Desi HR in a foreign land: Five tips to succeed

According to those who have been there and done it, the ability to appreciate diverse talent and what they bring to the table can go a long way in ensuring success overseas

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Managing HR in a foreign land is not an easy task, especially for people who have majorly spent their time working in homeland. So, what does it take to become a successful as an expat HR leader? Well, unless one actually steps into the shoes of one, it is difficult to tell what exactly are the qualities that help one succeed in a this new role.

Jacob Jacob, global CHRO, Malabar Group, who has worked in a global environment, in countries, such as Dubai and Malaysia, describes his experience as one that ‘opens up one’s mind to see the many possibilities and the ability to view things from a different perspective’.

Definitely, an HR leader who has worked in his homeland for 15 to 18 years, would understand the cultural nuances, working styles, habits and language of the workforce. However, if such a leader who is all too familiar with the people and workings of a domestic workforce or market, is expected to take up an HR role or work in a foreign market, some level of preparation will be required.

“I had to implement the rewards system in seven different countries, taking into account the differences of each country. Initially, this presented many challenges. After all, the concept had to be sold and people had to be made to believe how it would help them. A while later, the system was accepted by all and successfully implemented as well.”

Jacob Jacob, global CHRO, Malabar Group

We asked some of the HR leaders, who have worked in foreign land, to share some tactics and tips that can prepare a person for a global HR role and achieve success.

I. Understand the labour laws of the land

Every nation will have its own set of labour laws. There will be differences, and a fair understanding of the laws of the land where one would be working is extremely important for one to formulate HR policies and frameworks at a global level. For instance, in the UK, the law allows maximum freedom to employers and workers to determine the conditions of work. However, other countries in the Europe have detailed legislative provisions on these matters. Similarly, in terms of collective bargaining, in Sweden, there is a traditional practice of national negotiation covering the whole industry. In the UK, agreements generally cover an industry or an occupation and in the US and Japan, the unit of negotiation is generally the company or plant.

Nisha Verma, CHRO, Apparel Group, who is currently based out of the UAE and has also worked in a global role when she was a part of Capgemini, opines, “Understanding the labour laws and employment regulations of a country is the first step a person can take in preparation, before moving into a global role. It is something which is very basic and hygienic.”

Nisha Verma

“In UAE, the attitude of the government is also very different. It is very much involved in employment matters. In India, she never got an opportunity to interact with bodies, such as the HRD ministry, but in the UAE, in the very first year in the role, she was discussing employee-employer relations with the government bodies.”

Nisha Verma, CHRO, Apparel Group

II. Develop openness towards people from different nationalities

When one moves into a global role, one has to work and deal with a diverse workforce, with members of different nationalities. There will be people from around the world, and one will have to understand and adjust with them. While in India, people may come from different states, they are all of the same nationality.

Jacob shares that when he joined Emirates, the Company had people from almost 100 nationalities and the HR team itself had people belonging to 20 different countries. “Such a diverse environment means more variables and dynamics with respect to team working. It requires an individual to understand the perspective of the team members and work towards the common goal of the organisation,” mentions Jacob.

“There is a lot of trepidation and fear about one’s own acceptance within the team, whether one will be able to deliver, whether one’s ideas will be heard and so on. However, once one adapts to the culture and ethos of the organisation, which is fundamental to everyone’s success, one will be able to see a plethora of options before one,” adds Jacob.

Jacob also shares an experience, where he had to implement the rewards system in seven different countries, taking into account the differences of each country. Initially, this presented many challenges. After all, the concept had to be sold and people had to be made to believe how it would help them. A while later, the system was accepted by all and successfully implemented as well.

Rajendra Mehta

“As one builds relationships, one is able to understand how to navigate conversations in a professional context. One will have to be extra cautious about the kind of language and words one is using with the people around.”

Rajendra Mehta, CHRO, Welspun

III. Understand cultural nuances and behaviours

Understanding the culture of the place and the country helps one to settle in that environment quite easily. Verma also made the effort by adopting the clothing style of UAE, where she dressed herself in an abaya, a traditional dress women wear in the Middle East. “People appreciate the fact that one is respectful of their culture and is making the efforts to understand it,” shares Verma.

She also says how crucial it is to understand the behaviours of people. “I have noticed that people are quite reserved in the Middle East as compared to other geographies, such as Europe.

“In UAE, the attitude of the government is also very different. It is very much involved in employment matters. In India, she never got an opportunity to interact with bodies, such as the HRD ministry, but in the UAE, in the very first year in the role, she was discussing employee-employer relations with the government bodies.”

IV. Master professionalism and accurate communication

Rajendra Mehta, CHRO, Welspun, has worked in various locations such the UK, Sweden, Amsterdam and the UAE. He recommends utmost professionalism in terms of behaviour, and high ethical standards. One should definitely go through an orientation on what kind of language, words and gestures to be used when one moves into different geographies. For instance, a thumbs-up sign can be an ‘Okay’ in countries, such as the US or India, but in the Middle Eastern and West African regions, it is highly offensive as it is considered to be equivalent to a middle finger in the US!

“As one builds relationships, one is able to understand how to navigate conversations in a professional context. One will have to be extra cautious about the kind of language and words one is using with the people around,” explains Mehta.

V. Appreciate diversity and inclusion

While working in a global role, one will have to show inclusivity in every approach, while recruiting and making policies. “One will have to accept the fact that one is working in a global environment, and approach every employee as ‘talent’ and appreciate what they bring to the table, rather than bucket them into categories,” opines Verma.

As per the experts, possessing the willingness to learn and accept new ideas, to empathise and understand people and to appreciate the view point of everybody at the global level matters a lot when it comes to being successful.

“Having a high emotional quotient as a global HR leader is very important, which helps one to empathise with others and communicate with them effectively,” mentions Mehta.

So, for all those out there, aspiring to be successful global HR leaders, these insights from our experienced leaders can help you achieve your goals and understand the dynamics and challenges that come with an international HR position.

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