Managing Worldwide: When HR Becomes a Global Ambassador

© Michael Brown - Fotolia.com
© Michael Brown - Fotolia.com

In your responsibilities in international HR, you will soon discover you have a role that you never thought you would have — that of intermediary.

Being an intermediary means that you are the educator, arbiter, mediator, go-between, middle person — however you want to define it — between headquarters and the rest of the countries in your company.

Top management at headquarters may not really know that much about the culture, labor laws and competitive market in other countries. For example: If your headquarters is in the U.S., management may not know that “employment at will” is a unique law applying only to the United States. They may assume they may fire any employee in any country at any time.

They may also not understand anything about works councils, collective bargaining agreements, and laws that govern benefits, salary and work rules. They may believe that 30 days’ vacation/annual leave is too much in France and want to decrease it to be more in line with headquarters.

Managing global misunderstandings

Corporate management may tell you that their counterparts at competitor companies have told them what they offer employees in X, Y, Z countries, and, as a result your management is skeptical of what their own local country management is telling them. But these friends/counterparts are likely getting their information second, third or fourth hand.

On the flip side, the different countries that are a part of your company may not understand why they cannot have all the benefits and rewards that other companies in their country and industry have. They may feel cheated if they cannot have on-site fitness centers, lunch vouchers, supplemental benefits and other rewards they think other companies have in their local market.

Upon investigation, you may find that employees in a given country tend to take the best of competitor benefits and pay programs and tell you that these plans are what all competitors provide employees. It may really be a result of employees’ picking the best salary plan from one company, the best benefits package from another, and the best bonus plan from yet another company.

This is called “cherry-picking.” This is usually not done intentionally — it usually comes from market rumors and from discussions with friends at other companies.

These kinds of misunderstandings cause an “us-versus-them” situation that leads to lack of trust, employee disengagement, and attrition. In your role, you will find yourself in the middle — understanding both sides’ opinions and beliefs — and yet having to find a way to bring both sides to a mutual understanding.

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Educating about the corporate perspective

You will spend time with headquarters’ management educating them about each country’s culture, labor laws, and competitive environment so they have a better understanding of their employees’ perspective.

Top management will need to set a “people” philosophy and strategy that is corporate-wide, regardless of country. This philosophy/strategy has to be broad enough to allow some governance on a global level and yet allow for differences in local implementation. As a result, corporate will begin to have a broader perspective of “people” issues worldwide.

At the same time you will have to educate each country’s employees about the corporate culture and the “people” philosophy that provides guidance corporate-wide. This allows employees to understand the corporate perspective.

Throughout this process, you will need to question everything and gather facts from several bona fide sources. It’s like being a detective. Sort through all the rumors, hearsay and claims to get to the truth.

These results will need to be communicated both to headquarters and to employees in each country. Explaining the facts reduces the suspicion and distrust that each party may have for the other.

Does this sound like the same process that countries have to go through in the political realm in order to reach mutual understanding? If so, then your job is excellent training for becoming your country’s Ambassador!

Jacque Vilet, president of Vilet International, has more than 20 years’ experience in international human resources with major multinationals such as Intel, National Semiconductor, and Seagate Technology. She has managed both local/ in-country national and expatriate programs and has been an expat twice during her career. She has also been a speaker in the U.S., Asia, and Europe, and is a regular contributor to various HR and talent management publications. Contact her at jvilet@viletinternational.com.

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