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Cultural differences create new frontier for office managers

By Steve M. Cohen  bio

With all of the discussion about harassment and other personnel issues, I’m surprised there’s not more recognition of the different assumptions that people bring because of varying backgrounds and cultures.

First, I’m not excusing boring or outright predatory behavior because of cultural or other differences. People must learn to live and work in the world that exists, even if it’s different from how they were raised or other traits that make us individuals. You don’t even need to examine hot-button issues to prove this point. Consider a simple example: In this country, we drive on the right side of the road. If you come here from England, that is not going to change and you have to adapt.

What I want to focus on here is advice that can help medical office managers: If a problem doesn’t seem to make sense, consider looking for underlying differences between those who are involved.

This may sound obvious, but every day all of us stumble on issues that are caused by underlying assumptions. One reason we stumble so much is that these differences are often subtle—they are often so ingrained in our beliefs and assumptions that we take them for granted.

I once handled a case involving alleged sexual harassment of a female graduate student by a dean at a large university because he invited the female student to lunch. He didn’t sexually assault her, discuss or imply anything of a sexual nature. In fact, he took all new grad students to this “get acquainted” lunch as a way to meet them.

In this case, however, the female student was from Pakistan and married. To her, an invitation from a man who was not her husband, father or son had illicit intentions. In her eyes and those of others with her background, it was sexual harassment.

U.S. courts have established an important criterion for determining sexual harassment: “Would a reasonable person find this behavior offensive?” If the answer is “yes,” you probably have sexual harassment. If the answer is “no,” you probably do not. In this case, the answer seemed to be “no” and, indeed, the state investigation found no basis for a legal complaint and blocked any further allegations from that situation. The woman withdrew from the university program.

There’s a lesson for everyone here. Although the woman could have been more attuned to the culture in which she was attempting to study, her assumptions were no worse than those of many Americans visiting a foreign country, traveling to a different area of this country or even a neighborhood with different demographics than their own.

In foreign travel, many of us are guilty of subtle missteps like shaking hands and talking loudly in cultures where physical contact is frowned upon or a loud voice is a sign of disrespect. But even within the U.S. or in diverse regional environments, we see surprising differences. Consider the attitude many rural people have towards firearms compared to their fellow citizens who live in cities. Rural residents are likely to have lived around hunting and other cultural norms where firearms are no more unusual than chainsaws. In an urban area with crime problems, the environment and attitudes will vary considerably.

Similar variations are in almost every area of human contact, including the typical office.

It’s important to realize that cultural differences are rarely obvious, especially at first. In many cases, significant differences between us occur simply because of our individual experiences and perspectives. Keeping this in mind when facing personnel issues can help. Like cultural differences, they may give you a clue why some on your office team are not meshing as well as they might.

Steve M. Cohen, Ed.D., CMC is President/Partner of Labor Management Advisory Group, Inc. and HR Solutions: On-Call, both based in Kansas City, MO. For more information, visit or call (913) 927-0229.

The above information is shared by a guest contributor and does not necessarily reflect the views of Medical Office Manager.









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