Integrating non-UK colleagues

Sensitivity to cultural differences helps make working with colleagues from overseas an enriching experience.

April 3, 2008

Martyna Sliwa, a lecturer in management at Essex University, who came to the UK eight years ago from Poland, says that the increasing number of academic staff from different nationalities offers an ideal opportunity to question the status quo and celebrate cultural difference.

Nor should you assume that because your overseas peers are ignorant of UK universities, she says. The chances are that your international colleagues will have either studied in the UK or worked with British academics.

On the other hand, it’s useful for everyone to consider potential cultural conflicts. “Practically, it means that sometimes it might be necessary to say things more directly, to dedicate more time to checking how a given situation is interpreted by those involved,” Sliwa says.

These efforts aren't necessary only when someone from overseas first joins the university. Sliwa says it is often when the initial excitement of a new job wears off that awareness of differences sinks in. She adds that colleagues from overseas are likely to have fewer networks and will be grateful to be included in social events.

But don't lump all international staff together. This is the danger with setting up special events or organisations for them: a young Eastern European woman will likely have much more in common with a young UK woman than with a middle-aged Middle Eastern man.

“Being aware of differences is the first step,” says Arthur Francis, dean of Bradford University School of Management, which has brought out a guide for academics and others working in multicultural groups.

He highlights three areas where differences regularly crop up. The first is degrees of deference: people from Asian cultures tend to display a higher degree of deference towards their seniors than people from Western cultures.

Second is teamwork. Francis says this is something that people from an Eastern European background can find difficult. “Forty-eight years of working under communism means that people haven't felt as free to operate in a team context as they have in Western Europe.”.

Third, he says, countries differ in their attitudes towards assessment. In North America, undergraduates are considered a failure if they get less than 85 per cent, whereas in the UK that would give them a first.

The Management School has developed a conversion table comparing US and UK marking styles. The guide says it is important to recognise how views of success and failure differ. While it is common in some countries to see failure as a way to improve and to refer to problems as “challenges”, in other countries people are embarrassed by failure. This means some nationalities are less likely to let on if they have failed to understand a point, or they may become uncomfortable if their mistakes are pointed out.

The guide advises anyone managing an international group discussion to make the rules explicit. In addition, it highlights different attitudes to swearing, time-keeping, formality and keeping eye contact.

While this kind of help targeted at international staff can be welcome, it has to be developed in conjunction with the staff concerned, Sliwa says. It must also be offered sensitively. Some lecturers won't take kindly to offers to help improve their pronunciation or accent, for example.

Jonathan Ray, a spokesman for Nottingham University where there is a high number of international staff, says many don't want to be regarded as any different from UK staff.

But for those who want more support, Nottingham offers inductions to let overseas academics know about research programmes at the university related to their country of origin, staff and student numbers from their country and university societies that may be of interest.

Bristol University offers to put new academics in touch with other international academic staff. But Susan Robertson, professor of the sociology of education at Bristol, an Australian who has worked in Canada and New Zealand, says it is often becoming involved in community life outside university that helps someone settle in.

Links:

• International Cultures: Differences that Enrich our Lives: a Guide to Working and Studying in the UK, Bradford University School of Management Network UK - the researchers' mobility portal: www.britishcouncil.org/eumobility

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