Cultural diversity: Differences, without understanding them, become plain gossip

Reylito A.H. Elbo

Reylito A.H. Elbo

A NEWLY retired corporate executive started farming and took great effort caring for his small plantation of fruit trees and tropical flowers. One year later, the farm grew full of dandelions that choked his blooming trees and flowers. He tried every method and used every available product to get rid of them, but nothing worked. Exasperated, he consulted the regional office of the agriculture department and explained all he had done.

“What shall I try next?” he inquired. “Try getting used to them,” came the curt reply.

This thing could also happen in the workplace. If you’re a newly hired employee, and you have a different set of “cultural” values, how do you propose to remove those people with dandelion personality? Of course, that’s the wrong question to ask. The correct question is—how would you reconcile your values with the organization and its people?

This is very important as your ability to understand a corporate culture, the company’s management practices and underlying beliefs will help you succeed as a newcomer.

Take the Google culture as an example: “It’s really the people that make Google the kind of company it is. We hire people who are smart and determined, and we favor ability over experience. Although Googlers share common goals and visions for the company, we hail from all walks of life and speak dozens of languages, reflecting the global audience that we serve. And when not at work, Googlers pursue interests ranging from cycling to beekeeping, from frisbee to foxtrot.”

The phrases “we favor ability over experience” and “we hail from all walks of life” have thousands of things to say about Google favoring cultural diversity. Regardless of one’s age, cultural background, sexual orientation, religious or political belief, among other things, you can be hired by Google as long you can show your ability to “share common goals and visions” with everyone.

If you’re a reclusive Asian like me when I was in my early late 20s, you wouldn’t imagine yourself working for Google. I was a subservient worker at the time who almost followed blindly the dictates of my former military boss, who instilled in me the “obey first before you complain” dictum. My experience with him was an exercise in cultural diversity. He was of a different religion, and I’m Catholic. He read the Bible every day and tried casually to convert me into his belief, but instead I got mixed signals.

Despite the Bible on his office desk and his almost daily preaching, he was doing something else.

But sure, fitting in doesn’t have to mean total conformity to a box mold. I was able to break out of the box when I got my boss into a shouting match and I won, simply because I was legally, spiritually, and ethically right and he was totally wrong – over a selection of a supplier without the bidding process.

I was ready to be fired, but he didn’t because he was afraid to expose his wrongdoings any further.

Your company’s policy manual may not be updated regularly. Instead, you may receive a memo or circular explaining something. In addition, the organization may hold town hall meetings where top management hosts a large convention reminding the employees about the organization’s approach or philosophy. People may get plaques, coffee mugs, t-shirts, umbrellas or other marketing paraphernalia that advertise the company’s mission statements and values—only to discover the line managers up to top management in the company’s totem pole are not necessarily walking the talk.

Over time, you can choose up to what extent you want to express your individual courage as I did before. Hopefully, you can also win in the process. But even if you find you’ve made a mistake—you have two options: You can try to make things work out or change jobs down the road and hope that you will not be badmouthed by your boss to your prospective employer.

It’s important to ask for clarification if you’re unclear about something. Unlike a real, cultural anthropologist, your goal is not to understand and document your findings, and then return to your native society. As an employee, your job is to be fully accepted as a member of the organization. You want to be an insider but not at the extent of violating the universal rules on honesty and integrity. And this makes a lot of difference.

Google has corporate values summarized in writing as “ten things we know to be true,” but let me pick up the top three: one, you can make money without doing evil; two, great just isn’t good enough. And three, fast is better than slow.

Rey Elbo is a business consultant specializing in human resources and total quality management as a fused interest. Send feedback to or follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter for his random thoughts.


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