Insider Story: International HR

In my line of work I often meet people who have lived and worked internationally and have a keen interest in the cultural differences that can be found in HR around the globe, so when Danny Kavanagh crossed my path I thought that he would be the perfect candidate for co-writing a blog with me around international HR.

Danny and I discussed everything from how to manage change, through to the perception that other countries have of us Brits in business. Over the last decade, Danny has worked in several countries on assignment and even lived in Scandinavia for three years.

‘The experience was educating in many ways, and included opportunities to see ourselves as others see us. In a work situation, different styles and practices are apparent. Outside of work, news and media reports on the UK and discussions with European colleagues about what was happening back home were on occasions eye-opening.‘

Working culture…mind the gap

Having worked across Scandinavia, Sweden, Finland and Poland, Danny has experienced a vast range of different working and social cultures and has found that whilst on one hand, it can feel somewhat bureaucratic when it comes to employment law, there is absolutely no grey area.

The UK can often be seen as quite direct and argumentative, where people take sides for and against certain things (e.g BREXIT) and this culture then strays into the workplace. The Scandinavians take more of a consensus approach when making decisions, as they want everyone to agree the best way forward. This method in international HR can be quite exasperating for us Brits, as we can often leave meetings wondering ‘what did we actually decide’ or ‘are we going to do anything?’

The culture in British business meetings, by contrast, can be broken down into either shooting down proposals or giving an overly supportive endorsement without any real examination of fact having taken place.

Interestingly, when Danny worked in Hungary, he found that the US parent company managers were seen as ‘brash’ and ‘disrespectful of culture’ and he found that the British acquired a ‘go-between’ role to make things work.

Implementing change

When implementing change in the UK, we tend to be very upfront when a decision has been made and go ahead and tell everyone what’s going to happen.

In international HR things are done differently – in Scandinavia (for cultural and legal reasons) employers are much more collaborative with their employees and talk more about their proposals, gathering opinions and seemingly seeking permission before committing to a final decision. Finland takes a consultative approach, but they always have a ‘drop dead date’ to go ahead and make the change happen.

In Europe, business change can affect a whole community. Companies are often heavily involved in the local community and quite often a number of members of the same family will be working there – so it can be a pretty big deal! Whilst being an interim, Danny found that he could be more direct as the expectation was that you are the ‘subject matter expert’, so your voice gets heard.

‘If I move onto a new change project and it is similar to one I have done before, I will never just re-use what I have done previously. I don’t believe in the ‘one size fits all’ or ‘off the shelf’ mantra on these things, particularly when working internationally, as organisations and cultures are so very different’

Danny believes that HR should be facilitating the balanced view in the workplace; fact-driven, un-emotional discussion searching for the best way forward whilst acknowledging the positives, challenges and sensitivities surrounding the situation.

There is a book which helps inform this approach by the late Hans Rosling. It is entitled ‘Factfulness – Ten reasons we are wrong about the world’ and really explores how we need to take an active approach to understand the way other cultures work and truely understand international HR.

A huge thank you to Danny Kavanagh for working with us to create this blog.

James Cumming is our MD and leads our Interim Transformation practice. If you’ve got a hard-to-fill role and need some help, get in touch. Connect with him on LinkedIn here.

If you would like to find out more about re:find and how we can support you and your business, then please get in touch.