Chilean companies & their employees – unproductive?

Sometimes the things that my classmates and teachers talk about surprise me and not at all in a negative way. Rather, I’m enlightened and many times struck by a ray of hope for the evolution of the average Chilean. Meaning my classmates and teachers seem to be, in my experience, not your everyday average Chileans and definitely not the Chileans that perhaps our parents once were (or still are.) Though there are many times when they talk about things I have no clue on (mainly knowledge one would have if he/she grew up here), there are other times when they talk about things I never expected, offering insight and opinions that shed some light on the changing profile of young executives in this country.

This was the case yesterday in class when we began deviating from the topic of the day. To offer a quick background, we were discussing how a company can be more than just a company but a brand in and of itself. The main requirement for this, in short, is to make sure that your internal client, i.e. employees, are happy. Happy employees will feel an affinity to the company’s brand. I was enjoying the discussion when all of a sudden the professor, a man between 45-50, professional and educated both here and in Spain, says to the class “Officially and on record, it’s been shown that Chile is the least productive country in regards to time management of employees and efficiency in the workplace.”

Scratch record, silence music, stop the presses.

Did my Chilean professor just say that in front of my Chilean peers and classmates?

Granted it’s something I’ve experienced, seen, heard about and witnessed in the past six years I’ve worked with Latin Americans but never in a million years did I expect to hear that from a Chilean in a room with other Chileans. Even more so, I never expected the majority of the Chilean classmates I have to actually AGREE with the statement.

What ensued was a series of examples and reasons as to WHY, from their perspective, Chileans weren’t productive. Words and phrases thrown out were (note that this was discussed in a general sense, in the “we” context, in the context of the work/labor force and delivered by Chileans. I.e. the foreigners, including myself, did not offer opinions):

  1. Chileans, as a general group, are lazy.
  2. Chileans lack motivation.
  3. Chileans lack good leadership.
  4. Chileans lack education.
  5. Even college graduates are unprofessional.
  6. Chileans are unreliable.
  7. There are fewer opportunities in Chile.

Other examples where offered but what I found to be more interesting were the anecdotes that followed each example of why Chileans were unproductive and inefficient in the workplace. For instance, one classmate shared with us that when it was time for her yearly review, her supervisor told her that she was “too anxious” because she consistently followed up with people on to-do’s and next steps. She stated that she had to be that way because following up once, twice and up to four times didn’t automatically make things happen. And for being proactive, she was labeled as “anxious” by her superior.

Another example (given by a classmate) is how Chileans will work until 7 or 8 p.m. when in comparison, Brazilians (in her example) will work until 6 pm. If she’s talking to a distributor for her company in Brazil and the line is disconnected, she stated that the Brazilians immediately call back. Whereas it was her experience that the same incident will happen with a Chilean and the Chilean will not only NOT return the call, but when she tries to call, the line rings and rings or it goes straight to voicemail. Upon locating the same Chilean distributor another day, the Chilean distributor will proclaim “Oh, I thought you were going to call ME back.” I did. “Oh yeah but it was 6:30 pm, I left of course.” In the middle of our pending phone conversation? Yes.

My contribution to the discussion did not involve bashing how Chileans work nor did it involve criticizing Chileans in any way. In fact, I offered this morsel of insight, valuable or not: I stated that in the U.S. most people learn proper business conduct and etiquette from the companies that hire them. We can study the most “random” things in college (English Literature, History, Anthropology, etc) and still find ourselves working in a financial firm, venture capital, branding or consumer products company. The point being that in the U.S., GENERALLY, we are taught the proper business culture when already in that culture. And I stated that from what I observed, Chileans were more preoccupied with making sure that one is the proper Ingeniero Comercial with the adequate amount of excel and economics and marketing courses necessary but with no aspect of how to properly function inside an organization.

I thought about it too. When I started my current job, I had zero experience in licensing. I had worked at a software company during the dot.com craze of the late 90s and when I was laid off due to lack of funding, I worked at a private wealth management firm. I was hired at my current company because I had the college education, I had the basic, fundamental skills needed and I had the drive and knowledge to learn a new business. Further, I had NO experience working with Japanese businesses nor did I have any idea how to conduct myself in a meeting or in negotiations with the Japanese. In fact, given that I was hired to work on the international side of the business, I didn’t have any idea how to do business with ANYONE who wasn’t American! Obviously it took a few months, but I learned all of that and I feel that I have even come to excel in some aspects of it. In the same situation, a Chilean company will try to find a candidate with the exact same business experience (or at least 80% of what’s required for the position) because to them, that’s what’s fundamental – past experience doing the exact same thing. But does that mean they’re hiring the most efficient person out there? Someone who may help increase productivity? If what our professor told us yesterday is true, then I think Chilean companies need to rethink how they do their hiring. That is, if they care about having productive employees.

The best example given yesterday (in my opinion) was by the women who work at Lider, one of the major supermarket/hipermarket chains here in Chile. Lider is now owned by Walmart and as such, we were given a top-line example of how the business culture at Lider changed when Walmart came with their team to implement the new procedures and spark the Walmart culture of “Save Money. Live Better.” Though we weren’t offered major specifics, the examples offered clearly demonstrated how Walmart, with its American business culture, spent time observing how corporate and retail Lider worked and implemented changes that would increase productivity and efficiency across the board. It’s a work-in-progress we were told, but already changes were apparent.

Then I got to thinking of the comment thrown out about professionalism and how many Chilean executives and professionals lack this fundamental quality in the workplace. I recalled stories I’ve heard about (mainly) women who go into their bosses offices here, only to sit down and literally start bawling. I’ve heard this more than once, with different women in different companies for different reasons. Regardless of the reason, I’m always taken aback by this. What kind of executive allows her superiors, even her peers, to see her break down in the office? Whether right or wrong, to do so only promotes the quick labeling of her (us) as weak or fragile and not someone who can carry a burden of responsibility. The UBER female in me wants to ask these women “Helllooooooo did you not see the episode of Sex and the City when Samantha and Charlotte talked about the effects of crying the workplace? Do I need to do a PSA about this for all those out there who feel the overwhelming need to bawl and ruin the reputation of the rest of us?” Because I would if I could. This is just one example of the unprofessional nature of some executives here in Chile, but I can add to the mix those who take their half hour cigarette breaks, those who go out for 2+ hour lunches, those women who abuse their maternity leave and tack on days that become weeks that turn into months outside the office because their baby spits up milk or whatever lame excuse is used…

I can’t say that the United States is the most productive or most efficient business capital of the world, nor can I attest that our workers don’t slack off. I’ve seen many who do, hiding behind the guise of a Senior This-or-That title and taking credit for work done by those working under them. I’ve seen those who stroll into work at 10 am and leave at 4 pm everyday. And I’ve seen those who sit at their computers watching YouTube all day long instead of working.

But in light of the fact that I live in Chile now, I wonder, if what our professor told us is true, what’s the real reason behind it? Further, how can it be changed?

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14 thoughts on “Chilean companies & their employees – unproductive?

  1. Thanks for this great post and a lot of what you mention (that was also mentioned in class) is so true.
    I can say that it is hard to find productive employees and you really do have to teach them that concept (of course there are exceptions, usually those that have lived abroad). I don't want employees to leave their work until the last minute and appear like they are staying on late to 'impress the boss'. I prefer everything to be done on time so everyone can go home early and have a life.
    It often surprises people when we answer our e-mail within minutes or at least that day and that does make a difference.
    Also, the number of times I have asked for a quote on something and either get a response a week later or not at all is quite common. We usually make purchases from those that respond that day or the next and the rest miss out.
    Specific example: Last month we needed to buy the original version of CS5 (comp programme). Of the 7 or 8 companies (or more, can't remember) that we asked for quotes from, only one answered that day, another a week later (when we had already bought the product) and the rest not at all. Guess who we spent a lot of money with.
    There are many more points you made that I would like to comment on but will save it for later.
    Saludos,
    Rob W.

  2. interesting indeed. a couple of things came to mind as i was reading this: 1) if chileans had such crap-tastic work culture then why are they – w/their relative lack of size, geographical location, lack of resources (besides copper), etc, etc – such a powerhouse in terms of stability and economic strength in LatAm? I mean the IPSA has been on fire year to date and the economy is super stable. surely this isn't a country of lazy people 2) professionals in chile – and i mean the people who get paid in chile and are generally highly respected in chilean society (doctors, engineers and lawyers)- at least the ones that i know – seem to be 100% on par with US counter-parts in most regards. now, perhaps not on par with the crazy NYC work culture (but hell, not even san fran is that nuts) in terms of busting their balls…but generally hard-working and professional (and very formal – people in these jobs tend to wear suits and be much more cordial at work – even more so i would say than in the US – in, say, a corporate law firm environment) so i actually think that when you're talking about the top workers there is little to no difference…i think that the BIG difference you see in Chilean society are the more fringe/less power jobs. 3) in terms of productivity the US is LIGHT years behind other places – think singapore, think switzerland. we're not that great. yea, sure, gringos in NYC and other major urban centers or those that run huge corporations have their $hit together BUT – as you pointed out – lazy gringos ABOUND. And let's not even discuss the fact that in many ways it's totally unfair to even attempt to compare wealthy world power USA with a country like Chile. it's apples and oranges. it's not a fair comparaison. BUT that's also what makes Chile an interesting place to be. it's evolving. an emerging market. jsut like brazil. mexico. etc. i'd ask you: did you not notice similar issues when working with other LatAm countries that you experienced when working withChile? oh and ask the average Chilean what their opinion is of Argentina's work culture. Yea, they think it's a joke. but yea, i dont really think comparing the fine tuned machine that is walmart to ANY company in chile is fair. or reasonable. or even a worth thinking about. they're totally different. just my 2 cents. i'm surprised that your prof thought chileans were the least productive people on the face of the earth. where does one even get such info? that laundry list you wrote out seems a bit suspicious.

  3. This is interesting, and I think you´re right; Chilean companies should re think the way they hire people.
    My gf had a tough time finding a job, because everyone asked for previous experience in the job they were hiring, but if everyone demands experience, where was she suposed to get that experience, if no one hired her?
    Other thing in the same moronic level, is that companies avoid hiring people with debts, or people that appear in the DICOM (a provider of credit and other financial information services), and then again, if someone has debts, how is suposed to pay them if no one hire him/her because of that?
    Companies here hire people thinking in acquiring the most reliable professional available, for experience, background, or whatever, no one takes risks here. The same happens with clothes, that´s why everyone dresses the same, and we all look the same, well, I´m getting in other subject, but I think they´re related.

  4. With regards to what Woodward says…I can only agree wholeheartedly. I'm about to renovate an apartment and emailed 10 companies regarding a quote for installing central heating. I already knew what would happen so it wasn't a shock, but it's always a surprise.

    3 companies out of the 10 got back to me regarding arranging a time to visit the property. One of them responded within 20 minutes, one 2 days later and Metrogas 5 days later.

    The quickest responder came to the property, was courteous, professional and honest. He said he'd get the quote to me that afternoon and he did.

    The second quickest responder visited the same day, turned up late, treated me like a stupid foreigner who didn't understand anything (erm, I've worked on housing renovations for 5 years in South America, weon), and promised me the quote the next day. It didn't come. When I followed up a week later, he sent the quote without an apology.

    Metrogas didn't bother to show up at all.

    One of the 10 companies that didn't bother to respond to my initial enquiry stuck me on their mailing list, which was considerate of them.

    So, despite the quickest responder's quote being 15% higher than the other company's, I'll happily pay the difference knowing I"m working with someone responsible.

    And the exact same thing happened with the double-glazed window companies. The exact same thing.

    It's hard to fathom why companies here haven't worked out that treating the client well results in earning money and repeat business. It's such a basic principle. And it's why foreign owned businesses tend to do work well here- they offer a concept as novel as good customer service and they're already streets ahead of most of their Chilean competition…

  5. I think it's rare to find a company or business (speaking PYMEs) in Chile that responds professionally, especially if the business is small and/or family-owned. I certainly had a similar experience to Matt and Woodward when planning my wedding earlier this year. It really *is* the most basic of principles yet hard to grasp in this country.
    KM – throughout my blog post, I made sure to convey that I wasn't sure where the professor got his dato. Perhaps from years of working in consulting with the same firms you mention in your comment. The point of the blog was, for me, how surprised I was that someone of my professor's caliber believed this to be true, and furthermore, almost the entire class believed it to be true (and again, this class is full of 30-40 year old professional, executives.) I also stated that I don't believe that the US is the example of an efficient or productive economy.
    However, to not sit back and ponder that real Chileans in positions like you state are in agreement with this would be to turn a blind eye to what is a complete reality in Chile – backed by statistics or not. It's what many Chileans seem to believe.

  6. Matt: "One of the 10 companies that didn't bother to respond to my initial enquiry stuck me on their mailing list, which was considerate of them."

    That is so funny! The exact same thing happened to me too.

  7. I just want to cry with frustration after reading this because I can't do anything about it! I'm glad Chilean's at least admit it, but do they even want to do anything about it?!

  8. I actually found it funny you were surprised by the situation because in my experience Chileans (university classes, when i was teaching English) ALWAYS talk about how lazy they are in the work environment! I've seen studies about the laziness of Chilean workers, I dont remember exact details but there was one that showed that despite putting in super long hours, Chilean workers did surprisingly nothing during them hahaha. I mean, think of retail! Shops have way more employees necessary for the job, and yet you can still hardly find someone willing to stop chatting and help a client.
    Its actually something I feel like people are proud of in a weird way. (similar to when a Chilean explains to a foreigner how they're always late here, but its not explained in a "this is unacceptable" way but rather kinda a humble, "yep. this is chile, can you believe us?" way)

    I do agree that these studies probably focus more on the fringe jobs than doctors and lawyers and such, like KM said, but that makes sense just in terms of numbers. Most stats would try to be representative of all workers, and such a small percentage of Chilean workers fall into that high class professional US-like quality that KM describes.

    So true about needing to update hiring practices. I dont like the system that hardly allows for movement and doesnt take into account ones motivation or ability to learn a new skill. I enjoy that in the US education is more broad and even if you study Engineering or something you could still work in HR or advertising or real estate or whatever as long as you were WILLING and able to learn and become good at it. With the obvious exceptions of necessary specialized skills- Im not saying I want a surgeon who majored in Ancient civilizations or child psych or something haha.

    Great post!! I enjoyed it a lot and the anecdotes are always great.

  9. I read that exact same statistic about Chile being last on the list in productivity levels of countries around the world (I'm sure it wasn't all countries, they couldn't data on that, could they?). I sometimes tell Chileans and they disagree with me.

    But here's one thing I noticed when I did my internship here. EVERYBODY stayed late. It was mal visto if you didn't stay late. So everyone stayed late, even if they were just effing around, drinking coffee and talking on the phone to their significant others, just so that they wouldn't look like the slack who left early.

    In my internship in the U.S., if I was not packing my stuff up at 5pm on the dot, my boss would ask, "Couldn't you get your work done today?" AKA, you should be productive enough to finish everything you need to do within the 8-5 work schedule we've given you.

  10. Marmo – interesting point about the dicom. i didn't realize that. not sure if we do that in the US but i do know they do a background check. if you have a police record of any type some companies won't hire you. which of course leads to the same Q you asked – if you want to work, but aren't allowed to, how are you going to get by? comitting crimes? yea…. then again, i guess private companies have a right to be selective. just another example of how the poor always get screwed.

    kyle – i had the opposite experience at the bank in chile. when i stayed late to work people would ask me why i was so serious and tell me to go home. they'd also tell me to take it easy and go have lunch when i'd bring food to my desk to eat. i think everyone thought of me as some sort of pobrecita. but, then again, the guys sitting arouund me worked in IT. the bankers on the other side of the chinese wall were pretty much living there so dont think they would've questioned my lunch at my desk. so again i go back to my belief that this all has to do with what sort of jobs you're talking about. IT dudes probably always take their full hour of lunch. Bankers don't. I think maybe US companies are better run – hold people + accountable – the guy on top is + able to monitor that the little guys below are actually getting $hit done. i wonder if this is something that has gotten better in Chile over time and with improved logistics/technology, etc- Matt? Woodward?

  11. I've heard many Chileans say they're lazy with a poor work ethic, and many of the Chileans I work with prefer working with foreigners (lucky me!) because they find them more trustworthy and efficient.

    I think the point KM makes about top execs in Chile being comparable to those in the US is understandable. Those people are invested in the company's success. In many companies, however, lower level employees are seen not as potential future leaders to be invested in but as replaceable cogs in the machine who're there for the white-collar version of manual labor. It doesn't make poor work ok, but it does seem to explain why those people only really care about doing the bare minimum and collecting the paycheck, since they don't necessarily feel like what they do matters anyway.

  12. I have never worked in a Chilean company (but did intern a couple years ago at a pre Colombian museum in Santiago…and many also reflected the same sentiment: Chileans have a poor work ethic.

    At the museum, everyone seemed to be a hard worker, but I believe that it might be different, depending on what types of companies you work for.

    I can't imagine what it's going to be like when I join the Chilean workforce.

    I don't pretend to have every answer for what might happen, so I am trying to keep an open mind and also to read more posts like this.

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