HR Function

The three biggest international HR challenges

person working on laptop

HR is complicated enough when you’re only managing a local team, governed by local laws. Throw a global workforce into the equation, and you uncover a whole new set of dynamics. But what is it that makes international HR such a challenge?


I’ve been speaking to business leaders and HR professionals from all over the world to find the answer to this question – beyond the obvious issues of language barriers and timezone differences. I discovered the following:


 * It’s too easy to accidentally break local laws

 * Cultural differences cause professional misunderstandings

 * It’s hard to create an international human connection


So let’s look at the three international HR challenges in the above list, in a bit more detail.


It’s too easy to accidentally break local laws


Employment law varies from country to country. This means that for every country you operate in, you need your HR team to be up to speed with each country’s legislation. And while some countries operate within a similar legal framework – for example, member states of the European Union – they all have their own international HR nuances to contend with.


“Any HR management team with employees who reside in the EU faces the complexities of the General Data Protection Regulation” says Michael DesRochers, founder of PoliteMail. “But then there are data privacy regulations within specific countries of the EU, such as Germany and France, making matters even more complex.”


DesRochers advises HR teams who collect and store employee data to ensure they are complying with regional privacy laws – taking care to watch out for things like employee consent regarding the use of personal data.


Cultural differences cause professional misunderstandings


Cultural HR challenges in this context are less about international co-workers accidentally offending somebody’s religious beliefs, and more about the different ways people tend to work, based on where in the world they are. A good example of this comes from Warren Heaps, Partner at global HR research company Birches Group.


“The deadline is tonight…” he starts, dramatically. “In my current company, we have offices in the US, Europe and the Philippines. In the Philippines, an employee may say they understand the expectation, but the sense of urgency is often not present.”


It’s the same for Max Robinson, owner of FishTankBank – who says that he has had to learn to work around the custom of his South American team to start their work later in the day. He says that it’s frustrating, but he’s had much better results since learning to accept it, rather than fight it.


Heaps gives some advice for overcoming cultural differences though, and says it starts with looking past the common gestures of handshakes and bows.


“As global teams become more common, you should invest in cultural training with a business focus” he explains. “This is more than just the basic handshake and bow stuff. It’s things like how decisions are made, and the importance some countries place on personal relationships before business transactions.”


It’s difficult to create an international human connection


Maria Vihtkari, Chief Human Resources Officer for Arcusys, says that one of HR’s biggest international challenges is building a strong human connection between teams across borders.


“Video conferencing helps by allowing eye contacted and a restricted amount of body language” she says “but there is still an aspect of human connection missing that is critical to building strong teams. We work around this by sending all of our employees from around the world to development days in Finland, and on bonus company trips at a new destination annually.”


Vihtkari is not alone. In fact, PR consultant Alexis Chateau, who manages his company’s international HR function, has the same problem. Chateau holds a degree in Human Resource Management, and his experience working with clients spanning five continents, brings team building and ‘the human connection’ to the top of the list. Chateau explains that it’s easy to help people in his Atlanta head office to connect, but it’s harder to forge that connection between, for example, a designer in Jamaica and an editor in Vegas.


Centralise your processes – so you can concentrate on the relationships


It’s much easier to pay attention to the finer details that make the biggest impact – like the relationships you build between your global teams – when you have your HR processes centralised in one place.


If you’re spending your energy trying to implement different HR systems for different countries, you’ll struggle. The ideal solution is to use HR software that lets you tweak processes for local laws and customs.


Likewise, if you bottleneck all of your HR processes through one central person or location, you’ll probably fall behind. And that’s why our next software release focuses on easing the pressure of international HR.