When in Rome

Stephen Evanoff

Stephen Evanoff

The recent World Cup extravaganza reminded me just how rapidly we are moving toward an integrated global community.

As our economy and businesses become increasingly international, EHS managers find themselves faced with the task of solving EHS problems in unfamiliar countries and cultures.  This is particularly challenging for American EHS managers of U.S.-based corporations, who are accustomed to operating in a U.S.-centric manner.

There are differences in the pace of conducting business, differences in the balance of power between management, regulatory agencies and labor (or is it labour), different philosophies around EHS risk management. And of course, language and cultural differences, which can become especially problematic in the technically complex world of EHS management.

The classic gaffe often used to illustrate the importance of clear communication in a business context is the story of the problems Chevrolet had with marketing its Nova brand in Latin America. Since “no va” literally means “no go” in Spanish, buyers shunned the car, forcing Chevrolet to pull it from the market.

You may also have heard the anecdote about what Gerber learned when they first introduced their baby food in Africa, using the same packaging as in the U.S. (you know, the one with the cute baby on the label). While later investigating lower-than-expected sales figures, they found out that it is common practice in Africa to put pictures of the contents on food package labels.

The lessons, of course, are that language and cultural differences can lead to major misunderstandings. I think it would be wise for EHS managers of global corporations to invest time understanding the cultures and regulatory, governmental and business norms of the countries in which they operate.  As for the Millennial Generation members of NAEM, by the time you all are the grand poobahs of EHS management, I predict that being adept at operating in a variety of cultures will be an expectation, so it would be best to get started working on these skills now.

For those of you with international experience, what recommendations do you have for EHS managers who find themselves thrust into a global role?  Any good anecdotes or recommended reading?

And to the Millennial Generation readers (surely there are a few of you lurking out there), what would you like from NAEM to help you prepare for this brave new world?

About Stephen Evanoff

Stephen Evanoff is Vice President of Environment, Health and Safety for Danaher Corp. and President of NAEM’s Board of Directors. Follow him on Twitter at @SteveEvanoff.

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  1. Dean M. Calhoun, CIH

    July 23, 2010

    I agree with Stephen, for the young EH&S professional it’s imperative to gain international experience. The earlier in your career the better. A good source to learn some basics about the culture of a specific country are a set of documents called Culturegrams. Easy to read documents. Also, here are a couple of links to some EH&S Thought Leader Interviews that I’ve conducted. Each one stressed the importance of international experience and being there.

    Interview with Keith Tait

    Interview with Jeff Holmes

    As Stephen indicated in his post, U.S.-centric customs and phrases may cause challenges. Even simple things such as date formatting (i.e. mm/dd/yyyyy vs. dd/mm/yyyy). For many international companies English may be the “official” language, but the words and phrases may take on different meanings.

  2. Zack Mansdorf

    July 23, 2010

    Nice column Stephen and good comments from Dean. Culture plays a very big role and one must be sensitive to the differences. For example, negotiation versus compliance for rules in most of the non-English speaking world. However, there are many other factors such as technical suport and infrastructure issues, time zones and work schedules, lack of talent in the developing world and others. As one simple example, try contact a colleague in Europe now (impossible since they are all on vacation until the middle of August). Nevertheless, international experience is a must for the future since most of the large companies of the world are multi-national (Fortune Global 500 listed 153/500 as USA based in 2008). An older book I used was “Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands”.

  3. Barry Dambach

    July 23, 2010

    Recognizing that there are cultural differences and language differences and being conscious of it all the time is the first step. Then a most important resource is my team members that are from the region or country – who I call on regularly to look at documents, processes, communications, with this specifically in mind. Also recognize that best practices and great ideas on how to implement programs can come from all over the world and reach out to get those – that is the true nature of the diversity of thought that is a benefit of a global organization.

  4. T Keith

    July 23, 2010

    See: http://www.intercultural.org
    Intercultural trainings and courses for business professionals.

    Hope this is helpful.

  5. Alex Pollock

    July 24, 2010

    Thanks for your article Stephen. I too was challenged as I watched the World Cup. I was reminded as I watched the “beautiful game” of some organizational fundamentals. The leader who “Knows the Way, Goes the Way and Shows the Way” will be successful. So many countries assembled super stars…France, England, Italy..but were beaten by squads that were coach-able, played as a team and were passionate about winning for their country. Sad to see so many deflated egos take early flights home.
    Your writings challenge us. Thanks again!

  6. Dean Clevett

    July 24, 2010

    As a non-American, but native English speaker, I would add one other difference that should be included but was missed by even someone as open minded and outward looking as Stephen obviously is. That is regulations, codes and standards. You don’t have to go far (as I write this, I am looking out of my window across the river at the Detroit skyline) to start seeing these issues. Despite the fact that we’re the country next door, many corporate engineers don’t realize that OSHA and EPA are meaningless here, but that there are other requirements that do. Ironically, the ASME Boiler and Pressure Vessel code is enforced here, but not in Texas (or 10 other US states), which adds to the confusion for many of my colleagues from our US corporate offices. Go south of the border to your other national neighbour and the differences are even bigger. Until the time that we have globally harmonized codes and standards, this will unfortunately continue to be the case.

    I’d certainly support the idea that young professionals (regardless of what country they’re from) should spend time visiting and learning about other cultures. Unfortunately, one of the realities of corporate life is that often, when you’re young, the opportunity to travel on business doesn’t come up as often as you’d like. Those of us who have been around longer, should do everything that we can do to encourage our corporations to send young professionals elsewhere and to bring foreign colleagues to visit us to share their expertise and knowledge.

    • Stephen Evanoff

      July 30, 2010


      Thank you for making the point about the significance of national regulations and for encouraging the more senior people in our group to provide younger EHS professionals opportunities to travel internationally. That’s an investment that would pay big dividends.

  7. Donn Hirschmann

    July 26, 2010

    I enjoyed your article Stephen and the World Cup was a good way to start it. Following is a quick listing of some ideas that I think could be helpful:

    We need to remember that football is a sport that most of the world plays without hands and helmets and that our baseball “World” Series involves teams only from the U.S. and Canada. Consideration of time zones and others’ religious holidays is a good way to garner the support of ones’ overseas colleagues. Try making half of your calls during their business day. It is nice to provide the same degree of hospitality to others as they do for you. Lodge your overseas visitors somewhere in or near a town where they can walk around instead of the side of a highway and go to dinner with them or take them to an “American” event that they otherwise would not have the opportunity to experience. Maybe then they will take you to a cricket or football game. Remember that their regulations are probably much less prescriptive than ours and that their relationships with the authorities are probably less adversarial. Lastly, give their language a try. If you do, they may try a bit harder at their English – which is probably already pretty good.

  8. Ken Kibler

    July 30, 2010


    Points well taken. Perhaps you could contact me to discuss a bit of bygone times. Best regards, Ken

    • Stephen Evanoff

      July 30, 2010

      Dr. Kibler! What a pleasant surprise to hear from you, sir. I’d be delighted to reconnect. Woudl LinkedIn work for you?

  9. casimonek

    August 8, 2010

    Great post, Stephen. The Natural Step theory addresses 9 aspects of human condition that should be respected when defining a sustainable society. They are all self-evident until controversial cultural differences come into play. How to respect values that are different from ours? I am quick to be against child labor (or labour), but how do we interact with indigenous communities where children have always been a part of every family routine, including harvesting? Not to mention addressing social inclusion in countries were women’s role are quite different from ours here in the west. I am curious to know what your views are.

  10. Stephen Evanoff

    August 10, 2010



    You raise an important point and offer two good examples.

    Here’s my perspective, since you asked. Many corporate Codes of Conduct prohibit child labour and discriminiation against women and prohibit doing business with suppliers who permit same. While I agree with these policies in principle, one must be thoughtful and careful implementing such policies so as not to offend the affected people. One way to do this is to work through local leadership in a manner that is respectul in asking people to modify local norms and offers meaningful incentives to change, e.g., education / vocational training, nutritious meals, vaccinations.

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