Case Study “Humor or Harassment?”

The case study under discussion is titled “Humor or Harassment?” In this article, the authors raise an issue about organization culture in multinational companies. Sema Isaura-Mans is an account manager from Turkey who has been recently transferred from Ankara office to the headquarters in Amsterdam. The first meeting with her new Dutch boss, Jack, shocked her. He made a joke about her small size, calling her Dot.  Such unexpected behavior abused the Turkish woman. However, she did not reply to this joke nor made any remark regarding such inadequate joke. She preferred to ignore it as she was new in the company and did not want to start her career here with a quarrel. During the next six months, Jake made more jokes about Sema and she still could not get used to this feature of her boss’s behavior. She spoke about it with her Dutch husband Bernhard. He tried to explain his wife that Jack did not mean to abuse her, it was simply plain Dutch humor. Sema did well at her job and Jack really valued her as a specialist, though his jokes about Sema still took place. Sema decided that she could not leave it as it is and she had to do something to change Jack’s manner of communication. However, she is very concerned that it might affect the project she is working on now. The cultural misunderstanding between Sema and Jack creates a situation which makes Sema feel uncomfortable in such working environment.

Problem

The key problem of this case study is cross-cultural misunderstanding and cultural unawareness. The point is that Jack being the executive vice-president for special projects has very little information about the specifics of Sema’s origin and how her culture influences her life position. On the other hand, Sema seems to have been unprepared to the behavior she faced at her new job. Hence, she was also little aware about the Dutch sense of humor and the way people can communicate here. Her reaction to Jack’s innocent joke, which was not offensive from his point of view, demonstrates she was not informed enough about the specifics of the Dutch culture.

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The problem of this case study shows that both parties are the reason of the present conflict. Culture is one of crucial issues for any multinational companies, especially those where employees from western culture work together with employees who are the representatives of Asian culture or Muslim world. The conflict between employees on a cultural background is unavoidable, if the company does not promote cross-cultural awareness which allows the representatives of different cultures to learn to understand each other. Sema and Jack’s example shows that in this company cross-cultural awareness is on a lower level than required for creating comfortable environment for all employees. As a result, it leads to a problem where one party, Jack, makes jokes he should not do, and another party, Sema, views these jokes as personal and intentional offense. Besides, Sema has already learnt that Jack does not mean anything bad and he has very respectful attitude towards women; nevertheless, she still cannot accept his Dutch sense of humor. The inability to view this issue as an example of cross-cultural misunderstanding creates conditions which hinder Sema to feel comfortable at the new job.  

Possible Solutions

The existing problem bothers Sema a lot and some actions have to be taken which will solve this issue in an appropriate way and not spoil relationship between Sema and Jack, as well as between Sema and her other colleagues. The point is that Jack does not even realize that he abuses Sema telling jokes about her. For him, it is just an innocent game that he is used to play with other employees. According to situational approach, any organization system is interrelated with environment and every environment requires different leadership for effective operation of the organization. Sema as a participant of such environment has a direct impact on the organization’s effectiveness. If she feels uncomfortable, it effects the organization badly. Based on the ideas of this concept, she can ask Jack to change his leadership style, in this case meaning usage of jokes, towards her. The first strategy of the possible solution is to talk with Jack about it and explain how his behavior may affect the effectiveness of the entire organization. The strong side of this solution is that problem can be solved quietly and it is introduced as a misunderstanding, not a conflict. Besides, the relationship between Sema and Jack could be improved. They could better understand each other due to this private conversation. The weakness of this solution consists in turning the cultural problem into misunderstanding. This solution helps to cope with a particular case, but it does not resolve the cross-cultural issue in the company. As a result, Jack may stop teasing Sema, but later there might appear other abuses that Jack will do unintentionally.

The second strategy is to contact managers and explain the situation with Jack. This strategy is better to use in the case the first solution does not work. According to Taylor’s principles of scientific management, scientific training of workers is the key of the company’s success. Sema’s case shows that her boss was little aware about her culture and that has become the cause of the problem at hand. In order to change it, Sema may apply a request to the company’s managers who will provide cultural trainings to workers. The strong side of this solution is that this innovation could help to solve the issue with Jack or create the conditions where Sema could openly discuss this issue with her boss. Moreover, the arising concern about cultural awareness will help to avoid repetition of similar cases in the future; it will make employees think more about the importance of different cultures and effect they have on the company. The weakness of this solution is that the rising the issue of cross-cultural communication may negatively affect the relationship between employees. If the company indicates on the existence of cultural problem, employees may become too sensitive to their ethnicity and view any type of behavior that somehow opposite to their culture as hostile. In other words, it may increase the amount of conflicts cultural background. 

The third strategy of solving this issue is discussing this problem with colleagues. Sema is not the only employee of a different culture who works in this company. The representatives of other cultures may be also very concerned about the inappropriate behavior they face in the workplace. However, they do not raise this issue because they follow the same principle as Sema does and do not want to interrupt the working process.

According to Fayol’s administrative theory, the organization environment should be based on such principles as unity of direction, subordination of individual interest, and equity. Hence, if a group of employees experiences discomfort about the existing cultural situation in the company, they can demand fair attitude towards them based on these principles. The issue stressed by a group of people will not be viewed as a unique case between the boss and employees, but as a large problem that exists in the company and should be solved on the scale of the entire organization. Thus, the third solution is to raise the cultural issue among other colleagues and find others who also feel uncomfortable due to some cultural issues. The strong side of this solution is that the issue will be raised globally. Sema’s case will not be viewed as a unique or exceptional. The more people participate and show their concerns, the more radical changes can be adapted. The weakness of this solution is the division of employees in accordance to their culture. Such strategy will not unite workers, but create barriers between them basing on their ethnicity. The representatives of each culture will try to stand for their interests and protect their values and beliefs.

Recommendation

If Sema wants to solve the issue that has been bothering her over six months she has to follow the strategies offered above. Sema has to follow the first strategy where she needs to talk about the problem with Jack. Now, when Sema has already achieved reputation of a great specialist and is valued by Jack, she can openly discuss this issue with him. This problem exists because Sema does not even try to talk about it with her boss. She complains about it to her husband, but has not discussed it with Jack. If she explicitly explains that such jokes make her feel uncomfortable, her boss will probably understand it and stop teasing her. So, Sema needs to meet with her boss and talk about the issue that worries her. This private conversation should be initiated by Sema and she should not wait till they finish the work on the project. For Sema, it is a serious step and she doubts to take it. However, she should make an effort and talk openly about this problem with Jack. A friendly conversation is what Sema needs to address her worries and make a difference. 

The second strategy predetermines that Sema addresses managers for assistance. This strategy should be used only if the first one fails. In other case, it may spoil relationship with her boss and show Sema from the bad side. Sema should not address this issue as a critical problem, but she has to indicate that the problem of cultural misunderstanding exists and it must be solved on a higher level. Sema should play the role of an initiator, not as an accuser. In this case, she may indirectly influence the Jack’s attitude towards her. This step Sema will probably do since she already though about raising her problem with managers. However, it would be better if she keeps the neutral position and do not accuse Jake in his intolerant or rude behavior. 

The third solution is to seek for support from colleagues. Indeed, Sema’s case may not be the first in this company and there might be other workers who experience the same problem. First, it is better to talk with other Muslims who work in the company and ask their opinion about the cultural issue. If the problem really exists and other Muslims feel uncomfortable about it, Sema should find out what the representatives of other cultures think about cross-cultural communication in the company. Sema can do it personally or ask managers to make a meeting for foreign workers, where they can discuss this issue.     

If Sema can find workers who share her concerns about cultural issues, it will help to make the problem visible on the whole, rather than simply shine some light on the misunderstanding between the boss and the certain employee. However, taking into consideration that Sema has not been able to talk about this problem with her boss for more than six months, there is a small possibility that she will be able to address this issue so globally alone. Sema worries too much about the importance of the work she does and she places her work on a higher position than her cultural needs. However, if she asks managers to assist her and organize the meeting with people of different origins who work in the company, she can overcome her doubts. 

Fallout

If Sema follows none of the recommendations, the situation will never change. If Sema follows the first solution which is talk with her boss, he may not understand the reasons of her concerns. For him, it is a typical and normal way of communication. Jack could make an attempt to change, but probably he will always need to control what he says to Sema in order not to abuse her. If management accepts the second solution and implements the cross-cultural communication training, it can significantly change the company’s environment and make it a better place to work for people of different origins. However, some workers may not view these trainings seriously or simply ignore the importance of cross-cultural education since the company is located in Netherlands and it is still necessary for foreign employees to adapt to a new environment and culture specifics. The third solution may change the issue of culture in the company dramatically, if it becomes apparent that Sema’s case is not unique and there are many other employees from other cultures who feel uncomfortable working in such environment. On the other hand, Sema may not find any co-thinkers or they will not support Sema’s concerns. The issue about cultural awareness will still be raised, but in this case, Sema will be the only one who feels uncomfortable about it and it may have negative outcomes for her career in the company. Her colleagues may view this step as Sema overrating the problem and see no crucial evidence in favor of changing the company’s culture. 

Conclusion

 The case study under discussion shows how an innocent joke may turn into serious problems for employees. The manner of communication which is acceptable for one culture may be totally intolerant for the representatives of another one. The real cause of this problem is the cross-cultural misunderstanding that has always been a critical issue for international companies. Sema’s case is not unique and a lot of foreign employees face the similar problem when they move to work in a different country. The issue of culture is the company’s responsibility which has to establish and promote principles that allow every employee to feel comfortable. If this principle is not followed, the employee has a right to raise this issue. The point is the correct selection of strategies that should bring changes to the company’s culture and prevent the repetition of similar cases in the future. Nevertheless, if employees keep silent about their concerns, the problem will never be solved and over some time it may only become worse. As a result, it will lead to negative outcomes for the company and the employee. The company will lose a qualified specialist, while the employee will have to find a new job.

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