Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Doing business

One of the big challenges about uprooting yourself to a different country is adapting to differences in culture and what is seen as acceptable / standard / just the way things are.

There are lots of examples of cultural differences between Britain and Australia – even though they’re very similar in many ways, they’re also very different at times. A common way of describing it is that Australia is a bit like Britain of 30 years ago. As I was only a nipper then I can’t really comment on whether that’s true, but I can say that there are aspects of life here that seem stuck in a bit of a time warp to me and one of them is how business is done.

Business here is done almost entirely on the basis of relationships – it’s all about who you know, not what you know. There’s a huge number of private and quasi-private schools that churn out new additions to the old boys (and girls) network every year and it’s perfectly acceptable in Australia to get involved in mutual back-scratching without anyone blinking an eyelid. Huge numbers of jobs get filled based on someone who knows someone, rather than being openly advertised and recruited for.

Now, I don’t think this is all bad – contacts and networks are part of life and I’d hate to live in a world where everything was done through some kind of rigid hierarchy or dry policies and procedures. And I quite clearly have benefited from this myself in terms of my work, not to mention various job offers that I got early on here – all through contacts. But there’s no denying it’s an elitist, exclusivist way of working that doesn’t help to create opportunities for people from all kinds of backgrounds to get ahead – if you’re not in the ‘right’ networks, you’re stuffed basically.

I also find it really difficult that I’m expected to use personal contacts and relationships for my own (or my organisation’s) gain – the concept of ‘conflict of interest’ seems to be missing from the Australian mindset! It’s particularly difficult for me and K because we work in related organisations – I’ve been expected to exploit this on more than one occasion and have been treated with a combination of confusion and dislike when I’ve resisted. Of course all of this is particularly ‘ironic’ given I work in a sector that is supposed to be about breaking down barriers and enabling people from all backgrounds to have a fair chance in life.

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