10 simple but stupid things to avoid doing in your new job

You’ve just moved to a foreign country and started a new job. I’m guessing you don’t want to be sacked, right? If you turn up drunk, you’re probably not going to get into the good books, but commit a stupid, simple faux pas in your new professional context and it could be more than just embarrassing; it could damage your career. The last thing you need is a gaffe, doing something that would put you in the negative spotlight. Here are 10 things, all of which I’ve seen my countrymen do while working abroad, to beware of and to avoid:

1. Misspelling a name

A person’s name is one of the most important belongings, so bloody well make sure to spell it right. This is doubly important in our situation when we’re dealing with many names that are undoubtedly, well, foreign to us. There really is nothing that signifies a lack a professionalism more than misspelling a person’s name. Here’s how to solve the problem: when in doubt, ask. Most people won’t find your query annoying. In fact, they’ll be flattered that you thought spelling their name was important enough to check with them directly. Also, misspelling need not involve only a personal name, either. It could even be a key term used in your organisation, profession, or industry, even a company’s name is among these.

2. Mispronouncing a name

The same reasoning regarding spelling applies to pronunciation, only more so as it is going to be difficult for you to pronounce foreign names correctly, especially if the language uses a different alphabet or phonemes. As before, when in doubt, ask the person directly. If you have to, to be frightened to make a phonetic representation of the name and even practice it with the person. For example, in Turkish the letter ‘c’ is pronounced like an English ‘j’ and a lot of names begin with a ‘c’. Again, people really won’t mind your taking up their time this way; they’ll be thrilled that you care about saying their name correctly, well, as long as they don’t have to have the same conversation with you more that once.

3. Referring improperly to your boss

Different cultures have different ways of perceiving formality and this is particularly an issue in the work environment. In Turkey, for example, you wouldn’t refer to your boss by using their surname; this would be considered a bit weird to say the least. Rather you say the Turkish equivalent of Mr. Dave or Mrs. Anne. Again, people won’t mind you asking what the conventions are, they’ll be glad that you’re considerate enough to find out.

4. Failing to reset your voicemail or e-mail auto-reply

When you return from time off work, undo any absence greeting or auto-replies you’ve setup. Few things make you look more idiotic than having a greeting that references your return to work date from three months ago. I’ve had colleagues who have failed to do this and you wouldn’t believe the amount of ill feeling it can generate. If you think you’re going to forget, try placing a note on your phone or computer monitor, or adding your email to outgoing mailing lists, that way you’ll also receive your outdated ‘on vacation’ message.

5. Leaving a ‘departed’ employee in the contacts list

When an employee leaves your school, remove that person from voicemail and any online directories or Web pages that you may have. Leaving a person in place can make the company look foolish. I have a colleague, who I’ve worked with since he left his last job seven years ago, who is still on the contacts page of the university’s English program website of his former employers. We were running a bet as to when they would get around to removing him, but the choice of year made by even the least optimistic among us has long since passed. Also, you might create the opportunity for an unaware caller to still leave a message for that departed employee, leaving the message to get missed.

6. Commenting on a personal or family photo

Don’t, just don’t, OK? If you really must, simply stick to, ‘that’s a nice photo.’ If you see a personal or family photo on a person’s desk, avoid commenting on relationships. That young boy you thought was a grandson may possibly just be a son. Similarly, if you know the photo is an earlier one of the person you’re meeting with, avoid comments like, ‘You looked great back then.’

7. Asking about pregnancy

The next two are just general all round good advice, not solely issues affecting teachers working abroad. This is just something that is going to end badly if you bring it up in conversation. Please, please, no matter how much a woman looks like she’s showing, keep your mouth shut until she actually brings the subject up herself. If you ask, and the answer is ‘no’, you will have no elegant retreat. What’s more, if you’re conducting an interview, you have also opened the door wide open to a discrimination lawsuit.

8. Asking about an unseen or absent spouse

Like pregnancy, this is not a good subject to broach. Suppose last year you were at a school social and saw your colleague and their spouse. This year, you only see the colleague. As with the pregnancy situation, just keep our mouth shut. Don’t be in the position; asking about the spouse only to be told, ‘we’re divorced.’

9. Correcting the boss

Doing this anywhere in the world is likely to incur wrath, but in some cultures this is absolutely unforgivable. Correcting your boss will rarely, if ever, endear you to that person. If he or she made a mistake, try to correct it in as low-profile a way as possible. Perhaps you can talk to your boss discretely in their office, away from prying ears? Tread very carefully on this subject as incidents will not be forgotten, or forgiven.

10. Displaying lack of unity in public

If you have disagreements with another teacher or member of the admin staff, resolve them privately. Don’t air dirty laundry to outsiders. Doing so makes your whole organisation look bad. If this happens in front of paying customers, it may cost the organisation money. Let’s face it, this is only going to end one way, and it won’t be in your favour.

None of these are particularly difficult to avoid but they could, singularly or collectively, cause you a world of suffering if you fail to consider them. If you’re interested in looking at how cultural differences can impact on the workplace, you could do a lot worse than reading up on the ideas of Geert Hofstede and Fons Trompenaars.

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