East vs. West: How geography impacts work culture across the world

Because of technology and the ability to work remotely, it’s now possible to work almost anywhere in the world. And depending on your language skills, you may have the opportunity to work with a company whose culture and practices are entirely new to you.

This is very much how my career has played out. I am from Malaysia, and worked for several companies there before I got an offer to work for Zapier. (Zapier has a fully remote team worldwide, but the majority is based in the U.S.) Since then, I have worked with companies all over the world as a remote SEO consultant. Over the years I have developed a preference for working with North American and European companies versus Asian companies.

I’d like to start with a small disclaimer. This post is very much based on generalizations. I know it can be risky to generalize, but I am willing to do so here. As I have traveled and worked with many different companies, I do see the same patterns over and over. Because I am from Malaysia and now predominantly work with Western companies, I wanted to share my point of view. I hope that this will offer some perspective for anyone who travels and works internationally.

Office culture in Asia

People in Asia tend to be very hard workers. This can be a great thing of course, but there are still many negative practices that come up in office culture there. For example, when you work at an Asian company, you may find your coworkers can be very paranoid. If someone sees a young, new employee arrive at the company they instantly fear for their job. This fear keeps people from sharing knowledge — they hoard information to avoid the possibility of getting replaced or fired. This negatively impacts collaboration and makes things very inefficient. If you work in an Asian company, you are likely to have one or many coworkers who are always sucking up to the boss. This is unfortunate because you will see less-qualified people who are well-liked by management — even though they don’t know how to do their jobs right.

Personally, I think a lot of these issues come down to transparency. Asian companies do not typically embrace transparency, which creates a culture of fear in the office.

In North America and Europe, everything is more transparent and typically well-documented. It makes it easy to get up to speed and understand everything. I also think the more Western practice of giving two weeks to one month notice when leaving a job is better. In Asia, the norm is three months! I think that’s just a bad idea. When you’re working with an employee and they want to leave, why would you want them to stay for another three months? I think it’s much better to let them go on their way so you can get someone who wants to be there into your company.

Work-life balance

I have a friend from India who I met while we were working together in Malaysia. He took a job in Germany recently, and he was shocked when his boss approached him at 5 p.m. and told him to put down his laptop and stop working. He told me he thought she had been joking. “No,” I said. “That’s the culture in the West.” My friend, like many Asian people, had never had any kind of “work-life balance” before.

The emphasis on work-life balance varies quite a bit across North America and Europe. Different companies and different countries all have their own take on how much employees should be working. For example, France (a country known for valuing the “life” part of the equation much more highly) actually passed a law to protect employees from after-hours email. You can read more about France’s radical email law here.

I know there are companies in North America and Europe where people are expected to work long hours, or to be on call all the time. But generally speaking, the attitude towards work is much more relaxed on this side of the world than in Asia.

How jobs are allocated

Two of my early jobs were with a Malaysian company and Zapier, an American company. I noticed some very different approaches to hiring between the two.

In Asia, if you know someone or get a recommendation letter from the governing political party, you might get preferential treatment in the hiring process. And this can be true regardless of skills. For example, in Malaysia when the opposition party won, tens of thousands of people got fired as the new government found that they were all “politically appointed” and was basically getting free money.

My experience at Zapier was very different. In fact, they have an intricate hiring system that is designed to weed out any bias or favoritism. After you submit your application, there will be three or four people reviewing your application. Everyone who looks at your application is using a Chrome extension that keeps your name hidden. It also blocks them from looking at your locations, social profiles, and any images associated with your name in a search. This way they do not know your gender, name or race. They just see the answers to their questions. Each of the three reviewers has to put in a comment. No one can see what someone else has said until everyone submits. If you reject someone you are required to put in a concrete reason.

With this whole process, it can be pretty hard to get a job with Zapier, even if you know someone. But on the plus side, you know you are being hired for your skills and experience. This process helps Zapier to hire very qualified staff, without having to worry about bias in the hiring process.

The race card

In Malaysia, you will frequently see job ads that require you speak a specific language. It may sound like the perfect job for you, but you get to the end and it will say they are only accepting applicants who speak Mandarin, or maybe Tamil. This is a not-so-subtle way of saying, “We do not want any other race to apply for the job.” People do hire based on race, which is unfortunate because hiring decisions are not based on qualifications and skills, but on something that is superficial.

I can’t claim that racism and prejudice doesn’t exist in other countries, but generally I see it in much more obvious ways throughout Asia. People tend to hang out with people who look like them, talk like them and share similar backgrounds. All that leads to is more of the same, and not being exposed to anything new or different.

But every culture has its pluses and minuses

To be fair, I want to point out that there are some things I prefer about working in Asia. And there are some things I don’t like about working elsewhere.

For example, sometimes American companies (not so much Europeans) will require you to sign a lot of agreements and contracts. They are typically long and boring and a total pain, but you sign it so that you can get the job.

And yes, I do have some good things to say about working in Asia. Most Asian workers are very hardworking. People and companies there have a mindset of delivering the output that is required. They tend to be very good at hitting tight deadlines, and generally have a can-do attitude. I have worked with teams in Asia who are more inclined to find a workaround for things that may seem complicated, or impossible at first.

What do you think of the work culture where you live? Is there something you would change about it?