If there’s anything that working through a pandemic has underscored, it’s just how important thinking globally has become. Faced with a disaster on a worldwide scale, corporations had to navigate unprecedented market disruption across every continent, and Human Resources teams across the world were pushed to their limits, balancing employees’ health challenges with ever-evolving health and safety guidelines that varied from region to region and changed often, but affected every aspect of the business.
In our current environment, the importance of having a global Human Resources strategy has never been clearer — or more challenging. And whether that challenge has introduced you to the world of global HR or if it’s been a long-time aspiration, the field has never been so critical. So if you’re considering a global position for the first time, or you’re a seasoned professional looking to add a new dimension to your experience, here’s what you need to know.
What Is Global HR?
Global HR roles comprise everything Human Resources does on a local or national scale — talent acquisition, talent management, financial services, onboarding, healthcare options and oversight, employment screening, and everything having to do with human capital management (HCM) — but on a multinational basis. Whether that’s as broad as strategizing about the employee experience at the corporation as a whole, or as granular as ensuring payroll is being processed for team members at the Fort Myers, FL office while simultaneously overseeing the search for a new Vice President at the Chennai, India headquarters, it’s all the HR functions you’re familiar with, but done on a global scale.
That’s not to say that global Human Resources is just national HR translated for different markets. When it comes to a global role, there are fundamental differences to consider. As Natasha Kehimkar, CEO and founder of Human Resources and DEI consultancy Malida Advisors and an executive coach and advisor with more than two decades of experience in global HR, said, when it comes to a global role, “The what of HR is the same: enabling leaders to shine, growing talent, ensuring organizational effectiveness, and attracting great people. [But] the how of HR is different.”
“Global HR roles are different because you're often dealing with larger stakeholders, and the decisions being taken around staff can be influenced by actions from outside of your region,” noted Duncan Turner, CEO of Human Resources consulting firm Harwood HR Solutions and a former director of global HR. “However, the people are still the core of the business.”
Workforce management on a global scale is a unique challenge. And while moving from a national role into a global one can be daunting, the opportunity is immense. Here, experts who have been there share their keys to success.
What to Do for Global HR Success
1. Lean on your team.
In a global role, knowing what you don’t know is half the battle. That’s why Robyn Tingley, founder and CEO of communications consulting firm GlassSKY and a former global HR executive with oversight over four continents, said relying on local experts to fill in those knowledge gaps is a must.
While working in different markets, she said, “there are major differences in everything, from compensation and benefits to tax treatments to safety and security considerations, housing and rental markets, driving standards, and immigration and visa paperwork. All of these areas require expertise and time to understand.”
Ensuring that you have an advisory team with competencies in the local market (and local labor laws) is critical to avoid not just misunderstandings, but even more serious consequences. “You’ll need a support network of relocation experts, tax advisors, immigration lawyers, and more,” said Tingley. “Make sure to have a resource available where you can quickly ascertain local legislation for the range of HR standards.”
Part of building that resource network should include speaking to the person who held your position before you (if possible), Tingley added. “Ask about key players, processes, and technology,” she said. “This will give you critical insight about areas of strength and potential challenges, so you can go into the role with valuable knowledge that will lessen your learning curve.”
2. Keep an eye on the clock.
It’s basic but fundamental: Be aware of when you’re asking your global workforce to be “on.” As much as HR technology and collaborative tools have made HR service delivery easier — even with a workforce that’s scattered around the world — it’s critical to remember that employees are still rooted in their own time zones.
Being in a global role means taking the lead and being flexible, Kehimkar advised. For one of her past roles, she said, that meant she held meetings at 11PM her time, which was 6AM for one colleague and 12PM for another. “Adapting our time to meet the needs of the different geographies we support may mean rotating meeting times and adjusting to asynchronous collaboration,” she added.
But, Tingley noted, that doesn’t mean sacrificing your own sleep every night, either. “A global role is not 9-5, [but] at the same time, you need to set boundaries so that you’re getting your rest. A global role requires a sharp and inquisitive mind to deal with the many variations that come from overseeing several countries and global regions.”
3.Watch your language.
Even if corporate speak is your native language — maybe even especially if it is — learning to communicate with your international colleagues isn’t as simple as it may seem.
“Most global professionals have English as a second or third language, so you’ll need to stamp out your American business jargon and sports analogies; much can get lost in translation,” Tingley cautioned.
Keeping your communications, both formal and informal, free from lingo, cultural references, and shorthand can be challenging, and will require heightened thought, awareness, and effort. But learning to communicate clearly and directly can be an unexpected upside, too. “No matter where you work, a successful leader should place a premium on communication,” said Tingley. “Clarity and sharp listening skills are critical.”
What to Avoid for Global HR Success
1. Don’t make assumptions.
Representing the HR department on a global stage means taking stock of how you present yourself — and recognizing that you may not be coming across the way you think you are to your new coworkers, colleagues, and direct reports.
"Don’t assume that what made you successful in your past role will make you successful in a global role — characteristics that we value in North American executives can be seen as too aggressive, too fast, and too confusing,” Tingley pointed out. “You’ll need to invest time to develop new relationships, build patience and different skillsets to navigate organizational complexity, find new ways to build consensus across multiple cultures, and to simply communicate well.”
This can be especially important if your new role means you’ll be relocating to work within the HR department in a different country. “There are significant differences in what is considered acceptable for local norms and what is not,” Tingley stressed. “For example, don’t assume everyone works holidays or will accept emails on weekends. Don’t assume that nodding of heads means agreement, or that meetings must always start on time, or even that humor is viewed the same way.”
“Recognize that the way people think about work differs,” said Kehimkar. “You’ll notice that some cultures are very much ‘live-to-work’ rather than ‘work-to-live.’ In some, taking a leave of absence is very much the norm, while it can be a career killer in others.
But, Kehimkar added, it’s just as important not to make generalizations, either. “Be aware that even within cultures, this can differ from person to person,” she said.
2. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes.
Taking the reins on workplace management and staffing for a global workforce is a big responsibility, and it comes with big stakes. But that doesn’t mean you need to execute everything perfectly all the time to make it a success.
“Know that you will make mistakes,” Kehimkar said. “Assumptions creep in. You are guaranteed to make mistakes, so be prepared to apologize and educate yourself.”
While there’s no way to error-proof the move into a new international HR role, keeping a learner’s mindset can ease your way, added Kehimkar. “Lead with curiosity and humility. Use open-ended questions to drive discussion [and] test your ideas and perspectives,” she advised. “Commit to learning.”
3. Don’t stick with what you know.
Plunging into the HR processes of different countries is a challenge, and it can be tempting to surround yourself with like-minded HR professionals to help you tackle it. But clinging to what’s familiar can not only limit your professional development, it can also hamper your ability to do your job.
“Remember, it is psychologically difficult to go against your innate conditioning — that is why putting together teams that challenge our perceptions and aspirations is so important,” pointed out Russell Thackeray, PhD, founder and Director of QED, a UK-based leadership and coaching consulting firm with a global client base. “Put aside ‘in-groups’ and hire people who are markedly different from you."
Kehimkar agreed. “Cultural differences, including the different ways individuals think about authority, will influence interactions that are in-person or over Slack, email, and video. Go out of your way to draw [your new colleagues] in,” she said. Learning more about how your colleagues from other work cultures function can improve your job performance, but it can pay off on the individual level, too, she added: “Getting out of your comfort zone is a great learning experience.”
While there are many challenges, there’s never been a better time to take on a global HR position — and in a post-pandemic world, the skillset these roles develop are more essential than ever.
“There is so much to learn [in global roles] that they can accelerate your personal and professional growth,” Kehimkar said.
“When you operate in a global role, you develop a more seasoned approach to managing diverse teams. Over time, you will build a different muscle to navigate change, listen to the sentiment behind the words, and tap into what really motivates different teams,” said Tingley. “You’ll gain insights about your strengths, opportunities, limitations, [and] capabilities. A global role will give you on-the-job training like nothing else.”