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Ethical Considerations When Accepting an Overseas Work Assignment

The opportunity to work in a foreign country can be exciting and challenging, and it can also enhance your career prospects. You’ll establish qualifications and acquire new skills that can make you an asset to your organization now and in the future.

However, you’re also likely to discover that overseas employment can be much different than working in your home country. In addition to having a unique culture, each nation has its own distinct set of customs and accepted practices for conducting business.

From an ethical perspective, you could find yourself in situations that make you uncomfortable – and make you question whether you’re doing the right thing. If you don’t make the proper choices, you could put yourself and the organization in significant peril.

What Are the Causes of Ethical Dilemmas When Working Abroad?

At the core of most ethical challenges in overseas work settings is the clash between your expectations and those of the host country. You might be tempted to remedy this by abiding by the philosophy of “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” After all, trying to go your own way could cast you as an outsider and cost you some lucrative business opportunities.

The problem is that you might be expected to engage in activities that are perfectly acceptable in your new country, but may be constituted as unethical, and even illegal back home. For instance, a foreign government official may “request” the payment of a bribe to enable you to land a contract, a practice that would likely constitute a violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in the U.S.

Furthermore, once you demonstrate that you’re willing to skirt the rules, you’re creating a slippery slope for other members of the organization. You’re setting a dangerous precedent for everyone by creating inappropriate “expectations” from foreign business partners in the future.

The Importance of Defining Your Boundaries

Avoiding ethical traps when working abroad is somewhat of a delicate balancing act. While you certainly don’t want to apply the “when in Rome…” standard to every situation, you also don’t want to be so rigid that you can’t adapt to the new business and cultural environment, either.

An approach that works for many expatriates when finding an acceptable middle ground between relativism (nothing is off-limits) and absolutism (most things that are different are wrong) is following these three guiding principles for shaping ethical behavior:

1. Respecting core human values: You probably have a well-defined value system that helps you determine right from wrong during your interactions.Use this as your guide when faced with an ethical dilemma while working overseas.

For example, if you view yourself as an honest person who acts with integrity, a situation where you’re asked to lie to gain a client or get approval for a project should throw up a red flag. In short, if you wouldn’t feel comfortable doing it in your home country, you should probably avoid doing it abroad as well.

2. Respecting local traditions: Perhaps the biggest challenge you’ll incur when working overseas is adapting to the nation’s customs. You’ll need to understand that there are some changes you’ll have to make regarding how you conduct yourself in a business setting.

For instance, in Japan it’s customary for business associates to exchange gifts, a practice that’s frowned upon by many U.S. and European companies for ethical, and in some cases, legal reasons. You’ll have to be clear about how far you can go when participating in gift-giving and receiving. You don’t want to offend your new business associates, but you also don’t want to violate any company policies or anti-bribery laws, either.

3. Believing that context matters: Context is essential when attempting to determine right from wrong in an overseas work environment. While some activities are inappropriate no matter where they occur, others involve gray areas that leave some room for interpretation and judgment.

To illustrate, suppose you’re tasked with designing a product for use in an overseas market that contains materials or ingredients that many companies in the U.S. avoid for moral reasons. Your first inclination might be to say no. However, further investigation and research may reveal that using the substances does not have the same ethical or social stigma in the host country.

In summary, if you choose to accept an overseas work assignment, be flexible and keep an open mind, but don’t stray from the value system that you adhere to every day.

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