Workplace Hierarchies

Who is the Boss?


This activity was suggested by the Deaf Development program, based on the realisation that student interns come with their own understanding of how workplace relationships operate. Clearly, workplace cultures differ across the world, because they reflect particular social realities that relate to various historical, political and economic contexts. Because of these differences, when students volunteer for organisations overseas, there may be a clash of expectations in relation to how the student should behave.

Learning Outcomes (Pre-departure activity)

  • Students will become aware of their preconceptions in relation to hierarchy and power structures at the workplace, and how this intersects with ethnicity, gender, age, social class and special needs.
  • Students will reflect upon different power structure realities in international workplace contexts.


Total 45 minutes

  • Slide activity (10mins)
  • Article discussion (15 mins)
  • Scenario (15 mins)
  • Summary (5 mins)


  1. Slide 1 – presented in a Powerpoint (and associated technology) or as a handout showing 5 individuals that represent a cross-section of society, based on gender, ethnicity, health conditions, and age. (who-is-the-boss)
  2. Short article – for students to review, to trigger reflection on the issues being discussed (Workplace Hierarchies)
  3. Scenario/Case study – shared by a partner organisation, which describes a mismatch in terms of expectations in behaviour between a student volunteer and staff belonging to a partner organisation overseas. (Scenario for Who’s the Boss activity)

The process

1. Show Slide 1 (Country x, 4-5 people, different ages, different ethnicities, someone with a disability, etc.). Ask the students who do they think is the boss and why. Encourage discussion on the answers provided.

2. Students can be asked to stand in a group based on their answer, or they could be asked to chat in small groups. Feed responses back to the group as a whole.

3. Handout article to the students. Discuss how age, gender, ethnicity, physical and mental health conditions and social class affect power hierarchies within a workplace in an international context, and how a student volunteer coming from overseas is absorbed into that structure.

4. Present a scenario to students on a misunderstanding in relation to how a student intern is expected to behave in a hierarchical NGO based overseas. Ask them to consider the situation – what do they think are the issues? Why do they think this situation has arisen? And how they would advise this student to respond to the situation? To be discussed in small groups.

5. Summarise the issues discussed by reflecting on the complexity entailed in a workplace environment where the expectations and power hierarchies may be very different to what a student has previously experienced or understands based on the context they are coming from.

6. Encourage students to be reflective of workplace culture differences, and to prepare themselves by researching about workplace differences before they depart, and making sure that they observe and ask questions to their supervisors and colleagues, in relation to codes of behaviour in the workplace.