Potential impact of cultural differences on workers’ compensation through the lens of a Chinese American – Part 1 of 3

This series of three blogs about culture are from a presentation given by the author to the Oregon Workers’ Compensation Board and administrative law judges in October 2016.

Bin Chen

Bin Chen

Culture is one of the factors that determine the way people think, act and interact. It is composed of many layers. Some of them are obvious, such as customs, arts, food and celebrations. Others, such as social status, body language, social interaction, sense of humor, concept of time or even the definition of insanity, are not as noticeable.

Cultural diversity in the workplace has grown as a trend over the passage of time with the increase of globalization in the world. Workplace culture can have a very real and powerful impact on the entire work environment, including a company’s workers’ compensation experience and costs. While the dialogue has begun, the impact of cultural differences on the workers’ compensation system has not been fully researched or investigated.

From my own experience and observation, many aspects of the Chinese culture may affect the workers’ compensation system, including but not limited to, claim filing, receipt of disability benefits, and access to proper medical care. In the interest of brevity, I will focus on the following four key features of Chinese culture.

Martin Lockett, in his study of Chinese management, suggests that four key elements can be identified to be common in the PRC, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and probably among overseas Chinese.[1] The four elements are respect for age and hierarchical position, group orientation, concept of face, and importance of relationships.

Collectivism vs. Individualism. In Chinese culture, as well as in many other Asian cultures, you are defined by your relationship to the larger group. All of your actions, whether positive or negative, do not just reflect on yourself, but on the group as a whole. This is also part of Confucian thought: subject your own desires to the needs of the group and the good of society. This collective responsibility first extends to an individual’s immediate and extended family, then community and then to the entire nation. Individuals are expected to treat each other well and to show humility when discussing successes. Self-promotion is generally frowned upon by the Chinese people.

Social Structure. Confucian doctrine sought to develop a framework for a stable and harmonious society. In this framework, mutual responsibilities and obligations were defined between ruler and subjects, husbands and wives, parents and children, fathers and eldest son and eldest son and other siblings. Even in modern China, the social structure remains largely formal and hierarchical. The hierarchy is what dictates authority. In the family, a person is expected to listen to anyone who is older. This hierarchical social structure extends to the workplace. The person with the highest position has the final say in decision making. Those below simply accept their place in the hierarchy and are expected to follow and obey without question.

Face/Reputation. Of all the idiosyncrasies of Chinese culture, the concept of “face” is perhaps most difficult for Westerners to fully grasp.

In cultural anthropology, a shame culture, also called honor-shame culture or shame society, is the concept that, in a given society, the primary device for gaining control over children and maintaining social order is the infliction of shame and the complementary threat of ostracism. Many Asian countries, most notably China and Japan, are considered shame cultures.

The number one rule for saving face in Asia, particularly China, is not to lose your cool in public. Shouting or arguing in public is strictly frowned upon; causing a scene actually makes bystanders lose face through embarrassment suffered on your behalf.

Relationship (Guanxi). Guanxi describes the relationship of one person to another or one party to another. However, more importantly, the term expresses an obligation of one party to another, built over time by the reciprocation of social exchanges and favors. If you have guanxi with another, you would be quick to do a favor, act on another’s behalf and, depending on the depth of the relationship, do anything necessary for the other party. The reciprocal nature of guanxi and its implied obligations are the main reason why Chinese are reluctant to engage in deeper relationships with people they do not know.

The concept of guanxi plays a big role in one’s professional life in China. In America, personal and professional lives are two separate things, and generally do not overlap with each other. In China, a worker is expected to know his or her co-workers to foster a genuine trust within the workplace. Co-workers are encouraged to fraternize to develop guanxi.

In part two, I will discuss how these elements of Chinese culture can affect workers’ compensation claims.

In part three, I will discuss some tips for using this information when handling a claim by a worker who may have a different cultural perspective from yours.

Click here to download a pdf.

[1] Lockett, Martin. Culture and the Problems of Chinese Management. Templeton College, Kennington, Oxford. U.K., 1988 (https://www.ashridge.org.uk/faculty-research/research/publications/culture-and-the-problems-of-chinese-management-198/, last viewed on 21-October-2016)