What is deemed acceptable workplace etiquette in one country is not necessarily in another, which is why companies need to be transparent in their definition of proper company culture and office conduct.

In a video conference to White House officials on the first day of his presidency, U.S. President Joe Biden was very clear in what will no longer be acceptable workplace conduct in the Executive Office of the President of the United States.

I am not joking when I say this … if you ever work with me and I hear you treat another colleague with disrespect … talk down to someone, I promise you I will fire you on the spot … on the spot. No ifs, ands, or buts.

U.S. President Joe Biden

What is considered “disrespect” is, of course, up for debate, both presidential and otherwise.

Depending on a company’s particular code of conduct, sending late-night emails demanding deadlines are met; asking a colleague from accounts on a date; telling a risque joke; or turning up late to a meeting, are all either totally acceptable or major breaches of conduct. 

Here are some interesting cultural differences regarding what is, and isn’t, acceptable international workplace etiquette in offices around the world:

Don’t Stand So Close to Me

When in Argentina, do not be too precious regarding personal space, as it is likely to be invaded. In other countries and cultures (for example, Romania, who like to keep at least 140cm distance), standing too close to colleagues could be cause for concern and even a trip to HR. This is not the case in countries such as Argentina or Peru, who apparently need just 77cm and 80cm, respectively, of valued personal space.

Did You Get My Email… At 11pm on Sunday… On the Day Your Child Was Born?

While many countries in Europe adhere to the Working Time Directive, which gives employees the right to work no more than 48 hours a week, many tend to average around 40 hours. To work longer hours is considered inefficient. If your work hasn’t been completed in the allotted time, you mustn’t be working effectively enough. In 2017, French workers even won the legal right to disconnect, and “ignore business emails after hours”.

Europeans working in the United States may therefore be surprised to learn of the common cultural expectation to work past 9-5, including at weekends. American workers are also less likely to take family leave or go on vacation. Japan is another country with oft-romanticized expectations towards overtime. In recent years, many organizations have sought to eliminate the practice of ‘karoshi’ [death through overwork] by systemic overhauls to company cultures.

See you at 2-3pm(ish)

In certain cultures, regularly arriving late for meetings is a sign of disrespect, and cause for reprimand. Of course, different countries have different approaches to punctuality. Italians, for example,  are less likely to adhere to meeting times, so a healthy dose of patience is required when doing business there. 

Let’s Keep it Business AND Pleasure

While the Germans and Swedes tend to keep strict division between work and play, and actively discourage social intermingling between colleagues, there are many countries that think differently. In Japan, for example, employees are expected to attend after-work activities with their superiors and think nothing of engaging in some serious drinking with their bosses. Work-life boundaries are also blurred in European countries, such as France, where colleagues often go out for lunch together, perhaps even having a glass or two of wine before returning to the office in the afternoon.

Don’t Question Me – But Do, Really

Generally speaking, there appears to be quite a significant East vs. West divide with regards to what is deemed appropriate in work-based collaboration, especially with superiors. In the West, a robust exchange of ideas, and even questioning of decisions, is often encouraged, even with managers. In many Asian countries, however, which tend to observe more rigidly hierarchical structures, such acts may be perceived as insubordination.

A Step Too Far

From a kiss on the cheek to conclude business meetings, to “harmless” flirting to elicit romantic ‘procurement’, there is a huge difference with regards to what is deemed acceptable in the office environment. Overt flirting in the workplace is certainly more commonplace in Brazil than in, say, the United States, where dating between colleagues can be grounds for dismissal.

Just a Bit of Banter

Thankfully, racist language in the workplace is becoming universally unacceptable. At least officially. Of course, there are some countries that are more known for their racial sensitivity than others. Surprisingly, considering their almost-blemish-free public image, Canada was recently ranked as one of the top countries for racial discrimination in the hiring process. 

Where the Bleep is That Report, Please?

Managers shouting, reprimanding underlings in public, and demanding unpaid overtime was par for the course for many employees in Japan, until the government decided to take steps to address the country’s systemic corporate bullying in 2020. Before then, such behavior was not only expected to be endured by junior staff, but almost encouraged.

Nicknamed the Powa-Hara (Power Harassment) Prevention Act, the new legislation was introduced last April to ban “power harassment”, or workplace bullying, by those who take advantage of a superior position in large corporations. From April 2022 onward, small and midsize companies will also be bound by the obligations. 

Workplace Misconduct in the Remote Era

Being sensitive to international workplace etiquette is a must when working for international companies, especially while everybody is working remotely.  Picking up on the intent and tone of a Slack message or email can be difficult and often lead to misunderstandings.

That is not to say that there are not genuine incidents of workplace misconduct. Racist messages, sexually inappropriate phone calls and bullying behavior are all still taking place in the remote environment. In the absence, or limited number, of laws and regulations that prohibit such behavior, it is up to the company to provide a safe workplace for its employees.

A major part of providing a safe and productive work environment is to educate staff on what is and isn’t appropriate in the workplace. This decision was taken by Google in 2019, following a spate of sexual harassment claims. 

However, encouraging and fostering a positive and productive company culture can only occur when: 

a) Staff feel safe to report incidents of misconduct.

b) There are adequate measures in place to address such harmful behavior.

Just as compliance solutions have long-helped financial institutions identify incidents of market abuse or money laundering, conduct solutions, like Behavox Conduct, are now beginning to be used to flag instances of racism, sexual harassment or bullying in work communications. 

Such technology enables organizations to quickly and accurately identify areas of concern and misconduct, and then tailor training programs around specific infractions. By identifying real-world examples of conduct breaches, organizations can then provide more specific training on what is and isn’t acceptable in the workplace, tailor-making a sound and secure company culture. 

Tardiness, profanity, colleagues dating, insubordination, drinking during the day – it is all up to the eye of the beholder/user of sophisticated conduct surveillance solutions, to deem what is acceptable in their company culture.

Learn more about how Behavox Conduct enables enterprises to proactively identify indicators of employee misconduct and toxic workplace culture before they can impact productivity, and lead to corporate and managerial liability.