Global HR

How to Navigate Cultural Differences As a Global HR Professional

September 23, 2021
March 8, 2024
Jennifer Ernst Beaudry
Lattice Team

Human Resources professionals are accustomed to encountering new, unfamiliar challenges in their daily work — and that’s doubly true for the HR specialists who work in global Human Resources. Whether it’s overseeing employees who work in different time zones across multiple countries, operating in a handful of languages, or staying abreast of varying office norms, HR pros who work for multinational corporations are immersed in different worlds regularly. 

But behind the logistical challenges of responsibilities like ensuring that each satellite office complies with applicable local employment codes or that all-hands meetings are being scheduled during the hours when employees in different time zones will be at work, global HR professionals are tasked with an even more significant job: Human Resources is responsible for  navigating the many cultural backgrounds of company employees to avoid problems or misunderstandings — and doing so in a way that allows all employees to thrive in a supportive, harmonious, inclusive environment. 

In a time when global workforces are becoming more and more the norm — and when companies are becoming more attuned to the benefits of a culturally diverse staff — establishing best practices for creating supportive, inclusive environments has become increasingly important. It’s no small task, but according to experts, HR professionals can not only tackle the challenge — they can make the cultural differences within their firms a major asset. 

What Constitutes Cultural Difference?

Cultural differences in the workplace can refer to the ways different mindsets, beliefs, and values inform the way members of a given region, nationality, or group approach work, their workplaces, and often, the ways in which they relate to their colleagues. And while global firms tend to focus on the major differences in assumptions and situations that employees working in New York, for example, might have from employees in Jakarta, experts said it’s important to remember that all workplaces, not just global ones, are made up of different cultures.

“There are as many cultural differences in the workplace as there are individuals,” said Ash Beckham, activist, speaker, and author of Step Up: How to Live With Courage and Become an Everyday Leader. “Cultural differences do not just exist across time zones or borders — they are everywhere.” 

But that’s not to say that multicultural companies with global workforces don’t face distinct challenges. Some, for example, are shaped by the ways employees in different locations can expect the office to function. Whether that’s the hours people are expected to be at their desks, what days are generally taken as holidays, or how formally people dress or even speak to each other at the office, global companies can find that workers in the same organization may have very different expectations of their work environment. 

For HR, this can also mean changes in the way they, as a department, operate. According to Robyn Tingley, founder and CEO of communications consulting firm GlassSKY and a former global HR executive, “benefits like onsite childcare and government regulations for work environment standards; employment legislation that dictates hiring, promotion, and firing processes; [and] unions and works councils are also very specific to local country legislation.”

More broadly, cultural differences can extend beyond the office to include how colleagues are expected to relate to each other. “In some countries, a ‘thumbs up’ is a good thing; in other countries, it could be considered extremely rude,” said Sejal Thakkar, Chief Civility Officer at legal training and consulting firm TrainXtra and Chief Culture Officer of venture studio Nobody Studios. “Even laughing — if you laugh out loud in certain [places] it can be considered rude, [while] in other countries, it’s fine and can even build connection.” 

Managing these very different — and often unwritten and unspoken — expectations and codes of behavior is where it pays for global HR departments to be proactive. Laying the foundation for cross-cultural understanding can be immensely useful for a diverse workforce in keeping teams working together smoothly.   

“When you've got people from different cultures, those differences impact how a person interacts with others within the organization. That often brings fresh new perspectives and insights,” said Thakkar. “But it can also lead to conflicts, which often come as a surprise to the people involved, as well as the HR staff who have to deal with it.”

Those disagreements or incidents can be borne out of ignorance, not necessarily bad intent, Thakkar noted. But left unresolved, she continued, it can create just as many issues. “One of the biggest challenges I’ve seen is lack of awareness about cultural differences — people frequently just don't know how to deal with cultural differences,” she said. “Sometimes they'll get scared and uncomfortable interacting with someone who's different from them, so they may go into self-protection mode or simply avoid interacting with the person. This kind of behavior can lead to issues that HR has to get involved in.”

The Role Global HR Plays

Cultural assumptions and biases are often unconscious, meaning we don’t even see them. Most people just assume that the way they expect to do business and relate to others is the norm, and never stop to question that assumption. This is why it’s so crucial to make education about the variety of different cultural perspectives a priority.

Beckham recommended that HR take the lead in establishing diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) groups, which are generally staff-led working groups or task forces that develop and promote strategies and initiatives for their workplaces. These can be fertile ground for exchanging ideas and information, and can provide valuable diversity training for all colleagues. 

“Create accountability for DEIB practices by making that part of performance reviews at all levels — what gets measured gets changed,” advised Beckham. For instance, she said, this could look like incentivizing involvement in employee resource groups (ERGs) in the review process, or making assessments of how bias manifests on workplace and personal levels part of the discussion, among other options. What’s critical, Beckham said, is to have the employees set the goals. “The challenges and accountability that come from setting (and revising) one's own goals are an integral part of inclusion work,” she said. 

“Encourage teams to take time at regular intervals to learn more about the cultures represented on the team and in the places where the organization does business,” Beckham recommended. Whether that’s time set aside during a recurring meeting where a rotating group of employees shares specific cultural information like common local dishes or a brief presentation about geographic, political, or economic issues impacting a given culture, “having the responsibility for leading the discussion rotated among teams members and done in small working groups of two or three increases engagement and accountability,” Beckham said. But, she cautioned, the work shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of members of groups in question. “Responsibility for education should never rest solely on any representatives of that culture,” she stressed. 

“[All of this] not only creates greater connection and understanding between team members, but also allows the team to assess who and where is not represented,” Beckham continued. If there are gaps on the team, she said, the process can give some insight into next steps: Does the firm need to broaden its recruitment efforts and the places it’s looking for talent? Does the commitment to a diverse workforce need to be more explicitly communicated to stakeholders and customers? Does the company need a more robust support network and professional development programs in-house to retain new hires? Is implicit bias affecting decision-making? 

Knowledge, Beckham said, is key to knowing how to act: “We cannot solve the problem if we do not know precisely where and when we are missing opportunities,” she said.

Making sure that the corporate calendar takes into account the major religious, civic, and cultural holidays of a company's global workforce is another powerful action that shows employees their unique experiences are a priority, not an afterthought, to the firms that employ them. 

But while encouraging the exchange of knowledge is a foundational step, Scott Warrick, employment law attorney, Human Resources consultant, and author of Solve Employee Problems Before They Start: Resolving Conflict in the Real World, said it’s necessary to go beyond just raising cultural awareness, and to train workers be culturally competent in a broader sense.

Companies that focus on teaching their employees about their global colleagues’ cultural backgrounds create a workforce aware of those specific backgrounds — but only those backgrounds. However, multinational companies that, more broadly, invest in training their employees in emotional intelligence and empathetic listening skills can create a workforce that’s better equipped to recognize cultural differences and successfully resolve any conflicts that may arise. And that can help create an environment where existing employees, new hires, clients, and customers from different cultures feel respected and appreciated.

It’s such a priority, Warrick added, that it was the recommendation of a 2016 report from the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). "The EEOC said that our focus needs to be more on building skills so we can create more tolerant workplaces,” he said. “The logic here is simple: If you learn the necessary skills, then you will be able to handle most situations that come your way.”

Also important, experts added, is that Human Resources departments make sure it’s clear that cultural awareness trainings or policies aren’t making generalizations or reducing individual people to cultural stereotypes. Recognizing differences is critical, experts said — but so is recognizing the limits of what they say about individual employees. 

“There is a very thin line between acknowledging cultural differences and stereotyping,” cautioned Vanessa Phan, Managing Editor for educational consulting and test prep firm Cardinal Education. "It is important to know the employees on a personal level and understand their individual behavior, psyche, and emotional state.”

The Diversity Advantage

But while so much policy around cultural difference focuses on potential issues or frictions between colleagues, experts agreed it’s important not to overlook the major upsides a culturally diverse workforce offers. In fact, they said, a diverse workplace with a strong organizational culture has a competitive advantage in this age of increasing globalization. 

Diverse organizations see results, said Beckham. “Ethnically and culturally diverse organizations are 33% more likely to perform above the national industry median,” she noted, citing 2017 research from global consulting firm McKinsey & Company. “Also, recruitment and retention, as well as innovation, are positively impacted by an inclusive workplace culture.” 

“Diversity in skillsets, geographic locations, and cultural backgrounds allow organizations to offer a wider, more adaptable range of products and services,” agreed Wendy Best, Director of People for Adit, a medical industry software and marketing company. “Challenges companies face due to having a diverse workforce should inspire leadership to streamline processes that boost efficiency and creativity. Doing this will eventually produce more innovative and adaptable technology. In short, there’s a direct correlation between diversity and profitability.”

Tapping into the experiences and expertise of the talent pool in your firm and the variety of different cultures represented can pay off in a lot of ways. “When you have people with different cultural perspectives, it gives you more insight and ideas for building innovative products and services and developing your [company] culture. It also gives you a far greater ability to serve the desires and challenges of different markets,” Thakkar said. “Diversity and inclusion also create more positive work environments. Studies have shown that more homogenous workplace cultures tend to be more toxic and have higher rates of turnover. That’s very expensive and damaging for businesses.”

Navigating cultural differences in the workplace is essential, and global HR has a critical role to play. But a robust and diverse workforce can offer a global business huge advantages — and an attuned Human Resources department can help a company leverage these strengths.

“Employees want to be valued not in spite of their diversity but because of it,” Beckham said. Recognizing different employees’ cultural backgrounds and the unique gifts, mindsets, and perspectives they bring to their work, as well as increasing both the cultural diversity and the cultural competency of an organization as a whole has a big payoff, she said. But it’s simply the next evolution of the role HR has always played.

Most organizations have a set of principles that serve as their “true north,” continued Beckham, but inclusive companies are able to put those values into context across different cultures. “This demonstrates the age-old undertaking of HR executives: How do we balance the priorities of our organization with the individual needs of our employees in a way that serves them both effectively? [It’s just that] now the scope and scale are exponentially more broad,” she said.

For global HR professionals, successfully navigating the cultural differences among staff is an extension of their broader mission. And workforces that can harness the potential and possibility unlocked by a diverse staff are all the better positioned to rise to the challenges of an increasingly global, and increasingly connected, world.