began delegating only ‘simple’ tasks to her. After several months of unchallenging and unfulfilling work, she finally decided to confront her manager who informed her that he did not believe that she was capable of anything more challenging as evidenced by her initial mistakes. After hearing similar stories from other nationals, I realized that this was not a ‘one off’ incident. I also realized that a sizable number of nationals do not actually get proper training either by their managers or their co-workers. In some cases, the organization does not have a proper induction and orientation program in place. Unfortunately, there are also cases when the training does not happen because someone, somewhere, feels threatened by the national employee and (I believe) subconsciously sabotages the training. Some might disagree with the unconscious bit of the above statement, but I have faith in the essential goodness of human nature, so I refuse to believe that it is consciously orchestrated. That is my personal bias and I freely admit it.
The part that I cannot reconcile myself to, should it be true, is the ease of which some managers ‘write-off’ their national employees. Everyone makes mistakes, especially when they are just starting. I wonder; have these managers sailed through their first year working without a single mistake? Or is a manifestation of the classic joke about parents always claiming they were top of their class to their children?
National managers are also capable of committing a few mistakes of their own with their national employees. I’ve heard some national employees claiming their national managers will not develop them for fear of the employee taking the manager’s job. Whether true or not the statement surprised me: looking at the numbers of nationals in the workforce, it seems impossible that every national seeking a job should not find one. If the employee is promoted to his manager’s position, this must mean that the manager will be promoted to a higher role especially given the difficulty associated with dismissing national employees. How has this belief become so common then? A possible explanation would take us back to culture, but it is not sufficient: In cases where the manager and employee are of opposite genders, the relationship might suffer due to some constraints on how they can (and cannot) behave with each other. But what of cases where they are both of the same gender? Frankly, I have no idea. Whatever the cause, and the degree of truth behind this claim, it should definitely be stopped and by the national manager no less.
Finally, national employees might also abuse some of their privileges. Everything from the ‘W’ word (wasta) to a never-ending cycle of training programs, one after the other. I am going to ignore the first issue because it is much too complicated to discuss here. But the training deserves a bit of explanation. Training is important for nationals because it is seen as a way to develop and enhance their skills. More than anyone else, they are aware that they need to prove themselves in a highly competitive market. In itself, this sentiment is admirable. However, at some point, the learning needs to be transferred to the workplace to be of any value to both employee and organization. The inch-thick file full of training certificates is not proof of competence; the only proof of that is the actual performance on the job. Once managers and employees, national or otherwise, realize that, we can confidently talk about performance.