International HR: Different strokes

As global workforces become the norm, HR must manage an increasingly diverse range of cultures. What difficulties do they face and how can they overcome them?

The advent of satellite TV and the internet has whittled away at national cultures to the extent that we may have begun to assume that everyone lives, acts and even works in a similar way. But that’s not always the case. Global workplace furniture manufacturer Steelcase recently surveyed its European clients’ ways of working, and the results, if not entirely unexpected, certainly provide food for thought.

The British are individualistic, self-controlled, class conscious and natural team workers, according to Steelcase. The Germans, however, are more conservative, place a greater emphasis on privacy and prefer a formal, hierarchical workplace. The Italians are hierarchical and bureaucratic, insisting on face-to-face meetings and preferring manager-led processes, whereas the French are more egalitarian and participative. At French meetings, it isn’t uncommon for everyone to talk at the same time – yet decisions are still generally made by senior people. Italian meetings, which rarely start or end on time, involve lots of emotion and noise, but no-one expects decisions to be reached until much later.


And if the differences between our European neighbours are so stark, what of our colleagues in Asia and the US? Just as we accept that people bring their personalities to work, so we have to recognise that they also bring their cultures and associated outlooks and behaviours with them.

As global workforces become the norm, it’s rare to find a company that doesn’t recruit from a range of international backgrounds. And it’s usually the HR team’s responsibility to manage across this increasingly diverse range of cultures.

The potential pitfalls are legion – religious beliefs, language and cultural differences, professional behaviour, even the different ways a single company may have operated in various regions. And you don’t have to work overseas to feel the impact of other cultures in the workplace.

The most important factor in dealing with any workforce is information and communication. It needs to be timely, accurate and equally accessible to all members of staff.

If a company gets this wrong and it hits the headlines, it can be very damaging to their reputation – as last year’s press reports on Domino’s Pizza Group highlighted.

The company’s UK operation, like many catering firms, has a multinational workforce, and this left it in a sticky spot when it was alleged that some of its foreign staff had so many deductions from their salary that by the end of the month they had negative wages.

Lack of consistency

Jane Roberts, head of HR at Domino’s Pizza, admitted that a lack of consistency and communication led to the situation.

“One of the problems was that we relied on our franchisees to manage, train and regulate the 12,000 employees who work in-store under the Domino’s brand and this, combined with the language issue, created some inconsistencies,” she explains.

Domino’s tackled its multicultural problems by launching a multilingual intranet, which is accessible to all staff.

But tackling language barriers is only one aspect of integrating different cultures in the workplace.

Accountancy giant KPMG recently merged its UK, Germany, Switzerland and Spain operations. The company now has more than 23,000 partners and staff working from 75 offices across the four countries.

And bringing together four diverse workplaces has had its moments, says Keith Dugdale, director of global recruitment at KPMG.

He recalls UK staff having to teach their new German colleagues that when they referred to something as ‘interesting’, it wasn’t necessarily a compliment. And appraising staff or giving feedback were also approached sufficiently differently by the two cultures to be potential minefields. Dugdale is a great advocate of cross-cultural working and believes that having, for instance, Japanese staff who will understand how Japanese clients think, is invaluable. KPMG is proud of its corporate identity but, says Dugdale, is also keen to maintain elements of individual employees’ culture, too.

Lend a helping hand

Learning from existing members of staff is one of the fastest and most accurate ways of getting new arrivals up to speed, according to communications company Burson-Marsteller.

While KPMG follows the more traditional route of providing inductions for both employees and spouses, Burson-Marsteller encourages its employees to help each other, and has implemented a cross-border mentoring scheme.

Paul Herrick, head of HR for Europe at the firm, explains: “We started by offering mentoring to a group of managers who piloted a global competency model.

“Having a clear picture of the areas each manager wanted to develop, we matched them with senior colleagues from another market who are considered to be role models in those areas.”

The scheme has, so far, been a great success. “It’s really working well where both mentor and mentee belong to the same practice area. They immediately understand each other’s reality and have common business issues to share,” Herrick says.

Kate Seeley, workforce planning and staffing director at computer giant Hewlett-Packard (HP), sees cross-cultural working as a way of life, and says the employee base should reflect the company’s marketplace. HP insists on hiring people who are adaptable, and who show trust and respect to others, says Seeley.

Thorny issues

“HP’s values are very strong, so staff have a strong sense of belonging, regardless of their own cultural background. We promote inclusiveness, and we’re good at staying in touch with people once they’ve been posted abroad. We support their families too.”

But it’s easy to forget just how much perceptions can vary from culture to culture. According to Dugdale, remuneration is one of the thorniest issues with multicultural workforces, with different cultures having very different ideas of what does and doesn’t constitute a benefit.

Dugdale also points out the importance of the ‘social space’, where staff have the opportunity to interact outside work, and stresses that employers keep in mind the different ways cultures socialise. While reluctance to follow your team to the pub may put you at a slight disadvantage in the UK, turning down a similar invitation would simply not be countenanced in Japan.

This is something that staff need to be made aware of, whether they are heading overseas or welcoming a foreign colleague into their team. It is the organisation’s – and most likely HR’s – responsibility to make sure all staff take on board any potential cultural issues or sensitivities. This could take the form of briefings, inductions or even online training.

And it should be ongoing. New members of the team should have the opportunity for regular meetings and assessments of how they are fitting in.

Preparation is key

And while each company will approach the cross-cultural issue differently, the key to benefiting from the knowledge and experience of all of your staff is preparation. People need to know what to expect, so new recruits should be fully briefed on all aspects of the company.

And don’t ‘ghettoise’ your employees – they need to mix with other cultures, and be comfortable doing so. It’s inevitable that people, particularly if abroad, will gravitate towards compatriots, but encourage them to mix. While much of this will be up to their line managers, HR still has a role to play – training courses in particular provide a good opportunity for team members to get to know one another.

Recruitment is, of course, fundamental to effective multicultural working, and an area where HR can exert considerable influence. As Seeley says, recruiting people who have respect for one another’s culture is a great first step.

Multicultural working is here to stay, and the sooner we all embrace it, the better.

10 tips for managing a multicultural team

  1. Adopt a ‘cultural lens’. Be prepared to set aside tried and tested management techniques that may have served you well in the past.
  2. Invest in managing new starters’ expectations. Allow more time for team formation, induction and establishing goals.
  3. Build relationships across cultures. Find time for face-to-face meetings and social activities. However intermittent, time together is of great value.
  4. Communicate across cultures. Keep in contact and always check that your communications are understood in the way that you intended.
  5. Encourage participation in cross-cultural teams. Vary your communication styles and methods. Using visuals can help overcome language barriers.
  6. Motivate cross-cultural teams. Focus both on team and individual goals. Remember that rewards and incentives can be seen very differently.
  7. Manage performance across cultures. Take extra care introducing performance management systems, as one size does not fit all.
  8. Raise cultural awareness and understanding. Bring people from different cultures together for specific projects and assignments to promote greater understanding.
  9. Manage cross-cultural conflict. Help people clarify their assumptions. Even understanding what the issue is can be difficult.
  10. Encourage ethical standards in cross-cultural teams. Ways of conducting business can vary across geographies, so provide clear company guidelines and be ready to deal with any ethical issues in a timely manner.

Source: Sharon Varney, research associate, Roffey Park Institute

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