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Why HR people need to think global, act local

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HR people with the skills to manage a global workforce are in high demand as organisations increasingly pursue growth overseas.  Businesses are looking to HR to support this expansion into emerging markets and to attract and grow the talent that will help them capitalise on new opportunities.

Managing a geographically dispersed workforce, however, certainly isn’t a challenge for the feint-hearted.  HR people need the vision and influence to help the business ‘think global’ – as well as the ability to put policies and processes in place to support that shift.  All this against a backdrop of economic uncertainty, political volatility and advances in areas like Artificial Intelligence that are revolutionising the very way work is carried out.

There is a certain irony to the current focus within many multi-nationals on globalising their people practices.  As Professor Paul Sparrow of Lancaster University Management School points out in a recent Forbes article, it’s happening at a time when much of the world appears to be ‘de-globalising’.  Witness the UK’s Brexit vote and Trump’s widely touted intent to ‘buy American and hire American’.  With companies increasingly finding themselves under the spotlight on everything from their CSR track record to the way they manage their supply chains, HR is faced with managing the many tensions between global success and local impact.

So what the main challenges global practitioners are likely to come up against?

  1. Workforce planning

If HR is to support the organisation’s goals, it needs to get the right people in the right place at the right time.  A global backdrop adds an extra layer of complexity to this task.  It calls for HR to be clear about exactly what skills the business needs and how it is going to source them.  Global mobility isn’t always the answer, with some research suggesting Generation Y employees are less willing than their predecessors to pursue international careers.  HR needs to develop a good understanding of both international and local job markets, not to mention the influence of the gig economy.  Solid succession planning is vital – and organisations also need to work hard on their employer brand, to make sure they can attract and grow candidates who are a good cultural fit and can support their global ambitions.

  1. New ways of working

Traditional ways of communicating with staff and managing performance just won’t cut it in a scenario where operations and teams are geographically dispersed.  HR needs to support managers across the business in developing the skills to build, motivate and lead virtual teams.  Sophisticated technology and automated systems are of course available to support the process – but it also calls for a level of trust and loosening of control that doesn’t come easily to some managers. HR needs to help the business shift to a more dynamic approach to performance management, centred around continuous feedback and regular reviews of targets and objectives.  Communication in the virtual space, where everything is amplified and the nuances of body language are not always obvious, also calls for a whole new skill set, which will push many managers out of their comfort zone.

  1. Employment law

International employment law is a minefield and an area where HR needs to tread carefully if it is not to fall foul of local regulations.  Rules vary widely between countries on everything from right to work, holiday entitlement, working hours, employee relations and minimum pay.  Dismissal procedures are a prime example of the chasm that can exist between different countries.  In the US, for examples, companies can pretty much fire people without reason, whereas in the UK, there are strict disciplinary and dismissal procedures that employers ignore at their peril.  Keeping on top of these complex rules and regulations (which of course, are also subject to regular change) can be a particular challenge for smaller businesses without an in-house legal team or access to external help.  HR needs to make sure it has a thorough understanding of the legal backdrop in the areas the business operates in – or that is has secured the services of an employment lawyer with international know-how.

  1. Cultural awareness

Mention cultural awareness and people typically focus on issues like the protocol in different countries for greeting people or exchanging business cards.  But cultural diversity is of course about much more than this.  The dynamics of the relationship between boss and direct report, for example, can vary widely across different cultures.  There are differences between the way feedback is given and received, in the way reward is managed and delivered, even in the way people conduct themselves in meetings.  Getting to grips with societal and cultural norms is fundamental to leading a team successfully – and as Hult International Business School professor Jean Vanhoegaerden points out in a recent TEDx talk, it’s often more about focusing on similarities rather than differences:

HR needs to make sure managers across the business are supported in getting to grips with these often challenging scenarios so that they can maximise productivity and avoid unnecessary conflict.

  1. Flexibility

HR needs to help the business develop the flexibility to adapt its over-arching global policies to local situations.  Yes of course the organisation will want to have a consistent approach to the way it attracts and grows talent, manages performance and rewards its people.  But the reality is that on the ground, there will need to be subtle nuances in the way those policies are implemented.  An article in HR Magazine also points to the need for organisations to be very clear about where they stand on ethical issues.  The values set by HQ may not hold true universally, and in some situations the business may find its values are in danger of being compromised.  Think global, act local – and know exactly where you stand – needs to be the international HR practitioner’s mantra.

Wade Macdonald’s ‘Future of HR’ series aims to explore some of the real challenges and opportunities facing the world of HR as working practices evolve. Stay tuned for further insight.


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