Working in Cambodia provides an excellent opportunity for cultural immersion, whether you work for an established business or start your own.
Although it’s true that Cambodians do not expect foreigners to behave the way they do, or comply with their standards of behavior, it’s important to know how Cambodian culture plays into the workplace environment.
Cambodian society is highly hierarchical. For example, in meetings staff will probably not be eager to volunteer great ideas. Rather, they are more likely to agree with whatever the boss suggests, even if they know it’s not in the best interest of the company. As a foreigner working in a Cambodian company, you may be seen as slightly outside of these rules, but it’s still best to try and be as diplomatic as possible.
Understanding the concept of face is key. Face is honor, reputation, dignity, and social importance all rolled into one. An employee will lose face if ever taken to task or told that he is doing something incorrectly in front of his peers. Any sort of negative feedback should be delivered privately, in a calm manner and as indirectly as you can stand. Giving suggestions for improvement rather than criticism is also a good way to proceed.
Face will affect you at work in many subtle ways. Your colleagues will always say they understand you, even when they don’t. When pressed, they may make up answers to questions you pose, in order to not admit that they do not know the answer. When you ask them to do something they disagree with, they will answer “Yes, yes,” and then not do it, much to your annoyance. In these cases, their intention is not to defy you, but rather to save face for both of you by avoiding an open confrontation.
You’ll find that your colleagues will also try and help you save face by not telling you about any mistakes you might be making, however helpful that information might be to you. You may discover people doing what seem like ridiculous workarounds for extended periods of time to protect you or their colleagues from realizing that you or they are doing something incorrectly and make sure that no one loses face.
Exhibiting anger or losing your temper is seen as a major loss of face, not only for yourself but for those around you. Remaining calm and learning deep-breathing techniques will help immensely in these situations or, when that fails, a stiff drink.
This is an excerpt from Move to Cambodia: A guide to living and working in the Kingdom of Wonder. To learn more about 100+ topics that pertain to Cambodia expats, please consider buying the book.