Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business


‘prescriptive’ westerners fail to heed cultural factors

January 2007

Western companies in China have been warned they are failing to get their CSR policies across to Chinese partners and suppliers because they take too little account of cultural differences.

Heidi von Weltzien Hoivik, a past president of the European Business Ethics Network, says her long-term research and consultancy work in China has shown Western businesses often underestimate cultural barriers in this field.

In a paper recently presented at the network’s annual conference she urges more effort to discover how Western principles can be presented within Chinese cultural frameworks and adapted to take account of local views.

Von Weltzien Hoivik, a specialist in business ethics at the Norwegian School of Management in Oslo who has spent many years working with and studying companies in China, says she has often observed tensions between locally accepted behaviour and the rigid requirements of Western companies trying to apply what managers see as ethical business rules. She gives the example of a pharmaceuticals company that forbids its sales staff to invite doctors out for dinner – a ban at odds with Chinese social customs. ‘In China they just think that’s ridiculous and that it’s natural and polite to take someone out to dinner,’ she said. ‘So they are bypassing it.’

Von Weltzien Hoivik said many Chinese business people are willing to adopt Western social responsibility tenets but often find companies too prescriptive, which makes it hard to apply global policies to the local conditions. ‘The Chinese say, “Yes, give us regular training courses on these cultural differences, but give us some leeway too”,’ she said. ‘There are major cultural barriers that hinder understanding of, and compliance with, Western codes of conduct. We need to help the Chinese understand responsible business practice within their own value systems and we need to research the voluntary initiatives that have already been developed there, so we can adopt a new Chinese perspective on CSR – one in which our Western notions of corporate responsibility find an equivalent that is suitable for China.’

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