Why HR policies should be tailored to different cultures

“Make sure your leaders are cross-culturally competent.”  That is what the audience, mostly Regional HR Heads and HR managers, heard at the 3rd Annual Global Talent Mobility Congress on March 18 and 19 in Singapore.  The speaker was a Regional HR Manager of a US multinational company, with 8 years’ experience in Singapore.  He advised that multinational companies should decide on their ‘non-negotiables’ when it comes to HR policies and then localize what they can to get the best results from their employees and leaders.   

Improve Job Satisfaction

A recently released study, Cultural Impact of Human Resources Practices on Job Satisfaction, published in the latest edition of Cross Cultural Management, makes the case that following this advice will also lead to greater job satisfaction for employees.  Many previous studies have demonstrated that human resource management practices can have a positive relationship on organizational performance, but this research looked at how cross-cultural dimensions play a role in job satisfaction when looking at human resources policies. 

The study used survey data from 70,000 employees of three large multinational companies that had physical locations in each of the four global regions studied: Asia, Latin America, Europe and North America.  The research aggregated a regional cultural score based on the answers provided for each country in that region.  In that way, it took into account cultural differences among countries in each region. 

This study corroborates previous research that has shown that different HR practices are valued differently in different cultures.  And while extrinsic and intrinsic rewards are both important, their actual structure must be considered in the cultural context. 

Differentiate Recognition Programs

Regardless of culture, the most significant impact on job satisfaction was accomplishment and recognition.  Employees want to feel that they are performing their job well and they want to be recognized by their managers for having done a good job.  How they might like to be recognized by their management might differ, though, based on culture. 

In more collectivist cultures, such as you tend to find in Asia, connectivity to others is important so managerial praise and social rewards are more important.  In Asia, teamwork is also related to job satisfaction because people value working together as a team.  In more individualistic cultures, such as you find in North America, competition and being recognized for individual performance can better motivate employees.  These types of incentives would backfire in most parts of Asia where competitiveness is not as valued. 

The Need for Work-Life Balance

Another HR policy area was work-life balance.  Interestingly, these policies were much more important to job satisfaction in North America because work and home are seen as more separate.  In collectivist cultures, like Asia, work is seen as contributing to family life, so there is not the same sense of guilt for working women.  Therefore, there is not as great a perceived need to balance the two. 

These are just a few of the areas that were looked at in this study and the ones that dealt most directly with Asia.  Of course, it’s important to note that while there can be regional similarities, there are differences between country cultures, something that managers should be aware of. 

Beware of the ‘cookie-cutter’ approach

Multinational companies tend to be divided regionally, but many have a central HR organization that determine central HR policies and practices, as well as development programs. These policies and programs are often not tailored to regions, or when they are, the differences between countries’ cultures are not taken into account.

As the MNC Regional Manager mentioned in the first paragraph personally discovered, managers must recognize that their own culture and the policies that work well in their own culture may not be successful if directly transferred to another culture, and  therefore a more ‘culturally tailored’ approach may be necessary for both HR policies and practices.

Andreassi. (2014). Cultural Impact of Human Resources Practices on Job Satisfaction. Cross Cultural Management, 55-77.

Written by Risa Heywood.


Three Things Western Expats Should Know

Entry #1

This week, I was asked what top three things Western expats should know to ease their transition to Singapore. Here was my answer:

It’s common to hear expats say that Singapore is the easiest place to live in Asia. In many ways, that’s true. But I also think that some of the things that make Singapore easy can mask some of its difficulties. On the surface, Singapore seems more Western than other Asian cities - signs are in English, you can drink the water, it’s clean, modern, orderly and safe. But, it’s not a Western city.

When expats are moving to Tokyo or Seoul or Mumbai, they might learn a little of the language, read up on the culture and learn a few do’s and don’ts.  They wouldn’t be surprised when the taxi driver doesn’t understand them, when the store clerk doesn’t provide Western customer service or when their prospect won’t return their phone call.  But when those same things happen in Singapore, the same expats are often surprised and unprepared.

Singlish is English with a twist

I had been told that everyone in Singapore speaks English, so I wasn’t expecting to have many communication issues. A couple of weeks after arriving in Singapore, I got into a cab and told the taxi driver where I wanted to go. The driver, a very nice Singaporean-Chinese ‘uncle’, had absolutely no clue what I was saying. And, I had no clue what he was saying. Yes, we were both speaking English, but that fact was of no consequence. It took 5 minutes before we understood each other sufficiently to agree on my destination. I determined that, in future, I had to simplify my sentences and have my IPhone map ready when I jumped into a cab.

Another lesson came when I realized that all of those people on the phone whom I couldn’t understand were answering “can” or “cannot” instead of “yes” or “no” to my questions. Once I understood how prevalent those two words were in the Singaporean vocabulary, my understanding grew exponentially.

Rules are to be followed

Singaporeans acknowledge that they are rule followers. This is one of the reasons that the country is so orderly and safe. When was the last time you saw a police car patrolling in Singapore or saw police on the street walking a beat? They don’t have to because, for the most part, Singaporeans follow the rules. But, that means that Singaporeans follow the rules – even when you don’t want them to.

Soon after arriving in Singapore, a new friend, who had been in Singapore for a year, took me to have French fries at her favourite French fry shop. She loved the sauces, like curry sauce, etc. that they poured all over their fries. Well, I’m not the biggest French fry fan, but if I’m going to eat them, I prefer them crunchy and not doused in sauce. So, I asked the kid behind the counter if I could please have my sauce on the side. He said yes, as he poured a mountain of sauce all over my fries and handed them to me. Puzzled, I said, “But I just asked you for the sauce on the side” and looking confused, he said, “But this is how they come.” My new friend just sighed and said, “Don’t argue, you won’t win. He was just following the rules.”

Western businesses have job titles and business hierarchies, but even front-line employees are often given some degree of power to make small decisions, especially if it makes the customer happy. This is not the case in Singapore, where businesses tend to be more hierarchical, and job descriptions and procedures are taken very seriously.   If you ask your employee to do something which is not explicitly in their job description, s/he may not actually follow your instructions. You would have better success if you explained your expectations regarding team work, taking initiatives, thinking for yourself, etc. first.

Face is very important

I’d heard the term ‘face’ before moving to Singapore - probably in the many historical novels I’d read that took place in China. Still, I had absolutely no idea how important that concept is in Asia, and what a big part it plays in Asian culture. Face, as an intercultural concept, is difficult to define in Western terms, but might be best understood as ‘reputation’ or ‘good name’. To ‘save face’ might be defined as ‘to avoid being disgraced or humiliated’.

What it means is that a Singaporean would not want to embarrass you or themselves by saying, ‘no’ directly to you. Rather than telling you, “No, we don’t want to buy your product,” your prospect may just not return your calls. Or, he might say, “We’ll have to think about it.” Or, “That would be difficult.” There are many ways of saying 'no', both verbally and nonverbally, that you may not immediately recognize.

Most people want to be helpful

Being aware of these three things can make your life in Singapore much more enjoyable.  You should also remember that most people are trying to be polite and helpful. It may just be that how they were taught to be polite and helpful is different from what you were taught. Take a deep breath, smile and enjoy your foreign encounters.

Written by Risa Heywood.


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