Towards a Global Culture: Avoiding cross-cultural faux pas


It’s an increasing trend that people no longer stay in one job, or even one career, for their whole working life. This is partly an effect of the changing nature of the workforce with greater flexibility, downsizing, restructuring, outsourcing and casualisation, but also due to a change in the expectations that employees have of their jobs. These days thirty-somethings, typically referred to as Generation-X (born between 1965 – 1976), and Generation-Y or “Millennials” (born after 1977) are less interested in the type of career path that they saw their Baby Boomer parents (1946 – 1964) conforming to. Therefore, in order to motivate and retain them, HR and managers need to appeal to different reward systems other than the traditional motivators of money, power, prestige and benefits that tend to inspire older employees.

Problems and complaints that HR managers typically have with younger employees are that they have poor work ethics, they lack respect for authority, they often only think about themselves, they don’t show much loyalty to the company, and are quite happy to leave if the going gets a bit tough. This is, to a certain extent, true in many companies, but as baby boomers start to retire, HR should start to examine ways of changing these trends and retaining the new generation of staff. Indeed the workplace is shrinking. From 2000 to 2010 it is estimated there will be a 30% decrease of workers in their 30s and 40s. In addition some Generation-X are taking more time off or leaving the workforce in order to take care of children. So “Millennials” will soon make up the bulk of the workforce. Understanding how the younger generation think is vital if companies want to keep these “bright young things” on board.

In fact younger workers can have a lot of bargaining power these days. While a good pay packet is always in demand, for the younger generation time may be more valuable to them than money and they will choose a job that can offer them more flexible hours with more holidays and leisure time. Work is something used to support their often more important “real life.” Many will be engaged in study or other pursuits such as sports, arts or travel designed to give personal fulfilment. Those older members of Generation-X with children will also opt to invest more time in their families (some say because they missed out during their own childhoods) and will choose less money and value more flexible or less working hours. Work-life balance and time off are very valuable assets to Generations X and Y, indeed they consider it a basic human right, and companies would do well to ensure that employees feel that this is available to them (within reason of course) in order to help retain them.


Younger generations have a wider range of career possibilities to choose from and more opportunities to switch career paths and even create new careers of their own invention. The fact that, in particular Generation-Y has grown up with technology and the Internet means that they are better able to multitask and the distinction between work and play has become more blurred. It also means that they may not be so interested in following standard procedure but expect to be involved in the creation of procedures which are constantly being updated and improved. HR and managers can embrace this and benefit by involving employees in the decision making process. Tapping into this under-utilised resource also helps foster a sense of employee ownership and interest in the direction of the company.

A meaningful work experience is also of greater concern to Generations X and Y. They value contributing to society and “making a difference” as well as applying their skills to a job to give them a feeling of personal fulfilment or involvement. They also tend to support corporate responsibility – the idea that companies should support environmental, social and economic development, and choices for staying in a job may involve their ethical beliefs.

Younger employees also tend not to look too far into the future so a reward scheme that starts to take effect five years down the track will probably hold little interest for them. Therefore short term rewards such as small monthly bonuses or time off for work well done or for targets met is more likely to increase productivity. Likewise yearly appraisals are not likely to inspire younger workers. Continual feedback is quite important for Generation-X and even more so for Generation-Y, who expect continuous instant reporting on how they are doing their job. Teamwork is something that comes naturally, Generation-Y is quite happy sharing responsibility.

In order for Generations X and Y to respect authority, it must be earned by persons in positions of power. They need to see evidence of why that person came to be where they are and why they should follow. The number one reason why younger staff quit is because they are not happy with the boss, but once the respect is earned they will stay committed to that individual. The danger of this type of relationship is that it’s easy to cross the line from being a ‘caring aware boss’ to being a ‘friend boss’, which can seriously compromise authority.

If Generations X and Y seem immature this is because in general, it’s true, they don’t want to grow up. They are interested in delaying their adulthood for as long as possible. They get married later and have children much later than generations before them ever did, so they do not have as many ties or responsibilities. Being worried about paying the kids’ school fees or the mortgage is not as likely to keep them going to the same job every day if they are unsatisfied or bored. Change and variety is likely to retain their interest, as well as opportunities for self-development and continual learning.


At a recent conference on workplace diversity and inclusion held in Hong Kong, research found that in India and China new ways of working and different attitudes towards work held by younger people are challenging the established way of doing things and pose challenges for employers. Junior staff retention is a major problem in both of these countries. The younger generation are perceived of by the older generation as impatient, in need of grand titles, wanting bigger salaries and also lacking loyalty to companies. In China and India Generations X and Y are media and technology savvy, educated and schooled in social networking. They are interested in entrepreneurial opportunities and have less interest in paying their dues and slowly climbing the corporate ladder. They are independent, globally minded, value quality of life and are not shy about making demands on their employers. The conference advised that businesses should respond strategically to the talent of young people to engage them in helping the company succeed.

Understanding generation gaps can help HR tap into what makes Generations X and Y tick, making it easier to cater to different needs and improve retention. Some ways to reduce turnover of young staff don’t necessarily require an increase in salaries. Instead, think about promoting the meaning of the work that is done at your company and how it benefits the wider community. Give workers recognition when they do a good job, and constructive feedback when they need improvement. Give staff variety and let them try out new tasks to challenge and stretch themselves. Establish a mentoring programme between junior and senior staff (this should also marry well with Baby Boomers expertise). Allow flexibility and autonomy and communicate.

Source: HR Magazine