Business organisations have several reasons to operate in countries other than the original country of incorporation. The need for expansion, access to larger and more profitable markets, sustainable competitive advantage, access to relatively cheap labour, favourable taxation regimes, the imperatives of globalisation, etc. are some of the factors that drive an organisation to expand beyond the borders of its country of origin. Multinational corporations are the most readily available example of organisations that are located across the world and thus have become global citizens. Such organisations, in order to survive and maximize shareholder value, routinely move both material and human resources across the globe, to their subsidiaries/affiliates. Employees of such companies, who are involved in working outside their countries of origin or residency, are referred to as expatriates.
According to Gupta, Dasari, and Dasari (2012), “Expatriates are people who move across the national borders to another country to pursue their professional, economic and financial goals.” The authors made reference to the work of Tungli and Peiperl (2009), who identified three classes of expatriates, namely; parent-country nationals which refers to those employees who are nationals of the home country of the multinational company and are sent to other subsidiaries and affiliates where the company has presence; third-country nationals are neither citizens of parent country nor that of the host country of the subsidiary/affiliate; inpatriates – those are employees from other countries and subsidiaries around the world who are sent to the company’s headquarters.
Alain Williams had just completed one year as an expatriate in the Technical Division of company ABC, which is a multinational telecommunication company with headquarters in Europe. An Englishman, he was seen by many of the Nigerian colleagues who worked with him as snobbish, arrogant, and always filled with airs of racial superiority. Many of his Nigerian team members and juniors complained of being bullied by him during meetings; he talked down on them and commanded them indiscriminately in a manner reminiscent of colonialism.
While in England, “Come with your brains” may not be an insult, Alain not only demonstrated insensitivity to local culture
They complained to their staff union whose leader made reports to the Human Resources Division, asking that Williams be called to order in line with one of the company’s core values-mutual respect. If the HR did so, it clearly did not yield any positive result. When Williams sent an email on a Friday evening, to all engineers under his supervision, inviting them to a meeting on Monday of the following week, little did he know he had crossed the red line. He had closed the email with “Come with your brains”.
The union takes up the fight…
By Monday morning, the union had mobilized all their members and, singing solidarity songs, marched Williams out of the meeting room, out of the company premises, demanding his immediate repatriation to England. With placards reading “ALAIN WILLIAMS MUST GO”, the protesting workers grounded company activities as the efforts of management to appease them fell on deaf ears. Day one, day two, day three and not looking like they were about to budge, the management of ABC Limited became jittery.
Apart from the incessant calls from the headquarters in Europe, the Trade Union Congress had written to inform ABC’s Managing Director of their intention to call out all their members on a nation-wide strike if Alain Williams was not sent out of Nigeria within 48 hours from the date of their letter. Shutting down the communication facilities and infrastructure of the company which is the largest service provider in the industry, by protesting staff, would not only cost massive losses in revenue but would be treated by the government as an act of economic sabotage. No Managing Director would treat such impending disaster with levity. There was a lot at stake. Clearly, Alain Williams must go. And he went!
The climax of a cultural conflict…
From the facts of the case, a cultural conflict was inevitable. A cocky Alain; Nigerian colleagues sensitive to any vestiges or semblance of the nation’s colonial past, and the interests of subcultures, individuals, and even national governments. Many companies have put in place induction or integration programmes for staff, especially the expatriates. Clearly, both Alain and the Nigerian personnel were apparently tolerating one another because of the organizational culture which required respect for each other, frowned at workplace harassment, and imposed sanctions on violators.
But when he sent that email requesting his team members to “come with your brains” to their divisional meeting, the Nigerians had had enough of him. While in England, “Come with your brains” may not be an insult, Alain not only demonstrated insensitivity to local culture but also to his not-so-rosy relationship with his Nigerian colleagues.
Conflicts are inevitable among human beings especially in the workplace. Interpersonal and intercultural conflicts are even more likely in multicultural organisations populated by employees from various nations and divergent cultures. Our perceptions are as unique as our personalities.
Management must therefore create an organizational culture that fosters mutual respect, tolerance, team spirit, diversity, inclusion, and is conducive for the achievement of both individual and organizational objectives. This includes policies and procedures that bring such conflicts to the barest minimum and/or dispense appropriate sanctions when infractions occur. Only by doing so would organisations save themselves from this type of crisis faced by ABC Limited.