Cultural relativity of the truth.

Leather painting

Leather painting

When we are working on social compliance, we have to work both from the legal or regulation point of view, but also from the cultural one. I often use below example to illustrate that. It’s about hygiene in the canteen. We have auditors from different origin. They are usually working in their own countries (actually to match the local culture). But, from time to time, they are moving around. Once, an auditor from Switzerland came to China. During the audit, she explained there was a problem in the canteen as the kitchen was dirty, while the Chinese auditor said it was okay, maybe not the best one, but he would have eaten there without concern. Months later, the Chinese auditor went to India, and during the audit he pointed out a problem on the canteen as the kitchen was dirty and unhygienic while the Indian auditor said it okay, maybe not the best one, but he would have eaten there without concern. Was only the auditor from Switzerland right? But in this case, about at least 2.5 billion human beings are actually eating in unacceptable situation. Or was it only the Indian auditor who was right, but then most places in the world are doing way too much in terms of hygiene? Actually, they were all correct in their own countries. Topics as clean or dirty are actually cultural values as defined by Geert Hofstede, and not universal ones.

How can we prevent the cultural bias while auditing then? What should social compliance be if we are to avoid checking on values important to one culture and less to another one? Reference to local laws in audit criteria is an obvious tool, as it is supposed to be a part of the culture. But then, we should interpret the law in the proper way, that is the local way. Indeed, when laws are written, they are made by people of the local cultural background, more or less individualistic, more or less concerned by uncertainty and seeking more for universal rules to apply or general orientation to be decided on each specific cases. I would recommend reading Trompenaars to know more about that. But then, on what should we based the social compliance tools (code of conducts, criteria…) to avoid these bias?

This long time question for me has actually led me to look again the “Workers’ rights” topic. It is often a mixed list of topics going from working contracts to discrimination and from the unions rights to workers’ administration. When trying to be universal, we have to keep workers involved in these rights. So, shouldn’t the key point of Workers rights being the ability for workers to defend themselves to avoid unfair situation? So they can focus on what is the most important in their culture. Union rights look obviously an important part of this ability. But it is actually limited in so many countries that most of criteria have found turnaround to accept a situation where workers are not free to join unions. It is usually then requested the company should then be as proactive as possible to discuss with workers (if possible workers’ representatives) when union rights are limited by law. But, shouldn’t we consider workers are no more really able to defend themselves? What could be a better approach? Should social compliance criteria accept this limit and issue localized requirements designed by locals to convert the general protection on more specific tools that could be accepted and be efficient in a specific countries? This is still clearly an open question, where cross-cultural management should probably have its word to say.

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