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Understanding Philippine Cultural Values in the Workplace

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Underlying life in the Philippines are cultural values of social propriety, camaraderie, modesty, and gratitude. In their most noble form, these values bind Philippine society together. In the workplace, however, they can provide complex challenges, particularly for foreign employers.



An important part of Philippine culture is pakikisama, which in general means togetherness, camaraderie or what sociologists call the need for people in the Philippines to maintain smooth interpersonal relations. The prevalence of pakikisama is one of the reasons that the Philippines is seen as such a friendly country. People tend to smile and engage in fun, casual conversation.

In the workplace, this can have a positive effect with friendly, helpful employees working together as a team. It can also create problems. According to sociologists, pakikisama requires yielding to group opinion – something akin to what is known as peer pressure in western society. If there is widespread wrongdoing in a workplace, innocent employees can be reluctant to report the problems because of its effect on pakikisama.

Interestingly, a study conducted by the University of the Philippines found that dock workers at Manila harbor with fewer skills but a high level of pakikisama were more valued employees than those with greater skills and a lesser ability to get along with co-workers.

Linked to the concept of pakikisama is the universal avoidance of shame, or hiya. But hiya is a more complex concept than simply shame. The anthropologist Frank Lynch defined it as “the uncomfortable feeling that accompanies awareness of being in a socially unacceptable position, or performing a socially unacceptable action.” Hiya is not generally associated with private shame. It is shame in the context of a person’s peers or social group.

The implications of in the workplace can be profound. Employees might be reluctant to ask questions of their supervisor due to hiya. Employees who are disciplined or admonished in front of their co-workers – a common practice in some societies – might have an extreme reaction in the Philippines. It is not simply the act of being corrected that causes offense. It is being shamed in front of one’s peers that is a grave breach of custom.

Like pakikisama, hiya does not operate on an established universal code of right and wrong. It is defined by the group. In corrupt government agencies, pakikisama dictates that small bribes and acts of corruption are acceptable so that underpaid government workers can make more to feed their families. To report a co-worker for such an act, and risk having them lose their job, is to violate pakikisama and to behave walang hiya (without shame). The same practice applies in corporate environments where corrupt or unethical practices might be taking place.

One of the most common tools in business for dealing with issues of pakikisama and hiya are the use of euphemisms. Among westerners, many of whom come from societies that are very direct, getting a straight answer out of an employee in the Philippines can be perplexing. Traditionally, an employee in the Philippines would be unlikely to state a strong negative opinion to a supervisor.

In his book Understanding Filipino Values, a Management Approach, Tomas D. Andres describes it this way: “Foreigners have frequently pointed out that equivocation, ‘white lies’, and euphemistic discourse to avoid unpleasant truths are characteristically Filipino, making an attempt to not embarrass or displease other persons. The Filipino anticipates and gives the expected answer, avoiding if possible a negative reply. Hence, a question by a person seeking a positive answer concerning for example the quantity of payment for services rendered will invariably be answered with ‘It’s up to you.’ ”

Another common practice in the workplace to maintain pakikisama and avoid hiya is to use a go-between in order to discuss sensitive issues. In government agencies, this is manifested as “fixers” who can negotiate the sensitive problems of the applicant and the price being charged by the government employee without fear of anyone being shamed.

In the workplace, a request for a salary increase, or the discussion of a problem, might be relayed to a supervisor through a go-between. This often seems odd to westerners who consider issues such as salary increases to be confidential. The inappropriate response is: “What business is it of yours whether or not he deserves a salary increase?” A more appropriate retort would be: “I will need to discuss that with him directly.”

Probably the most complex cultural trait for foreign business people in the Philippines is utang na loob. Defined by some as “debt of gratitude,” it has also been called “a debt of the inner self” or more cynically as a “circle of debt”. Westerns sometimes misunderstand utang na loob as simply receiving a favor and then returning a favor, characterized by the phrase “I owe you one”.

Utang na loob is a much more complex concept than the simple exchange of favors. The amount of gratitude that must be expressed in returning a favor is not clearly quantified with utang na loob. Favors must be repaid with interest and over a long period of time. This showing of gratitude can be very demanding and repayment of this debt is not optional.

Utang na loob can be seen in large and small ways across Philippine society. Philippine historians believe that many of the disadvantageous provisions of the country’s independence from the United States in 1946 were the result of utang na loob. Philippine negotiators felt a debt of gratitude after the United States liberated the country from Japan and did not press on some key issues. On a smaller scale, parents who have sacrificed to put a child through university can expect a lifelong debt of gratitude.

In the workplace, utang na loob has broad implications. Family pressures to repay a debt of gratitude can drive employees to unethical behavior. Outsiders can seek repayment of favors from employees through acts detrimental to the company. Employers who give a salary increase based on merit might find they are receiving gifts from that employee who sees it as their obligation to repay what they perceive as an act of kindness.

A westerner should enter into this complex, unending spiral of favors with caution. As the author Mary R. Hollnsteiner notes her in her book, Reciprocity in the lowland Philippines: “One cannot actually measure the repayment but can attempt to make it, nevertheless, either believing that it supersedes the original service in quality, or acknowledging that the reciprocal payment is partial and requires further payment.”





Kindly contributed by John Orenz Nito of Pacific Strategies and Assessments




  1. Hi!May I know where you get the study mentioned above from UP. It is related to my thesis. Can you share the link or pdf of that study? You can reach me via email. Your help would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!

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