Cultural Intelligence 101

At the end of August this year, I celebrated a significant anniversary. On the 23rd, it was exactly ten years since I left Sydney for my infamous “3-month business trip” to the Philippines, from which I never returned. Earlier this year I had envisaged a party to celebrate the occasion, but it didn’t quite fit, due to the year I spent in India in the middle. Instead, I decided to postpone my event until 2020 to make it a celebration of ten years in the Philippines.

As it turned out, I was able to commemorate the day in a far more meaningful way. I have long had aspirations to teach, and a more recent desire to find a way to share with young Filipinos how they can be successful working for foreign companies or clients. Filipinos are incredibly adaptable and resilient; they can adjust their working style to meet the needs of their overseas colleagues or clients but there are still cultural differences and learning about them will benefit workers and the company that employs them.

It was on my anniversary that I delivered my first University lecture as a guest speaker to 24 Business Administration students from South Western University in Cebu. The topic was Cultural Intelligence and the objective was to familiarize the students with a different culture, the importance of cultural sensitivity and exposure to different workplace cultures. It included tips for resume writing and how to behave in an interview with a foreigner. To get the group out of their comfort zone I rented a board room on the top floor of a city hotel – complete with an expansive board table with sumptuous black leather chairs and sweeping views across the city and shoreline. Accompanying me was my Recruitment Team Lead – I offered her the opportunity of a segment to share her perspective as a Filipina who had worked for Filipino, Australian and American companies – some good and some bad in each category.

The session enabled me to share a multitude of insights into different working styles, different contextual uses of the same vocabulary, and elements of both Australian and Filipino culture that I don’t believe belong in the workplace. I was delighted that attendance was 100% and the students were extremely attentive and engaged. What a relief for me given that I too was out of my comfort zone!

After the session I sent a survey to solicit feedback, and the students were also asked what they had learned as part of their mid-term examination. The areas that seemed of most interest follow.

Language in the Office

I shared my view that if there is one thing that the Aussie workforce needs to change as it works across geographical boundaries, it is to stop swearing in the office. I’m a prolific swearer myself – when in Australia. But I have learned it’s offensive and inappropriate in a workplace that simply doesn’t speak that way in a professional setting. I advise my Australian clients to dial back the profanity if it’s a feature of their culture, once they start working with an offshore team. Their Filipino workers may seem to accept it, but likely it doesn’t sit well with them and it will chip away at their confidence in being able to “fit in”.

Religion in the Office

I shared my view that one thing the Filipino workforce needs to change is to leave religion out of the office. In a country that is predominantly Catholic with very little diversity in religion or ethnicity, many offices and many workers are accustomed to having religious artifacts, email signatures that include “God Bless You”, and having blessings at the start of events or office openings. In some supermarkets and salons there are prayers read over loudspeaker twice per day. And to my dismay a few years back, a Catholic blessing slipped onto the schedule of our annual End of Year Party.

I explained that while there is little diversity in religion here, there is some, and there is likely wide religious diversity in the company or client in their future. In my company there are practitioners of Seventh Day Adventist, Jehovah’s Witness and a couple of other religions – it’s not 100% Catholic. Then of course there are some agnostics like me. In the workplace it is important that everyone has a sense of acceptance and no-one feels like an outsider. Yempo is a non-discriminatory workplace – we don’t care about gender, religion, age or ethnicity when we hire, and we walk the talk when it comes to our workplace practices. I strip religion out of the Yempo workplace not because I am disrespectful of religion, but because I am respectful of all religions.

Interview Techniques

I shared that I never ask the “what are your weaknesses” question, because I am jaded hearing positive statements masquerading as weaknesses. “My biggest weakness is that I work too hard” or “My biggest weakness is that I care too much about my job” is, in my opinion, a waste of everyone’s time. My advice is to think about what actual weaknesses a candidate has, and to be honest. Personally, I’d prefer to hear:

“I’ve had a few problems meeting deadlines. Now I focus on the deliverables and manage my time more closely”.


“I have been afraid of making a mistake and I tended to escalate when I didn’t know the answer. But these days I try to work through the problem and solve it myself before escalating”.

I recommended that they disclose a genuine weakness and follow it with what they are doing to address it. If they don’t have a weakness, look more closely! If they are not taking action – do something! Authenticity and honesty in an interview can offset a multitude of inadequacies.

Some of the students confided that they had been told to present strengths as weaknesses, and that their expectation of an interview is that it will be difficult and unfriendly, with interviewers trying to trip candidates up. Far from the way I coach people to interview, which is to develop rapport with the candidate and get them as relaxed and comfortable as possible in order to have them perform at their best. It was enlightening to hear from the students themselves how they are prepped for life in the workplace.

If I could re-do how I celebrated my ten-year anniversary of leaving Australia, I wouldn’t change a thing. It was a perfect day spent achieving a long-term goal, pushing myself to do something new, and learning a little about the education system and the experiences of the students within it. My day ended with steak and champagne with a friend in a nice restaurant and a hope that I get to share my Cultural Intelligence workshop with more students in the future.

About the Author: Michelle Fiegehen is the CEO of Yempo, a boutique offshoring company in three locations in the Philippines. Now a permanent resident of the Philippines, she has lived and worked in the Philippines and India since 2009, building offshore capability for clients in Australia, United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Singapore, Dubai, South Africa and Hong Kong.