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7 New Competencies for a Competent HR Department

May 7, 2014

managing international hr

I will never forget the time I complained to a colleague at a US company that all of our domestic and international employees except those at a manufacturing site in a hot, dry Middle Eastern country had received distinctive company wrist-watches as year-end thank-you gifts. Admitting the company was all out of watches, he agreed to send them “something they’ll like just as much.” Two weeks later, I received a call from the country’s general manager: “Hey! What’s with the golf umbrellas? Don’t you know it doesn’t rain here and our employees are mostly refugees who are too busy making new lives for themselves to play golf, even if they did know how, and there was an affordable golf course nearby.“ Ouch!

Whether an HR professional is based in Minneapolis or Muscat, s/he can no longer afford to be purely domestic as they need international HR. Almost all firms today buy, sell, manufacture and/or outsource in other countries or are seriously considering it. And most medium to large firms have at least one employee and often many more from other countries. The need for an international mindset can be attested to by any American plant manager who has had to effectively manage a workforce of refugees, immigrants, and locals.

Regrettably, however, conventional courses in International HR and IHRM textbooks do a poor job of preparing practitioners for the international marketplace. They tend to focus on categorizing employees as HCNs (Host Country Nationals), PCNs (Parent Country Nationals), and TCNs (Third Country Nationals) and calculating their compensation and benefits.  Obviously, this is crucial but as it becomes increasingly more difficult to neatly slot global employees, and since there is no longer a “typical” overseas posting, many international firms choose to outsource this function to the experts specializing in international compensation. This leaves the equally essential work of “applying global glue” to internal HR management and this can often be even more complex. Defining, supporting, and evolving an organization culture in which employees in Thailand, for instance, feel just as motivated and proud of their company as those in India and the US requires sophisticated international HR and OD expertise along with cultural savvy.

With this in mind I offer the following list of global cultural competencies that have served me well over the course of a long international career:

  • An understanding of the fundamental human values that transcend national culture
  • An appreciation of our own culture and how it is experienced by others
  • An interest in learning about and learning from other cultures
  • The ability to successfully realize the synergies among industry, corporate, and national cultures
  • Competence in applying “global glue”
  • Sophisticated active listening skills
  • Patience and a sense of humor

Developing these capabilities requires more than a weekend seminar. In fact, considering that cultures and work environments are constantly changing, becoming globally competent can be a life-long pursuit for many of us. Traveling, of course, can be the best way to become skilled but not everyone has this opportunity. Reading, networking, learning a language, utilizing multicultural resources at universities and colleges, and otherwise seeking every opportunity to broaden one’s global horizons can also be instrumental in the growth of a perceptive international HR practitioner. And let’s not forget YouTube!

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About The Author

Annie Viets, EdD, grew up in West Africa in an ex-pat family and has had a long career in international business with American and foreign-owned companies. She is currently on the faculty of Prince Mohammad Bin Fahd University in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia where she teaches, consults, and pursues research in international human resource management and entrepreneurship. She is one of the editors of Handbook for Strategic HR: Best Practices in Organizational Development from the OD Network.

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