Five ways to make sure global HR policies succeed

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As globalisation continues, many employers with a multi-jurisdictional presence are introducing global HR policies that apply across their international business. The rise of the internet makes joined-up working across different countries an everyday reality, as Matthew Howse and Sarah Ash discuss.

Employers operating internationally will be aware of the challenges of balancing the different employment standards and practices in the countries in which they operate. Workforces are also becoming more globalised, and it is not uncommon for employees to travel for business and/or work abroad for extended periods of time.

Consequently, employees from one country will often come into contact with, and potentially be managing, employees based in other countries, and ultimately may find themselves judged against unfamiliar laws and standards. It can be highly beneficial to introduce global policies to regulate employee behaviour and enshrine consistent and accepted standards of practice. In addition, having global policies can help cement the key values of a business, promoting and protecting the organisation’s culture by clearly articulating that organisation’s ethics and presenting a clear message to all employees as to what behaviours are acceptable.

A consistent and effectively implemented global workforce policy can be a vital tool in ensuring acceptable practices are followed in all jurisdictions, thereby promoting and protecting an organisation’s internal and external brand. Moreover, if an organisation is known to universally operate high ethical and behavioural standards, it is more likely to be viewed as a desirable employer, which will help both with employee retention and also in attracting the best external talent.

Why have a global HR policy?

Global policies relating to employee appraisals, remuneration and promotion help to achieve a “level playing field” in the context of employee reward and career development. In theory at least, a consistent approach to this issue across all jurisdictions should ensure equitable treatment of employees, regardless of their geographical base, and result in greater efficiencies in terms of application and administration.

Challenges of implementing global HR policies

The biggest challenge for employers seeking to introduce workplace policies across multiple jurisdictions is the variations in local laws. Organisations may need to analyse the minimum statutory rights applicable in each jurisdiction, for example in respect of working hours, rest breaks and holiday entitlements.

In addition, there can be considerable differences in the anti-discrimination legislation in place, with some countries having no such legislation, while other countries protecting some characteristics (such as sex or race) but not others (such as age). Indeed, some countries may outlaw certain practices (such as homosexuality) that are expressly protected by the anti-discrimination laws of others.

Another significant legal issue can be the data privacy/protection rights that exist under local laws and that may, for example, prevent the transfer and/or collation of employee data that is central to a particular policy working in practice. For example, a whistleblowing policy that requires employees to direct concerns to a US-based whistleblowing “hotline” may result in breaches of EU data protection law if an EU-based complainant is required to send personal data to the US for review.

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What should employers consider?

Employers will also need to think about the level of local employee engagement that is necessary in order to introduce a new or varied policy. In some jurisdictions, before such changes can be implemented, an employer will need to discuss those changes with, and potentially obtain prior approval from, works councils, trade unions and/or employee representatives. It is important to factor in the time that this can take when planning the roll-out of any global policy.

Moreover, even where local laws are not dramatically different, local cultures can vary hugely. Those cultures could be country specific, regional, or even religious. It is, therefore, vital that these cultural differences are taken into account when assessing the potential impact of a proposed policy and the likelihood of its successful implementation.

Employers need to consider whether or not policies need to be translated for all relevant jurisdictions. This can be a time-consuming and costly exercise. In some countries, the law requires all employee policies to be produced in the local language. In other countries, providing a translation may be the only way that a policy can be effectively communicated and applied.

Employers will also need to consider whether or not there will be a requirement for their employees to be trained in the new policies or procedures, and who the appropriate trainers will be, to ensure that a consistent message is rolled out across the organisation and the new policy is promoted effectively.

Finally, organisations will need to manage the enforcement of the global policies that they introduce to ensure that each jurisdiction has implemented it accordingly and that the desired standards are being met.

What sort of policies should be global?

Broadly, there are three categories of global policies that an organisation may wish to implement globally: aspirational, extra-territorial and international.

Aspirational policies: include a code of conduct or ethics policy, an equal opportunities/diversity policy, bullying, victimisation and harassment policies, and a corporate social responsibility policy. Such policies promote a certain standard of behaviour and practice to be followed by all employees in all jurisdictions. While employers need to be mindful of the challenges descr-ibed above, policies that encourage a better and safer workplace environment for employees are less likely to transgress local laws or cultures.

Extra-territorial policies: are those required by laws that have international reach. These include bribery and corruption policies, regulatory policies and data privacy/protection policies. These policies are particularly important as failure to comply with the relevant legislation can often result in significant fines, loss of current and future business, reputational damage and even criminal sanctions. Although not all jurisdictions will have legislation in these areas, it may still be necessary for global organisations to introduce clear policies. For example, both UK and US anti-bribery and anti-corruption laws reach beyond the UK and US respectively, and capture all jurisdictions in which a UK or US company (or its employees) operate.

Regulatory policies will also be important, and will be linked to the type of business an organisation conducts. For example, EU regulations place restrictions on the remuneration of certain classes of employee in the financial services sector that apply to affected employees of businesses anywhere in the world that have a parent based in the EU.

In addition, many organisations need to transfer em-ployee and/or customer personal data across different jurisdictions, and, therefore, need to ensure that their data privacy/protection policies apply in all relevant jurisdictions so as to permit the transfer of data between countries without infringing the data privacy laws that exist in the country from which that data emanates.

International policies: include social media, IT and email and internet usage policies, as, in practice, it is not possible to confine activities in this sphere to a particular country. Employers need to think carefully about how they manage their employees’ use of social media, email and the internet, all of which are tools that do not recognise jurisdictional boundaries and, therefore, require a genuinely global approach.

Five practical tips for global HR policies

1. Plan carefully

In order to effectively roll out a global policy, undertaking proper planning is essential. A timetable should be devised that allows an employer to obtain local views, produce a final form policy, obtain appropriate translations, inform and/or consult with employee representatives to the extent required, and put in place appropriate communication and training processes.

2. Gain visible and high-level support

In the authors’ experience, global policies are most effectively implemented where they have very visible and high-level support. It is, therefore, advisable to give one senior employee within the organisation ultimate responsibility for coordinating the project.

3. Work with local employees to introduce policies

These local people can then work with nominated local employees and/or HR in each jurisdiction to introduce the policies and to ensure appropriate training and guidance is provided. After implementation, these local employees can be given responsibility for monitoring the impact of the policy and providing appropriate feedback.

4. Take local legal advice

In addition to seeking the view of local employees, employers should also take legal advice to identify any potential difficulties with the policy that is being introduced and, crucially, whether or not there is a need to consult with local employee representatives, works councils and/or trade unions. Any resistance or concerns that are raised should be carefully considered and, if required to comply with specific local legislation, particular sections of the policy should be varied for particular countries.

5. Communicate the policy effectively

The form and timing of communication to employees will also need to be considered. Many organisations have employee handbooks that could need reissuing. Alternatively, an increasingly common approach for employers is to have employee policies on their intranet so that they are easily available. Employers will need to decide how best to publicise the new policies, taking into account the make-up of the workforce and the tools at their disposal in each jurisdiction. In some cases, for example where employee consent may be a legal requirement before an employer can transfer employees’ personal data abroad, an employer will also need to manage the process of obtaining express agreement/consent from the affected employees.

About Matthew Howse and Sarah Ash

Matthew Howse is a partner and Sarah Ash is an associate at the London labour and employment practice of global law firm Morgan Lewis.
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