Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Into Africa

I spent approximately 3 ½ years working in Angola (West Africa) for Chevron, a global energy company. I primarily supported expatriate employees from a variety of countries who were responsible for oil exploration and production.

I worked a 28/28 schedule, which meant that I worked 7 days per week, 12 hours per day for 28 days and then had the following 28 days off. Great gig, I know.

Funeral Benefits – A Way of Life

It was common practice for the Angolan HR staff to assist the ~1,800 Angolan employees during the week and for my manager and I to assist the few Angolan employees who needed help on the weekends.

Early in my assignment, an employee showed up on a Saturday and announced that his wife had passed away. This was obviously terrible news and the employee notified us so we could issue funeral benefits.

It may sound unique for people in the U.S., Canada, or Europe but a funeral benefit was a common practice in the Angolan oil industry. With a large number of employees needing every bit of their income to support their families, the unplanned expense of a funeral could create a financial hardship. Funeral benefits included a coffin, burial sheets, and a credit at the company store where food was purchased so it could be offered to visiting family and friends.

The More the Merrier (Marry Her)?

The bereaved employee provided his employee ID and his spouse's name and I proceeded to look up his information. For some reason the spouse’s name didn't match and I asked my manager for assistance. His first question was, "Did you clarify which wife passed away?". I assumed he meant the current spouse versus an ex-wife. However, I learned that, amongst some Angolans, polygamy was practiced and an employee may have multiple wives (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polygamy_in_Angola). While not legal, it was frequent enough due to several factors:
  • A widely accepted cultural norm;
  • A civil war lasting almost 27 years that killed over 500,000 people (many of them being men) and left a shortage of eligible bachelors; 
  • An average lifespan for Angolans at that time of only 42 years.
Because it was a common enough occurrence, employee benefits were designed to specifically address this. While polygamy was a cultural practice, benefits for subsequent spouses were not legally mandated. Benefits were offered for the immediate family and that only included the “primary” spouse who was listed as a dependent. The deceased wife was not a registered dependent so was not covered and I notified the employee of this.

My Way or the Global Highway?

We often think of diversity in terms of gender, race, age, and sexual orientation but, in our global economy, it also means cultural differences. While polygamy is an extreme example, many others exist: differences in personal space, respect and hierarchy, avoiding confrontation, humility vs. self-promotion, etc. It’s important to respect and acknowledge cultural practices that differ from our own.

It’s this respect of cultural diversity that can lead to greater understanding, teamwork, and stronger business results. Doing some research on a culture before interacting with employees from that country can avoid unintentional disrespect and allow all members of the team to fully engage and collaborate.

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