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Understanding Supervisor-Employee Relationships in Chile

Special courtesies expected by employees that may not be anticipated by the foreign supervisor include time off to attend to family responsibilities. The obligations of the extended family are multiple, and taken very seriously. Being part of such a unit is more than doing a day’s work; particularly if the job isn’t an important one.

Events that may require the employee’s presence include weddings, funerals, illnesses and situations calling for all the support systems the family can rally.

Time may not be money in a Latin American context. In fact, some of the hardest-working people are the least remunerated, and watching the clock for the purpose of increasing productivity doesn’t bring rewards. The old Protestant Ethic that working hard leads to getting ahead, therefore, is a false assumption in a society where individual labor was neither sanctified by the Puritan tradition, nor reinforced by theology.

Seemingly contradictory, there is nevertheless great esteem for cooperation and individualism at the same time. Competition, American style, in the workplace is less common, perhaps because status and social position were practically fore-ordained by birth. This is changing, but pulling one’s self up by the bootstraps is still tough.

The ability to empathize with employees is not considered un-businesslike, but rather attractive, and is sometimes expanded into a paternalistic, patron-client relationship in which the employee becomes very supportive and loyal to the supervisor. In return, the employer or supervisor keeps an eye out for the welfare of the employee and sees that he is rewarded, sometimes bypassing the normal pattern of promotions. These patterns remind some observers of U.S. old fashioned political machines, where commitment and dedication sometimes win out over skill or ability.

Is nepotism bad? An expert writes: “Within our culture, cooperation and loyalty are preferentially granted to relatives and friends. For that reason, the negative image attributed to nepotism in the United States does not exist in the Chilean character. To be loyal and true to a relative or friend is an unavoidable obligation.”

Specific legal obligations to employees are spelled out carefully in Labor regulations and should be adhered to meticulously. It is the social considerations that, while undefined, make business run smoothly.

Since attitudes toward persons in positions of authority tend to be deferential, it may be difficult to get direct, constructive criticism, especially from a subordinate. Styles of expressing disagreement will fall somewhere in between the direct, straightforward “call a spade a spade” and the circular, discreet diplomacy of the Japanese who artfully go around a subject without quite naming it. Both the Latin & European traditions of courtesy and a tight labor market make for reticence.

Conveying respect for the uniqueness of the individual employee and a sense of appreciation for ideals outside mundane production quotas will be well received.

Excerpted and adapted from the ebook “Cultural Dimensions of Expatriate Living & Working in Chile” by Bill Drake.

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