Work Culture described by Costa Ricans

Building in Costa Rica

By Karen Garcia, Business Anthropologist in Costa Rica

Introduction

I am writing this article because I had an initial 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 by interviewing 5 of my coworkers and my boss about Costa Rican work culture. Below I will present my findings.

I did so from my own workplace perspective, in a law firm in Costa Rica that specializes in immigration processes. My role is the nonprofit coordinator. Since our clients are mainly foreigners, most of my collegaues are bilingual. Several of them have worked abroad and were

I spoke to those who had experienced working 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, who worked in the United States. 

Attitude

My coworkers

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), whom she added, scoundrels and expects to be congratulated or is in fact applauded for his or her 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.” or as Monica put it “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 that people that work hard, risk being called sapa  (toad) a goody goody. She indicated that it’s a shame that there is always a serrucha pisos (floor sawer) a person that 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 explains 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 adds  “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 and then they try to level the balance. That I think is affecting the productivity of the country…”.

He said that the work culture here isn’t result oriented. An example he mentioned is the case of a foreign couple, 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 to give results people began to cry. When they told them: This report is bullshit. Change the report. It’s true results and it’s not about making you feel good…”. Carlos considers that the Costa Rican culture is focused on the well being of the employee instead of the results. The employees got used to being indulged.

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 it interesting that even though most of my coworkers are hard workers, in the morning people are talking and having coffee and breakfast even though in our contract the only set break is an hour for lunch. This situation changes after lunch, people are working concentrated and there isn’t much talking going on. People are as relaxed as they are allowed to be and that there is a tendency to take advantage of benefits so some amount of control is necessary.

My office recently got check in machines and cameras installed because the number of employees went from 12-31. This relaxed manner as well as the importance of socialization is the reason meetings get extended. From what I have noticed, the person in charge of a meeting will generally engage in small talk for a few minutes before starting a presentation. Throughout the meeting they tend to get side tracked. I have to admit that I never expect a meeting to stick to schedule, because they tend to go on as much as needed.

Reliability

On the matter of reliability in my workplace: everyone is available to be contacted at any time and they do the job they are assigned. 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 when I was bitten by a dog. When someone gets sick here they are asked to bring an authorization from the doctor. And the doctors don’t hand them out easily. Without them the absent time gets deducted 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 because everyone had to be paid. 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. She asked to have it deducted from her paycheck.

Communication

Monica characterized the communication style to be indirect and that “a lot of time is lost in meetings”. Alberto says meetings get extended and the person in charge 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 develop. Say 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 in terms of 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, one coworker was hurt because she spoke to someone at work about how much she loved her bosses. The other person told her “One should know that a boss is a boss and behave accordingly.” Which she understood was a reprimand of her behavior. In my perception this style of communication is used in order to avoid conflict. 

Greeting

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.”

My perspective

As Carlos mentioned the norm is to give one kiss on the cheek if two people are of the opposite sex. 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 after I greeted a couple that was working with me 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. 

Formality

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 and that work parties are informal as well. Diana said that the communication style in Taiwan is more formal than in Costa Rica. This informality in the workplace is linked to the management style in Costa Rica, which the interviewees described 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 the bosses are leaders. “In Costa Rica there was a balance they listened and everyone participated,” he hinted that he likes to be a leader not 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 since she does the work with the people she had in charge to get the job done. 

My perspective

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, a person 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 usually. Only older people are addressed with respect adding a Don or Doña to the name which is equivalent to Mr and Mrs. 

Costa Rica - Pura Vida sign

Gender

My coworkers

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 Rica 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.”

Me

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. For example, the National Institute for Woman of Costa Rica which is 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.

Conclusion

Here I presented an impression of the subjects covered in the interviews. I am now still left with questions like: How work gets done if what my coworkers said is true? And, why do they characterize the work behavior so different from their own? Evidently, some of the things they mentioned can be seen in the office . For example, a relaxed manner in the mornings or the long meetings. Still, I would generally describe my coworkers as hard workers and people who lift eachother up. I believe that within the Costa Rican conext there are subgroups that work in different ways.

My hypothesis is that the characteristics my coworkers mentioned are part of larger discourse. This discourse is used during everyday interactions and spread by the media to characterize 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). It is so widespread that it could be thought of as an accurate description of the Costa Rican work attitude.

For instance, every morning when I go to work, my driver listens to a radio show called Nuestra Voz (Our Voice) the radio 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 it comes to politicians, they talk about their corruption or how they try to obtain benefits for themselves and their relatives. However, I would need to continue my research to explore this idea.

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