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Great Expectations: Mastering Cultural Sensitivity in Business and HR

August 3, 2011
I was recently given the opportunity by my company to work with a diverse international group of fellow employees.
Colleagues from Brazil, France and Germany were all represented in our Chicago office at any given time. Not only are the team members servicing different countries and time zones, but also they bring their unique cultural traditions.
Although here in the United States we are already exposed to multiple nationalities at work, I think the concept of cultural intelligence—a person's ability to function in a new setting and understand those differences—deserves a fresh look. Cross-cultural training, cultural immersion and becoming more sensitive to other countries' ways are crucial business tools in an ever-expanding global society.
Experts say success in international business comes down to knowing the culture and language. Once a person or company has mastered these two elements, charting new territory in a country businesswise is practically a given. I can't help but wonder: Is that all there is to it? Is it enough to only master a few key phrases in a foreign language, as well as knowing when not to shake one's hand and what topics to avoid in a business meeting?
Do you automatically become culturally business-savvy once you understand why, after being interviewed by your potential Brazilian boss, that your résumé is less important than the way you are perceived as an individual? Or that having a clear understanding of the European Union's current issues could help you close a deal with a French customer?
I was asked to take one of my Brazilian colleagues out for lunch. I soon discovered that mastering the cultural key issues or even another language is far from enough.
I also found out that the same principles apply in international business as they do in daily interactions with your own culturally neutral team: It's about managing expectations. It is also about actively listening and making sure there are no misunderstandings about the scope of the project. In our case, we were looking at the same timeline and same deliverables, yet our approaches were quite different.
Most companies count on buzzwords such as alignment to drive their growth; however, timing can be an important factor in the success of a certain initiative.
For example, having HR launch an employee motivation project on three different continents at the same time could backfire. Some of the countries and locations involved might still be affected by the recent economic downturn or even previous layoffs and might feel resentful toward such an initiative.
It's also important to keep communication simple and concise, whether it's written or verbal. Different time zones, languages and interpretations of English—considered the universal business language—exponentially increase the risk for misunderstanding and even conflict. Avoid local business jargon, casual ways of ending a conversation and using the ubiquitous emoticons at the end of an email.
One of the easiest ways to gain insight into your international team's way of doing business while staying aligned as an overall company is to get to know your HR colleagues across the company. Be proactive and find out that company days at the beach are more suitable in Brazil or Argentina, while corporate-sponsored challenges are a better fit for North Americans' employee motivation initiatives; it could save you a lot of time and headache.
Functioning as a global HR team can be a challenging yet rewarding role. Respectful, sustainable communications with employees while maintaining the uniqueness of cultural differences helps meet the challenges head-on.
Workforce Management Online, August 2011 -- Register Now!