Knocking Down the Cultural Barriers of Global Expansion

Knocking Down the Cultural Barriers of Global Expansion

This article was updated on July 24, 2018.

We live in a global economy, so it makes sense for organizations to decide to grow into other parts of the world. However, there are cultural barriers with global expansion that HR is invariably left to handle. When expansion happens rapidly, you have additional challenges to meet and conquer. Here's how:

Learning the Language

When you open an office in a new part of the world, should you send a long-term employee from another office, or should you hire from the outside? Your decision here can have long-term implications not only in the new office but also on the health of the organization as a whole. Remember that culture plays a huge role in the success of any business, and you can't simply transfer the culture from your home office to a new country.

If you decide to transfer a current employee to the new post, they'll need some cultural training. While many global organizations operate in English at least at the leadership level, someone that can understand the local language will be a huge boon.

Catching up on Culture

Culture means different business norms and business laws. In Switzerland, both employee and employer are required to give three months notice before terminating a business relationship that has lasted more than nine years. In China, you must grant all government officials a high level of respect, or you may be considered rude. Each country has laws and norms and not abiding by them can result in broken laws and unhappy employees. If you choose leadership from outside the culture, make sure they're well trained.

Conversely, if you hire someone locally, they need to be brought up to speed on your culture. While not all concepts will transfer, key items must, and HR must make sure of this. Bring the new person into the home office for training and let them experience how things operate. Then, encourage them to have an open dialogue about what will and won't work abroad.

Possible Pitfalls

Anytime you open a new office, there are challenges. Many organizations begin their expansion by sending out salespeople to the new location. Even salespeople who speak the local language won't have a handle on all the differences, however. English is a common language in India and usable in the office, but most likely you'll need to speak Hindi when meeting with people outside the corporate world. The Portuguese spoken in Brazil will differ from the Portuguese spoken in Portugal, while a thumbs up can mean "great" or be inappropriate depending on where you are.

You've got a global reputation to maintain, and that means you need to hold the new office to global standards. Does your organization have a policy of equal opportunity hiring? Per an article in Thanhnien News, in Vietnam, 20 percent of job listings request a specific gender — usually male.

It's your job to get ahead of these country-to-country nuances.

Focus on Family

If you transfer people in, their family members have to adjust to a new culture, too. New schools, new doctors, new everything — in a language and culture they are unfamiliar with. Any successful global expansion will involve support for the whole family.

When Novartis transfers people to their headquarters in Basel, Switzerland, they often provide relocation services that include language training for the trailing spouse and suggestions of expat groups to join.

If you expect people to stay in the office for lunch instead of going home for the big family meal, as is their custom, this will affect work flow and/or morale. Or if you want to hire based on qualifications in a country that generally uses nepotism, you'll face conflicts.

The most important task HR leadership has during global expansion is to learn as much about the country and culture as possible before beginning the hiring process. This way, you'll be prepared for any instances of cultural barriers with global expansion, allowing you to get the right people in the right roles.