|I'm not afraid, I know what he likes!|
At the same time that I have found a worthwhile and engaging extracurricular activity to keep me busy and somewhat out of trouble, I have also been offered a full time job. Having just celebrated a “not-quite-old-enough-for-retirement-but-just-old enough-to-to-start-scouting-for-retirement-spots” birthday, I realized that this life of leisure I have been enjoying lately is not going to help us buy a villa in Tuscany or a bed and breakfast in southern Spain. I had originally thought that I would easily find a job at one of the local international schools, but for reasons unbeknownst to me, neither institution seems to be interested in or able to hire me. Then, out of left field, one of my theatre buddies asked if I would consider applying for a position with his organization in a job that, while neither educational nor legal in nature (my two academic and experiential areas of expertise) would draw on skill sets from both. So I thought what the heck…I’ll go in for the interview and see what gives. And I got the job, go figure.
|My soon-to-be employer (left, not right)|
Not to undersell my qualifications and ability to do the work, nor my willingness to enter into a new line of employment (I am excited about starting a new job), but in the grand scheme of things, this is not where I would have seen myself when thinking about my new life in PNG. However, there were many things we did not expect from PNG, not the least of which is the cultural chasm of workplace expectations between most expat employers and many PNG workers. Put any two expat employers together and invariably, the topic of local staffing issues arises with a cacophony of similar concerns—chronic tardiness and absenteeism, failure to understand or follow basic directions, low English language competency, lack of task completion, little initiative or creative input, mismanagement of company assets. They trade stories of new hires who work well for a few weeks and then unexpectedly and inexplicable “go walkabout” to use the vernacular or those who accept the job and then without a word, don’t show up. There’s the one about the employee who used her cash advance for personal debts rather than business travel or who spent his fortnightly salary on payday and wants a loan to tide him over until the next pay cycle. And the complaints go on and on. The concept of a work ethic, while by no means universally ascribed to even in places like the United States or Australia, seems to be a completely foreign notion here in PNG.
Ultimately, when the one-upmanship of whose workers have done the craziest thing subsides, the expat response seems to be, well, what can you do about it?--it’s just PNG. But that isn’t fair to PNG, to its workers or, quite frankly, to the companies that have come to PNG and have an opportunity (dare I say obligation?) to understand why this disconnect between employer expectations and employee deliverables exists and to try to find a better solution than shrugging shoulders and washing their hands of it. I’m not saying I have answers, because some of the problems are fairly deep rooted in cultural differences and will require some creative strategies to resolve effectively, but recognizing these inherent differences is at least a first step.
In the US, we tend to define ourselves by our work, which makes “what we do” very important in our lives. Striving to land a good job is what we spend a great deal of our formative years doing…high school, university, perhaps grad school, internships all designed to put us on the ladder of success. And once there, we pay a great deal of attention to the details of work…arriving on time, staying late, doing extra, and pleasing the boss. It is part of the “Puritan Work Ethic”, that tells us in no uncertain terms that if we work hard we will be successful, and if we are successful, it is a sign that God loves us best of all (ok, that is a gross oversimplification of the first several weeks of my US history class, but you get the point).
While not everyone in the United States wants to be a doctor or lawyer, there is a communal sense that the occupation you have and the way you do your job is somehow part and parcel of your self-worth. So now, turn that idea on its head and look at a world, oh, say like PNG, where your importance and self worth are not inextricably caught up in your job, but instead in your family and your community or “wantok”. For those of you not familiar with the term, a wantok (“one talk”) is the concept of your clan or kinsmen—quite literally those who speak your language, although it is broader than that. The system is a truly communal world where wealth is shared, not necessarily equally, among all members of a given wantok and in return each member can expect to be taken care of regardless of their employment status or how much you contributed. Your loyalty is to your wantok and theirs to you.
So what does the wantok system mean for a PNG employee of an expat employer? Well, first of all, your motivation to work and to do a good job does not necessarily mimic that of an expat. The PNG employee certainly is working to earn money, but for the most part, all your money will go back to your wantok and that does not always mean that you personally will get more. Why would you work harder or longer to get no particular personal benefit? Your wantok does not care what your job title is or whether you got a promotion—that does not change your place in the pecking order of your community. If you lose your job, well, that is too bad, but you will still be taken care of by your wantok, whose pool of resources will still sustain the community. And if your wantok needs you, perhaps to take care of a sick relative or to attend a funeral, then you stay home from work and do just that. Your self-worth has little if anything to do with being an administrative assistant or staff accountant…and everything to do with fulfilling your role within your wantok. Let your employer down and you might have to find a new job; let your wantok down and the consequences are much more dire.
So it is no wonder that expat employers are pulling out their Puritan hair struggling to find a way to motivate their PNG workers. Traditional carrots and sticks have little impact when placed against the strength and influence of the wantok. Add on top of that a weak educational system which does not adequately prepare most young PNG workers for the demands of the expat business world, and you have a recipe for perhaps not total failure, but certainly frustration from both ends—employer and employee. Both sides are conflicted—the expats genuinely want to mentor the PNG workers and have them succeed but cannot tolerate their work habits. The PNG employee wants to learn how to work within the expat model, but cannot put work above the demands of the wantok. Both leave at the end of the day frustrated and confused as to why things are not running smoothly.
It was in the middle of one of these discussions at dinner last week that I was reminded that really, we may not be so different after all. We all spend our time and our best efforts doing those things that are important to us, those things we love and care about. It just so happens, that those things are not always the same to each person or each culture. In the US, we care a lot about our careers and how we are perceived in society as a function of our job choice and performance. In the case of PNG, one could argue that their loyalties and dedication are exactly where they should be, with family and friends and neighbors. A job is just a job, but family is forever. I am about to start a job that I know I will make every effort to excel in, and I hope I will enjoy…but I do not want it to define me or to take me away from those things that are important to me. The real trick for all of us is to find a way to find balance in our jobs, to stay attentive to our families, and hopefully to find some passion for what we do…something, that, by the way, many overworked, overstressed workers in the United States have been trying to achieve for some time now. Perhaps there is some valuable cultural exchange to be had here?