Thursday, April 11, 2013

Juggling Family Tradition and Business Expectations

In my current role, I have the opportunity to talk with Emiratis about more than where I'm from and the fact that it's cold and snowy there and hot and sticky here. It's a fascinating culture and one I'll never fully understand simply because it's so completely different. One thing that has really struck me is the way UAE Nationals have to juggle work and family.

To understand, we need to go back 40-60 years ago when everyone in what is now known as UAE was either a camel farmer, a bedouin nomad or a pearl diver. Yes, a few were merchants, but a very few. If you think about this timeline that means that many/most Emirati graduates joining the workforce are the first in their family to have a university education and the first to tackle the completely different lifestyle of a 9-5 office job.

Family is incredibly important in the Emirati culture and there is a strongly respected and revered hierarchy. If an older family member tells you to do something, you do it and you don't dare argue or refuse. And, you are most likely living in the same compound or the same house. So imagine a new grad now entering the workforce and Mom says, "Ahmed, you need to take your sister to the doctor tomorrow at 10am". Ahmed doesn't have the luxury of telling Mom that's he's got to work - he is expected to take his sister to the doctor as requested. No argument and no negotiation. On the other side, Ahmed's manager is expecting him to report to work. No argument and no negotiation. It's a tough position for many of them.

In the development program I manage, we book the participants' vacation periods to coincide with the program. It's  communicated well in advance (from their first week on the job) and we rarely change those dates so that families can work around them. Even so, I have a few meetings a month with grads who want to change their leave dates. Usually because mom wants to go abroad and has selected the date based on her preference. When I try to suggest that the grad explain their work schedule, I am usually met with pleading eyes to make an exception. Mom ranks a whole lot higher than I do!

Another interesting challenge is with marriage. As you are probably aware, many marriages are arranged in this culture and there are still very traditional processes and values associated with the decision. In some families, the daughter or son can accept or decline the choice and in others it is expected that they do what the family has arranged. This goes for the girls and the guys as the marriages are often arranged by the parents. As a result, I've had individuals (mostly girls) need to resign because either their new husband lives in another town (or abroad) or the husband's family doesn't want her to work. Imagine investing your time to go to university, land a good job and begin a 21 month development program and then have to suddenly walk away. When I look at it through my American lens, I feel frustrated by this and a little sad, but then have to remember that this is the expectation and norm here. In fact, many girls are thrilled because it means they get to start their family and move on to their most important role; mother. I think sometimes I must seem like such a strange creature to them.  To have moved so far from my family and chosen not to have children. I'll bet they feel frustrated and a little sad for me.

Makes ya think.

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