Despite living in a multi-cultural society, we do not always adequately take stock of the impact of our customs and practices on those who were not raised in Australia, who may not have been raised in a first-world country, or who do not speak English as a first language.

Grappling with bureaucratic and legalistic processes is challenging at the best of times, but this must be particularly so if you don’t understand the language and local governance structures all that well.

This was brought home to me recently on three separate occasions, which I’d like to share with you here.


In the first one, a government department had cause to interview an employee, Aliyah, about an account irregularity. There was no suggestion that Aliyah had caused the irregularity – the department merely wanted her perspective on what was causing the problem. Aliyah was sent a letter to the effect that the “internal compliance officer” wanted to meet with her for a confidential interview. Aliyah was directed not to speak to anyone about the matter. When she received the notice, Aliyah was not just shocked, she was petrified. She immediately took sick leave.

It took a while to get to the bottom of the situation as to why Aliyah was so stressed by the letter. Aliyah had grown up in a middle eastern country. In her experience while living in that country, if you were sent a formal direction to attend a secret meeting, there was a good chance you might never return from the meeting. It made perfect sense that Aliyah would be distraught on receiving such a letter.


In another situation, a colleague who had worked as a manager with an aid agency described a situation when she and HR had been trying to manage a male employee, Shivansh, who was not performing. They went through a very lengthy performance improvement process.

At the end of the process, my colleague thought she had done all the right things and sought Shivansh’s feedback. He said that he had found the process humiliating and even emasculating. He said he did not feel like he was treated with respect and that it had all felt like a “tick-a box exercise”.


In my final story, a friend of mine who was working for a multi national company complained when her manager, during the course of a performance review, wrote in her documentation that “Anne can write quite well”. Now in an American context, this translates to “Anne is great”. But in an Australian context, that statement would be interpreted as, “Anne’s writing is ok, but not great.” She was not happy.

We all know that there is a cultural nuance to everything we do and say, and the potential for misinterpretation is high. Sometimes this can lead to personal distress and in other cases it can escalate into conflict and even legal claims.

When we are in positions of authority at work, we need to take particular care when it comes to anticipating these issues. We should think about how we establish trust and credibility with employees. We know we want to treat people fairly, but we also want them to feel like they are being treated that way. We can only do this if we consider the possible cultural nuances that influence our actions and how they are received.

There are many steps one can take, but here is a sample of some things to consider in a cross-cultural environment where you may be investigating or performance managing.

Before you embark on the process

Rapport: Check to see whether the manager nominated to have the conversation with the employee already has some rapport with the individual. That could help set the conversation up for success. Does the manager have some understanding or pre-existing cross-cultural training to help them? In the US, there is clear evidence to show that racial anxiety can increase during an investigation process if the person is being interviewed by someone from a different racial background. As you can imagine, if the person appears anxious, they are more likely to act that way, which in turn may lead to all sorts of interpretations including that they may be obfuscating the truth.

Communications: Ensure that communications about performance matters or an investigation happen in person and in writing as each person has their own unique way of digesting difficult information. They may not understand what you say or may be too stressed in the moment to comprehend everything you say, so having the information in writing can be critical.

Not in trouble: Ensure the person knows they are not “in trouble”.  Explain what the possible consequences flowing from the discussions and their involvement in the process might be. Otherwise, they might go into the meeting like Aliyah did, and feel like they are not coming back, or more typically, that they might be about to lose their job.

At the commencement of an interview

Culturally safe: if for example you are interviewing

a complainant, after explaining the process to them, it might be prudent to ask what they think needs to happen to make the process safe for them, if not asking up front what might make it culturally safe for them.

Say up front: You might say to the person you are interviewing that there may be room for misinterpretation and misunderstanding during the process and that you need their help to make sure that this does not happen.

Support person: Make sure there is an appropriate support person involved in the discussions if the employee wishes to have one. We know this is a critical procedural step from an industrial point of view. But it may not be enough to have just any old support person. They may need to be from the same cultural background and in most cultures, the age or gender can be important as well. A female may not wish to discuss sexual harassment in front of a male colleague just as a senior member of a community may not want a younger person, in a support role, witnessing their distress.

During the process

Check in: Make sure that the investigator or manager handling the process continues to check in with the employee about any concerns they may have.

Avoid closed questions: Ask questions that allow the employee to provide their own narrative in their own time. Note that silence can mean many things. In some cultures, silence may be a sign of respect or an acceptable social cue to indicate that the person is giving a question due consideration. Open questions are critical to let people tell their story in their own words and their own pace.

Don’t rush: Give the process the appropriate amount of time and give yourself the space to do justice to the process. Sometimes we can be keen to rush due to time pressures or we inadvertently convey the “tick a box feeling” that Shivansh complained about. This happens when we are formulaic or unthinking.

Lastly at the end of the process

Debrief: Remember to debrief with the person at the end of the process about any concerns, fears or expectations they may have.

If you are looking for a reason to reflect on your practices, remember that many organisations have Codes of Conduct or policies in their organisations where “respect” is a value that is emphasised. Following these tips will help demonstrate respect to the other person and your colleagues more generally. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and as medical practitioners say “first, do no harm”.

Sarah Rey is Founding Partner at Justitia. To view Sarah’s profile, click here.