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By Melissa Campeau


As more companies look beyond their home country for growth opportunities, HR professionals are tackling the tricky business of managing people and corporate culture across borders.

In early 1992, U.S. President George H. W. Bush went to Japan with Lee Iacocca (then CEO of Chrysler Corp.) to meet with Japanese leaders and discuss trade challenges between the two countries. As legend has it, President Bush made aggressive and explicit demands, blatantly violating a number of Japanese rules of decorum. More than just ruffling some feathers, it’s believed the cultural faux pas seriously damaged negotiations and put a significant chill on relations between the two countries for years afterward.


It seems the president didn’t have a grasp on the cultural norms of the region he was visiting – or any idea just how important observing those norms might be. If this kind of misstep can happen to a head of state with dozens of advisors, it can happen to anyone who doesn’t do their homework. These days, with the world becoming smaller and more and more organizations conducting business in multiple parts of the globe, it’s becoming critical to understand and respect different regions’ priorities, codes of conduct and customs.

For example, not accepting business cards with both hands in China is considered devastatingly rude. Refusing an offer of vodka is a snub of enormous proportions in Russia, no matter how sincerely you may despise the drink. The differences in cultural norms can be surprising, and the ramifications can range from a moment of awkwardness to the loss of a pivotal sales deal to a major hiccup in international relations.


For HR professionals – who trade in the currency of healthy corporate culture and solid business relationships – understanding how to conduct business abroad, whether it’s a talent search in a different country, managing a team remotely or being physically relocated to another region, is fundamentally important.


Build a base of expertise

It stands to reason that an HR professional needs a solid foundation of essential skills before building a layer of international experience and detail.


“First and foremost, you need to have in-depth knowledge of, and expertise in, HR concepts and practices,” said Badar Khan, an organization transformation consultant, currently working in Qatar.


It’s a bit like developing skating skills before going on to play hockey – you’ll never excel at the game without the fundamentals.


See the bigger picture

Conducting HR business abroad requires a heightened awareness of the world beyond your own borders. Major global issues and trends apply to whatever region you may eventually focus on, since these days every country’s border is more or less permeable.


“Ongoing awareness of the changing global environment, including an understanding of technological advances, labour economics, regulatory climates and political movements is important to ensure HR leaders can advise and lead on HR plans that integrate with global and local business strategies,” said Alim Dhanji, senior vice president of human resources with TD Bank Group.


Drill down with your research

And then, of course, you need to know all about the region you’ll be working in.

“I’ve seen very competent professionals from the U.S. come to [the Middle East] and be unable to adapt and be sensitive to the needs of the culture,” said Khan. “Ultimately, they end up going back home rather quickly.”

Once you land in your new region, finding a cultural mentor could be a lifesaver, too.


Understanding the ins and outs of a new region means digging for any information you can unearth. Find out about typical business customs, valued skills and attributes, standard salaries, cultural priorities and values, typical breakfast foods – anything you can think of may eventually become important down the road.


Not only will this mean you can operate in a gaffe-free manner, but it also enables you to better align such HR programs as performance management or rewards to better suit regional environments.


Skills drills

So how might an HR pro, who’s worked entirely in Calgary, for example, begin to prepare for a position in Caracas, Venezuela?


Some HR pros in larger corporations may be able to take advantage of corporate immersion programs, designed to prepare Canadians for work overseas. For others, it’s a solo research mission.


In those cases, networking with company executives or future colleagues in the new organization is a great starting place. If you can find colleagues who understand both cultures, they’ll be able to give greater insight into differences between the two cultures and any potential problem areas.


“Go there totally informed, with a network established, talking to the relevant people and being sensitive to the fact that it’s a different place,” said Khan.


Once you land in your new region, finding a cultural mentor could be a lifesaver, too. An empathetic and knowledgeable insider can help you learn to avoid mistakes (or best correct them once they’re made) and ease your transition into an unfamiliar culture.


Potential stumbling blocks

One of the trickiest aspects of working abroad or dealing with teams in multiple locations is the flexibility required. Beyond the maze of cultural differences, there’s also the practical challenge of navigating across time zones and, in some cases, operating in more than one language. For an HR pro to manage successfully in the face of these challenges, it takes a great ability to plan, to adapt quickly and to solve problems on the fly.


Flexibility, too, is a necessity, since you may need to hold meetings outside of normal business hours. So rack up serious air miles from time to time and brush up on your ability to work with translators (or learn a new language yourself).


“Global HR pros require refined communication, influencing and collaboration skills,” said Dhanji, pointing out they often work within a complex matrix hierarchy or have to work with people or teams they’ve only met virtually.


With infrequent or non-existent face-to-face contact to humanize email-based relationships, a manager can take steps to establish more personal connections by making smart use of phone conversations from time to time and regular Skype calls for one-on-one conversations and team meetings.


International hiring

Knowing the labour market in a different region, as well as any necessary legal issues, is an integral research exercise when it comes to staffing, says Joseph (Val) D’Sa, a senior HR professional at York Region District School Board in Toronto. So is taking the time to develop an understanding of what works best to retain top talent, since what works in one place may be completely ineffective or illegal in another.


Finding that talent in the first place might be a sticky undertaking, as well. What a particular region values may not fit with the Canadian norm. For example, “In western countries, you talk about equal opportunities and being open in communications,” said Khan. “In the Arab setting, nationals are a priority in whatever you do in terms of promotions, development, rewards and compensation. A national might be a very average performer compared to a very competent expatriate. If you hire the national over the expatriate, anywhere else, it’s discrimination. In an Arab country, it’s what’s done.”

In some cases, though, cultural differences can throw up nearly insurmountable roadblocks to consistency.


Knowing which principles apply across the entire organization, and which must yield to the region’s norms, is an intricate and necessary part of the learning curve.


Similarly, when interviewing candidates from regions other than your own, it’s important to understand different cultural norms. In some Eastern cultures, for example, it’s considered polite and a sign of respect to listen during interviews and defer to those perceived as senior, instead of being forthcoming with anecdotes and stories to illustrate your competence. It might be easy, in those cases, for an interviewer from a Western country to overlook a potential superstar because of his or her reluctance to proclaim successes as loudly and clearly as a Canadian might.


Talent management

It’s elemental HR to know that developing engagement and improving productivity depends on knowing what motivates a group of people and what truly matters to them. Applying the wrong motivators, though, can backfire. Take the example of a North American manager transferred to his company’s Hong Kong office. Once there, he attempted to curb the employees’ tendency to arrive at work 15 minutes late. The employees complied, but they also took to leaving work exactly on time, rather than staying late into the evening as they had done before. Productivity took a nosedive until the manager agreed to let the workers go back to their usual schedule.


In this case, attempting to impose the very North American value of punctuality had a seriously detrimental effect on productivity. But tuning in to the workers’ desire to set their own hours, to some degree, turned the problem around.


HR practices across borders

For an organization on the cusp of going global or an HR pro about to take on an international challenge, the question is how – or if – HR practices apply in different regions, and it can be puzzling, to say the least.


“Global organizations often strive to offer a consistent employee value proposition across their global footprint,” said Dhanji. “Therefore, consistent HR practices can be quite helpful. This requires HR pros to practice ‘glocalization,’” he suggests, by investing time up front to understand what must be global (possibly the compensation philosophy and principles) and what must be local (the compensation mix to be competitive in local markets).

D’Sa says that some regional differences make it impossible – and even inadvisable – to try to maintain consistent HR practices across all areas. But, he also says, it’s vitally important to keep consistency in certain areas, to guarantee and protect employees’ basic rights to work in a harassment-free and non-discriminatory workplace, and also to support the organization’s mission, vision and values.


It’s all about finding the right balance, says D’Sa. “An approach that provides some accommodation and flexibility… would send a strong message that the top leadership team of a global company provides autonomy to local leadership in managing its business and people practices.”


It would be smart, says Dhanji, for an organization to consider input about HR practices as early in the globalization process as possible to lesson the implications of potential cultural misalignments.


In some cases, though, cultural differences can throw up nearly insurmountable roadblocks to consistency.


“Organizations have different priorities as mandated by the cultural needs and long-term visions of the countries they operate in,” said Khan. Expanding on the example noted above, he says Middle East nationals have privileges with respect to compensation and career growth not given to expatriates.


“This management practice is perfectly understood and legitimate in the Middle Eastern circumstance,” he said. Hiring and development policies, in this case, would differ wildly from region to region. Instead, “what you try to do is help create the best fit for each regional circumstance.”


Can there be a consistent corporate culture?

Corporate culture is a more amorphous thing than HR policies and there’s a variety of opinions about how unified a cross-border culture can be.


Some believe it’s vital to develop and maintain a consistent culture across regions.

“The global HR leader in collaboration with the top global leadership team and with input from local leadership should take a leading role in creating and nurturing the culture,” said D’Sa. He adds the culture should stem from strong mission, vision and value statements, regional differences or considerations and should apply to every company of a multi-national organization. “It is this corporate culture that provides a unique identity to the multi-national corporation and differentiates it from its competitors.”

Whether a company operates only in Canada or has outposts in every industrialized country on the planet, understanding the larger HR picture can be integral to future success.

Dhanji agrees to some extent, but adds there are times when some regularity of culture will have to be sacrificed. “To be effective, HR pros need to be able to balance global consistency with the need to be relevant and competitive in local markets.” In those cases, he says, an HR pro should strive to be as consistent as possible, but allow for necessary regional variances.


Upside of going global

Flexing HR muscles across international borders has some real benefits, both for an organization and an individual.


“As a global HR leader, I gained invaluable perspective, nurtured a global mindset, honed my influencing skills… and became highly adaptive and agile,” said Dhanji. His skillset became both valued and integral to the business. “As long as there was change anywhere in the world, the business required partnership with and strategic counsel from HR.”

D’Sa points out what a seasoned global HR pro can bring to an organization. “Like any skilled HR professional is an invaluable asset to an organization, a global HR pro who has superb understanding and skills in operating in a global environment is an asset worth his or her weight in gold.”


Whether or not an organization operates outside of Canada, an HR pro with a global mindset can help an organization spot potential opportunities and pitfalls before they happen.

“In a market where talent is borderless, even domestic-oriented companies may need to source talent from international markets when striving to acquire ‘A’ players,” said Dhanji. “Likewise, when looking for best practices, other countries may have already faced similar issues that can serve as a case study.”


Whether a company operates only in Canada or has outposts in every industrialized country on the planet, understanding the larger HR picture can be integral to future success.

“The perspectives globally minded professionals offer can enable us to look through many different lenses and help us produce an inclusive perspective, rich in diversity and full of possibilities,” said Dhanji.

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