By Karen Garcia, Business Anthropologist in Costa Rica
I wrote this article because I had question, what are some characteristics of the Costa Rican work culture? I did what I usually do, look it up on google yet I found no information. This startled me and intensified my query. For this reason I decided to get some insight. I did so from my own workplace perspective, in a law firm in Costa Rica that specializes in immigration processes. I interviewed 5 of my coworkers and my boss about Costa Rican work culture. My role is the nonprofit coordinator.
Since our clients are mainly foreigners, most of my colleagues are bilingual. Several of them have worked abroad. I spoke to those who had worked outside of Costa Rica, considering they would have a base of comparison.
For the purpose of this article I change the names of the interviewees in order to protect their identities. The people that participated are lawyers except for Diania the executive assistant who worked as a professor in Taiwan. Samuel worked in the United States, Monica worked in Colombia, Alberto worked in Mexico and Carlos, my boss, worked in the United States.
So, how do Costa Ricans view the work culture in Costa Rica? Diana expressed “workers are like children here, they need someone to be on top of them.” She thinks workers take advantage of their benefits.
“Se les da la mano y agarran el codo” (you give them the hand and they grasp the elbow). She employed two other sayings to characterize work culture. First, the Tico pobrecito (Tico poor thing) which implies feeling sorry for oneself. Second, el vivazo (the cunning). This type of person scoundrels and expects congratulations. Sometimes, people applaud his behavior. She pointed out that Costa Ricans are more relaxed when it comes to work. “We are late for work and laze around at work” , and “We arrive late for work and leave early.” Monica referred to it as following: “The work schedule isn’t respected”.
Samuel explained that his coworkers spend a lot of time on breaks. 20 minutes having coffee in the afternoon, 15 minutes eating breakfast and an hour for lunch. Diana said hard workers risk being called sapa (toad) a goody goody. She indicated that it’s a shame that there is always a serrucha pisos (floor sawer). This type of person prevents others from succeeding. However she mentioned “The good thing about the tico is the pura vida” (pure life) a relaxed way of living life. Monica described Costa Rican workers as reliable “We work even if we are sick. Ticos work hasta si se le cae el brazo (even if their arm falls off). If we are sick we remain available for work calls or emails.”
Well being of the employee
Carlos considers that work culture in Costa Rica is “completely negative” . He explained that “the employer is seen as an exploiter and the laws and the Costa Rican legal system is oriented to generate benefits for employees” he added “The mentality, perspective of the government and the law, and the people is that the employer has a much more advantageous position over the employee. Therefore they try to level the balance. That I think is affecting the productivity of the country…”.
He thinks work culture in Costa Rica isn’t result oriented. He exemplified this with the case of a foreign couple. They were marketing managers, who worked for two different banks in Costa Rica. “They left the companies because it was difficult to work with the culture of the companies. When they called people in to give results they began to cry. When they told them: This report is bullshit. Change the report. It’s valid results and it’s not about making you feel good…”. Carlos thinks the Costa Rican culture focuses on the well being of the employee instead of results. Resulting in employees expect to be indulgence.
Attitude My perspective
Concerning the relaxed work culture, I would say Diana resumed it well with the pura vida. I believe most Costa Ricans chill whenever they can. At my job I find interesting that even though most of my coworkers are hard workers, in the morning they talk, have coffee and breakfast. Even though the lunch hour is the only break in our contract. People focus on their work around 10 a.m. As the day goes on the talk diminishes. People relax if and when they can. I also think that there is a tendency to take advantage of benefits. For this reason some amount of control is necessary. My office installed check in machines and cameras because the number of employees went from 12 to 31.
Meetings are long due to the pura vida idea and because of the importance of socialization. I have noticed, that the person in charge of a meeting will generally engage in small talk for a few minutes before starting a presentation. The person in charge tends to get side tracked throughout the meeting. I have to admit that I never expect a meeting to stick to schedule, because they tend to go on for as long as is necessary.
On the matter of reliability in my workplace: everyone is available to be contacted from work at any time. They also do the job assigned to them. I would also agree it is uncommon for people to miss work due to illness. There are only two people I know of in my office that didn’t go to work because of health issues. One of them had broken her hip bone and the other one had a bad cold. I personally only missed work once. This was when a dog bit me. When someone gets sick they need to bring an authorization from the doctor. Doctors don’t hand them out easily. Without an authorization absent time is from the paycheck.
In addition to this I believe people have a sense of responsibility. They are aware of how their job can affect others or the company in general. For example, the administrator went to a community service activity organized by the company. When she got there it became apparent she didn’t get much sleep the night before. The reason was that she had spent the night paying everyone. She was in charge of doing the transaction and felt responsible for the execution. Also, another coworker made a mistake which led to a loss of money. For this reason she asked to have it deducted from the paycheck.
Monica characterized the communication style that Costa Ricans use as indirect. Additionally she said, “a lot of time is lost in meetings”. Alberto said meetings go past the appointed time. According to Alberto the person in charge of a meeting has to bring the focus back to the topic at hand. Carlos also spoke about this topic, “Ticos love to waste time. They don’t get to the point. It seems to me that the tico needs to work on that. The Costa Rican entrepreneur as part of the culture needs to develop the skills to get to the point along with what they want including their goals. Sometimes, they are very diverse and sometimes it is hard for them to point out what they want. And maybe they focus on many things that don’t, they just don’t get to the point…”
From my personal experience, I get the impression that Costa Ricans are more indirect than coworkers from different backgrounds. For example, I have a Nicaraguan coworker who will say what she thinks plainly. I have heard mostly the men teasing her about her communication style. Even though there are some Costa Rican coworkers that are direct it is unusual for people to plainly state their opinions. Even more so to communicate things that upset them. For example, a coworker once told me she was hurt. She had expressed how much she loved our bosses to another person at work. This person told her “One should know that a boss is a boss and behave accordingly.” This was reprimand to my coworker. In my opinion, people use this communication style to avoid conflict.
When it comes to greetings Carlos says: “Well, Ticos like to greet with a kiss particularly if they are of the opposite sex. Ticos like touch a lot. When you arrive and say hello, you shake hands, and sometimes a hug and if you are a person of the opposite sex, kiss.”
As Carlos mentioned, if two people are of the opposite sex the norm is to give a kiss on the cheek. If there are two females they generally give a kiss on the cheek as well, and if there are two males they shake hands. However in most cases it is acceptable to just say hello. What is not ok is for a man to kiss another man on the cheek or for a woman to shake hands with another woman or man. I found this out myself. I once greeted a couple at work with a handshake. When they were about to leave they explicitly said they would rather kiss me on the cheek because they felt weird shaking my hand.
By comparing their work experience in Costa Rica to other countries, Monica specified that the dress code in Costa Rica is less formal than in her workplace in Colombia. She mentioned work parties are more informal as well. Diana said that the communication style in Taiwan is more formal than in Costa Rica. The informality can be related to the management style in Costa Rica. Since the interviewees described it as horizontal. Monica uterred “here we joke around with the boss”. She also mentioned that she can call her boss by his name. Alberto stated he views the people he is incharge of de tu a tu (from you to you), which means a relationship of equals.
He also implied that in Costa Rica bosses are leaders. “In Costa Rica there was a balance they listened and everyone participated,” he hinted that he likes to lead instead of being a boss. He indicated, “I would hold meetings to receive feedback.” As opposed to just making decisions on his own. Monica also aims to be a leader. She worked with the people she had in charge. They finished the job together.
It varies on the workplace but people that work in finance, business and law firms usually dress up. As for work parties. I have never dressed up. However, I have a friend that worked in call center and attended a gala dinner once and I have seen professors dress up for work cocktail parties.
As for addressing a boss. It is common to call bosses by their first names. Only older people are addressed with respect adding a Don or Doña to the name which is equivalent to Mr. and Mrs.
What about gender equality? Carlos spoke about this subject in regards to basic positions and management opportunities. “I believe that there is still a lot of ground to cover, the opportunities are not equal. Women in Costa Rican are fired due to something as natural as pregnancy. Dismissals or discriminatory treatment of women during the pregnancy process. Apart from that, under the same conditions, as far as academic preparation women are not paid the same as men. The corporate culture is still very patriarchal.”
I have heard women in charge have trouble getting men to respect their authority. Although, gender equality is something that the government is working on. Specifically the National Institute for Woman of Costa Rica dedicated to protect women, to give advice in legal matters and to help women advance in their studies. In addition to this Costa Rica had the first woman president from 2010 to 2014 which indicates an inclination for change.
Here I presented an impression of the subjects covered in the interviews. I still have questions now. After what my coworkers said I wonder how does work gets done. Also, why do they characterize the work behavior so different from their own. One can see some behaviors mentioned above in my office. However, I would generally describe my coworkers as hard workers and people who lift each other up. I believe that within the Costa Rican context there are subgroups that work in different ways.
I have the hypothesis that the characteristics mentioned by my coworkers are part of a larger discourse. The media is a transmitter of the view point. Daily conversations are another channel of this belief. This discourse characterizes the public sector. Specifically institutions like the CAJA (the Costa Rican social security system), MEP (Ministry of public education), and RECOPE (Costa Rican petroleum refinery). This idea widely spread. For this reason Costa Ricans might consider it is an accurate description of the work attitude in the country.
For instance, every morning when I go to work, my driver listens to a radio show called Nuestra Voz (Our Voice). The show addresses current issues in the country and there is always a complaint about the government and the public employees. Usually, they will mention how slow and inefficient the CAJA is, the amount of vacations the teachers in the MEP have and how they steal time (right now by going to protests). When they talk about politicians, their corruption comes up or how they try to obtain benefits for themselves and their relatives. However, I would need to continue my research to explore this idea.
The top 10 challenges of doing business in Costa Rica
- Bureaucracy and Red Tape: Starting and running a business in Costa Rica can be challenging due to the complex and time-consuming bureaucracy involved in obtaining permits, licenses, and registrations.
- High Cost of Living: Costa Rica has a relatively high cost of living, especially in urban areas. This can make it difficult for businesses to attract and retain skilled employees.
- Lack of Skilled Labor: While there is a large pool of unskilled labor in Costa Rica, there is a shortage of skilled labor in many sectors, particularly in technology and engineering.
- Infrastructure Challenges: The country’s infrastructure can be unreliable, particularly in rural areas, with limited access to reliable power, internet, and transportation.
- Competition: Costa Rica has a competitive business environment, with many established businesses and multinationals already operating in the country.
- Corruption: Corruption can be a challenge for businesses operating in Costa Rica, particularly when dealing with government officials or regulatory agencies.
- Taxation: Costa Rica has a complex tax system, and businesses are subject to a variety of taxes, including income tax, sales tax, and value-added tax (VAT).
- Limited Market Size: Costa Rica is a relatively small market, with a population of around 5 million people. This can make it challenging for businesses to scale up and expand.
- Cultural Differences: Doing business in Costa Rica requires an understanding of the country’s unique cultural norms and business practices.
- Political Instability: Costa Rica has a history of political instability, which can make it challenging for businesses to plan for the long term and invest with confidence.