Asia Trade is a Queensland company aiming to promote export relationships between Queensland manufacturers and service companies and similar businesses in Asian countries. It is a subsidiary of International Trade Australia (ITA) which has branches throughout Australia.
Asia Trade is autonomous but takes its policies on human resource management from those developed by the parent company. In particular, it adheres to ITA’s equal employment opportunity and its policies and programs for combating sexual harassment. The main objectives of equal employment opportunity are to increase the number of women working in professional occupations, improve the career opportunities of all women in the company and effectively manage the cultural diversity of the company’s staff and clients.
There have been several problems relating to human resource management in the Queensland company, largely arising from the diverse cultural backgrounds of the staff. Many of the issues that have been raised have revolved around one senior manager, Mr Woo Hong Li.
Woo has been with the company for four years. In that time he has established trading relationships with many Asian countries and has effectively earned millions of dollars for Queensland companies using Asia Trade’s services. One of the reasons for his success is his ability to speak Chinese and his knowledge of Chinese cultural practices and their influence on business practices. He also has excellent contacts in the Chinese business communities of several Asian countries, some of whom he has lived among and worked with in the past. He is regarded by the board of Asia Trade as an invaluable asset.
Already since Mr Woo began working for the company, one personal assistant has left suddenly with no stated reason for her departure, although there were rumors of sexual harassment. Management took the rumors seriously (although no formal complaint was received) and organised that Woo, along with all his senior colleagues, should receive training on sexual harassment issues from the parent company’s EEO Officer.
Just recently a second personal assistant has left the company, at least temporarily, this time because of stress related problems. This person, Olivia Bloch, is from an Eastern European background and has a university degree in Asian studies, including a major in Chinese language. She had taken the job with Mr Woo soon after graduating because she felt there was potential for her to rise in the company and she was prepared to start in a modest role.
Bloch’s departure was less sudden. She had made several informal complaints to senior management about Woo’s behavior. She claimed he had publicly chastised her on a number of occasions for minor problems, causing her a great deal of embarrassment and stress. He had a habit of standing behind her while she was working, making her nervous and causing her to make mistakes, then ridiculing her for doing so. He always addressed her very sharply, never complimented her on a job well done, and seemed to think that she was lacking intelligence.
Recently, an opportunity had come up for a small project to be done for Woo. It required knowledge of Chinese and a sensitivity to cultural issues. Bloch very much wanted to do this project, and felt well qualified to do it. However, Woo engaged a young man from another area of the company, and told Bloch he had chosen him because a woman would not be able to do the project properly and, in any case, her job was only that of a typist.
Woo’s immediate senior was not prepared to discuss what he saw as petty complaints, and advised Bloch to put up with Woo’s behavior because he was very valuable to the company and was unlikely to react well to the sort of complaint she was making. Accepting that she needed to take some responsibility for dealing with the situation, she went on her own initiative to a private provider to learn some stress-management techniques to help her cope with the situation.
Last week the situation had reached a climax. Woo was giving a presentation to local businesses about his most recent trip to Asia. Bloch had been responsible for organising the event to which a wide range of business leaders had been invited. While Woo was staging his presentation, Bloch stayed at the back of the room and leant up against a table listening to him speak. After the session finished, Woo sought out Bloch and angrily told her that he was highly offended by her disrespectful behavior. She burst into tears and stormed out of the office. She went immediately to ring the EEO officer of ITA to lodge a formal complaint about Woo. The next day, she rang in to say she would be taking stress-related leave for an indefinite period.
Woo, when told of this, said he found this unacceptable, and Bloch would have to return immediately or her services would no longer be required. When it was explained to him that she was within her rights to take the leave, he said that he should also go on stress leave after all that he had had to put up with from her. She had continually stood up to him, although he was the boss and had every right to tell her what to do. She insulted him by not showing proper deference in the presence of others, and she was unreasonably asking for work that was more challenging although such requests were inappropriate from a woman, let alone someone employed as a typist. If someone in his home country behaved as she had she would have been sacked.
Since Bloch has been on leave, stories have begun to surface about Woo’s general behavior. Other women are claiming that he has treated them inappropriately, or that they have witnessed the way he constantly puts Bloch down in front of her colleagues. Some of them have been angered by this as they are aware how hard and efficiently Olivia works and how much her qualifications have helped her to do the job far more effectively than her predecessor. They think a lot of Woo’s success is due to Bloch’s ability to mend fences when his abrupt and abrasive manner causes problems with Asian and Australian clients and contacts.
Management is reluctant to listen to the gossip because of Woo’s undoubted value to the organisation. However, the situation has to be resolved, because a new personal assistant is urgently required for Woo and none of the other employees is willing to take it on. It is thought unlikely that Bloch will return to work with Woo, so a new assistant will be required for the longer term.
What are the issues that need to be resolved before Bloch’s replacement is selected? How would you recommend that AT’s chief executive proceed in order to resolve these issues?
Thanks to Rae Norris from the Faculty of Business at the Sunshine Coast University College for preparing this Case Study.
Proposed solution #1
Leanne Faraday-Brash is an organisational psychologist whose Melbourne-based consulting practice specialises in workplace justice and interpersonal skills. She has wide experience in manufacturing, retail, and banking and finance. Her specialities include strategic planning, team development and EEO issues.
This situation highlights the difference between Asian and Western belief systems. However, some of the biggest gaffs in this saga may have been made by management and not by Woo or his assistants.
Some of the possible scenarios that have led to this gulf can be summarised under a number of themes:
After initial allegations of harassment, Woo and other staff received training in sexual harassment issues.
- Asia Trade staff were trained by an EEO officer from the parent company. The staff may have resented or have been embarrassed by the intrusion of “head office” and were not receptive to the training opportunity.
- We know nothing from the case study of Woo’s ability in English. He may have attended training he scarcely understood. Furthermore, he may have understood sexual harassment to be about sexual favors and advances only, having no understanding of intimidation and sexism in a harassment context.
Leadership and management
The management are greatly to blame. They have pushed a believable line; giving their female staff the expectation that they will receive the same opportunities as their male counterparts, that initiative and hard work will be rewarded. Essentially the culture clash has occurred between the affirmative-action policy inherited from the parent company and the cultural paradigm within which Woo works.
The expectation created by the company is dashed when the typist finds herself being subjugated by a man who was never going to be egalitarian. Management must anticipate these difficulties and pave the way for productive relationships. Although it may have been difficult for any support staff to work easily with Woo as he has been described, his bad behavior may easily have been exaggerated by those loyal to the typist. Nevertheless, it is incumbent on management to get to the bottom of the allegations: this is their legal responsibility under the “vicarious liability” clause of the Sex Discrimination Act.
In not dealing with the issue promptly and fairly, management has reinforced the perception that “money talks”; that any behavior is acceptable as long as the perpetrators are bringing home the bacon.
Management has to investigate any allegations of sexual harassment in a decisive and responsible manner. Its reference to some of the allegations as “gossip” reflects a lack of responsibility and explains the resentment of many staff.
Woo’s success means that the company is likely to stick by him in the short term. It must now accept that he needs a mentor, intelligible harassment training, cultural briefings and perhaps leadership training. It will have to tread a delicate line in ensuring that Woo’s skills are developed without appearing to victimise him. He may need one-on-one coaching in leadership and EEO; possibly using an interpreter and a mentor who understand his cultural background.
The irony is that Woo’s knowledge of Chinese culture is largely responsible for his success. In turn his acculturation has reinforced attitudes that have been singularly unsuccessful with his staff.
Before recruiting again, the company has to pinpoint the qualities it needs in a typist and align the expectations of the incumbent with the demands of the job – while setting behavioral guidelines for Woo. It may be important to ensure that those recruiting have a realistic picture of the demands of the job in case some of the stress experienced by the previous typist were associated with aspects of the job other than Woo’s personality or leadership skills.
If none of these strategies have the desired effect, the company will have to decide whether it will allow a successful manager to undermine the spirit of equal opportunity and workplace justice. Perpetuating the status quo could endanger preferred-employer status and affect morale and productivity. Then there is the issue of a formal EEO complaint to the Queensland Anti-Discrimination Board or the federal Human Rights Commission.
Proposed solution #2
Patricia McCormack has had much experience in human resource management in senior management roles. Most of this was gained in banking and finance organisations. She is now managing the HR function at Mincom, a worldwide software development company, on a consultancy basis.
Because of the diverse cultural background of staff at Asia Trade, the chief executive has even more reason to pay particular attention to developing an equitable working environment. The company has adopted its parent company’s policies on equal employment opportunity and sexual harassment. It now needs to implement them.
The discrimination issue
The conflict between Bloch and Woo needs to be investigated in a sensitive and confidential manner. The first step in dealing with the discrimination accusation is to determine the facts. The chief executive can complete this exercise personally or delegate the task to appropriately qualified people.
Bloch should be interviewed by an independent, such as the EEO officer from the parent company, so that she can freely outline her concerns. The process should be explained to Bloch so she is aware of a her rights, the process and the likely resolution time.
Then the chief executive and Woo’s manager, or perhaps only the manager, should talk to Woo to tell him of the nature of the complaints and the process that will be followed to complete the investigation. Woo must be given the opportunity to explain his actions. The manager should outline company policies and what they mean in terms of acceptable behavior. At the end of the meeting Woo should be told about the next steps in the process.
Next, the chief executive, Woo’s manager and the independent person who interviewed Bloch, being in possession of the facts, must develop an appropriate course of action.
Woo is valued for his achievements, but this does not exempt him from complying with company policy or legislative requirements. His actions must be investigated and appropriate action taken. During the discussion he can be told that his business results are valued, however discrimination cannot be tolerated.
It is clear that Woo has behaved in a discriminatory way, as his actions could only be described as biased and intimidating. He needs counselling on how to work with other staff members, in particular women, in a culturally diverse workplace.
A diary note on any discussions should be made and a formal letter of warning should be issued to Woo. This will convey the message that the company is taking this action seriously. Woo must be well briefed on the consequences should he not modify his behavior.
Support for Bloch is a high priority, as she is the aggrieved party. Asia Trade must provide her with options on how she can continue employment. She may prefer not to return to her previous role after such an investigation; but she should not be forced to leave her job unless this becomes the only satisfactory solution. In this case, some form of settlement would be required.
Introducing the eeo program
Chief executives need to publicise equity policies and continually reinforce correct behaviors. They must ensure that senior management understand and are committed to the EEO policy and take immediate steps to deal with any complaints. Management has no option but to recognise and act on its legal responsibilities.
In this case the parent company’s policies and programs are already in place. The developmental work has been done, so it is only a matter of deciding how to introduce the program. It is essential that all staff have an understanding of their rights and responsibilities. Once the EEO program has been introduced, education programs should continually reinforce the message.
Lessons need to be learnt from the first attempt at Asia Trade, as it seems that Woo has not understood or accepted the training. It suggests that the training was not effective, or perhaps Woo did not see evidence that the company took EEO seriously.
The grievance procedure – including the nomination of a particular officer to contact for information or advice – is a very important section of the policy. Asia Trade needs to take this opportunity to put in place the values of equity in the workplace and prevent other issues arising.