Working with Idiots (Working Abroad Part I)


Most of us have at least a short list of people we work with that are complete idiots.  They make the workplace that little bit less enjoyable.  They are tough enough to endure or tune out if you are working in an environment that you are familiar with.  But if your thing is savvy, global do-gooding and you are in a different country working on a short-term service project or a long-term relocation, these workplace idiots can be so much more infuriating because you have less control over the situation than you might at home.

Worse yet, that coworker from hell may be one of the small group of expats that you are working with and you may therefore have him or her invading your leisure time since expats often clump together while abroad.

This week we’ll be looking at working with people abroad.  I’ve done a lot of this so far in life and have had to navigate many a tough personality or situation.  Before I get into a few of the things that have worked for me in navigating workplace idiots internationally, here’s a list of the (international) jobs/volunteer gigs I’ve had in life:

1)  Volunteer Children’s’ Activities Coordinator & English Teacher – Philippines – 6 months

2)  Volunteer Youth Activity Coordinator – Sweden – 6 months

3)  International Marketer / Recruiter – (Based in England – with in-person recruiting in Sweden, France, Thailand) – 12 months

4)  Short-term service trips to Romania and the Dominican Republic

Each experience was very different but there were some patterns in the kind of workplace idiocy that I witnessed  The issues are not always too different from what you would expect at home.  But how you deal with the problems does change.  There is rarely a good HR department to run to….

Here are some of the issues that come up:

Bullying in the Workplace

Bullies are idiots that are best shot down immediately.  Especially abroad.  The minute you notice this kind of behavior, decide what you will do if it happens to you.  Have the words ready.  Rehearse them.  I have noticed that even in cultures where face-saving is extremely important (anywhere in Asia) there are ways to shut down workplace bullies.  Talk to a superior if a local is the source of the problem.  They will typically know how to handle the offender.

If the bully is a westerner, direct confrontation works.  Westerner expat bullies are often the way they are because they feel powerless in the new environment. They feel a need to exert control and they therefore try to intimidate those around them, especially those that bow to their tactics.  Don’t be one of them.  Find a way to push back so hard that you actually shock them.  If you step up to them, most bullies in these kinds of situations will step down or bother someone else.  You can also use peer pressure to your advantage.  Enlist the help of other expats that recognize the problem.  If the only expats in the bully’s circle shun him or her for the behavior, he or she may be more open to behaving.

Workplace Harassment

Something about being a long way from home has some oversees workers thinking the rules don’t apply to them.  Whereas the threat of a very serious meeting in HR or a pink slip keeps many in check at home, being on a volunteer assignment or another internal assignment has some idiots relaxing their standards.  But just because you are away from home doesn’t mean you have to put up with this kind of behavior.  Try personal confrontation first but couple it with a threat to go to whoever is in charge or to the local authorities unless the harassment stops.  Scare the offender with a memo quoting local legal consequences for continued workplace harassment.  Will you make an enemy?  Perhaps.  But better an enemy in check than an idiot on the loose.

Workplace Discrimination

I have often seen overt discrimination – racial and otherwise on international assignments.  International stereotypes run rampant when you are working abroad.  Rich Americans, stuffy Brits, obnoxious French, stiff Japanese and naive Swedes.  It gets worse.  At one organization I worked with, people from less developed countries were treated in an inferior manner.  They weren’t invited to certain functions, they were given less desirable work assignments, they were spoken down to. Volunteers from a certain developed country (volunteers of the same nationality as the top administrators) were given preferential treatment.  It drove me crazy.  But since the discrimination came from the top there was little I could do but request a transfer – which I did.

Because discrimination and outright racism is often aggressive in developing countries and because it can actually be sanctioned by local culture, you have to tread carefully.  As much as you should always stand up for what’s right, to be most effective you want to be aware of the lay of the land.  Carefully research the issues before deciding how to intervene.  Is this kind of behavior considered normal?  Is it legal?  Who can you look to locally for support?

At the very least you can refuse to endorse the behavior yourself.  Is there an unwritten rule stipulating preferential seating for the “wealthy” westerners?  If you are in this group of Westerners, make a point of sitting with the locals.  Make friends with the locals. Skip the elitist expat gatherings when you can and spend more time with everyone else.  If nothing else you will make a subtle statement simply by behaving differently.

Workplace Ethics

If you come from a developed country and are accustomed to strict workplace regulations it might come as a shock to you that often ethics violations and outright corruption are treated with a cavalier wink when you are on international assignments.  I remember an accountant friend of mine who was seriously stressed out because her superiors had forced her to commit insurance fraud.  The rationale was that “sometimes” these things had to be done to save money and further the noble overall mission of the organization.  She didn’t know what to do.  Should she be the whistle blower?  Or should she keep her head down, not cause a fuss and keep her job.  She opted for the latter and I think she regretted it.  Even if corruption is more common in a certain country, NEVER be part of it yourself.  The last thing you want is legal problems in a different country.  Local authorities may choose to “make an example” of you and a prison sentence abroad could be very ugly indeed.  It happens.  Don’t let it happen to you.

Alright, my next post will be a bit more chipper – looking at the five essential friends you need while working abroad.  In the meantime, hit me up with some comments.  Have you come across any of the above issues while working abroad?  Think I got anything wrong?  Want to add anything?  Have at it!



Bjorn Karlman

4 thoughts on “Working with Idiots (Working Abroad Part I)”

  1. Wow this article was really inspiring. “Find a way to push back so hard that you actually shock them.” I would love to see someone do a series of short videos of examples :D

    Kudos to the paragraph about refusing to buy into the preferential treatment game.

    Also I totally agree about never creating legal problems for yourself in a different country… I remember when I was in Peru on a study tour, they brought us to a prison where (if my memory serves correctly) an American journalist had spoken out against the government on some issue. 17 years later… still in prison. Awful. Wait till you get home and alert the international community then. Cowardly? No, perhaps just savvy.

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