HR Managers Should Do Cultural Homework Before Going Abroad, Expert Says

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By Lien Hoang

Aug. 3--Human resource managers should learn some foreign phrases, use public transit and take in local landmarks when they travel for work, efforts that help to bridge cultural differences as companies increase their international presence, said Howard Wallack, global markets executive at the Society for Human Resource Management.

HR professionals are taking more business trips abroad, Wallack said, but all too often they don't see beyond the inside of a luxury hotel or town car. To “understand the challenges of employees” around the world, Wallack said he makes a point to ride public trains and buses when he travels and doesn't just stay downtown.

“You'll see that satellite cities and suburbs live differently than central business districts,” Wallack said at an Aug. 1 seminar hosted by PACE Institute of Management in Ho Chi Minh City.

Mobile Recruitment

By spending more time with locals, HR managers can connect with their foreign staff and colleagues, Wallack said, as companies find ways to adapt to new workforces, especially in emerging markets.

For example, much of Africa and Asia skipped telephone landlines altogether and jumped straight to mobile devices, and in Vietnam even people who lack refrigerators and home computers have smartphones and tablets. So companies have started to make job applications mobile-friendly in such developing countries, Wallack said, because “if your recruitment form can't be filled out on that little screen, you're going to lose out on talent.”

Cultural Exchanges

Addressing a room filled with hundreds of Vietnamese HR managers, Wallack said two words that impressed the crowd: “cam on,” which means “thank you” in Vietnamese. He usually learns basic phrases like “hello” and “please” in the language of the country he's visiting. This can build trust with locals by showing that one has thought ahead, as does preparing a gift, Wallack said. He recommended bringing something unique from home, saying it is more thoughtful than a lavish present.

“Asians do gift-giving better,” Wallack, who lives in Virginia, told Bloomberg BNA on the sidelines of the seminar. “We can learn, particularly Westerners can learn. When Asian groups visit, they make sure to have a gift targeted to whoever is the highest-ranking person in the room.”

Hoang Duy, CEO of Mekong Seafood Connection, agreed it would help his Vietnamese, Filipino and French staff to learn from one another. For example, he wants his Vietnamese employees to open up.

“Filipinos are more friendly when they're talking with colleagues,” Duy said. “Vietnamese are also friendly, but they're not ready to share their opinions.”

Small Gestures With Foreigners

Duy attended the seminar, as did Tran Thi Thu Thuy, an HR manager at Lotte Dat Viet, a Korean-Vietnamese home-shopping company. When she heard Wallack warn that one should be “careful” about rejecting a dinner invitation in another country, she regretted once turning down her Korean colleagues. Rejection can have different connotations from one culture to another, Thuy said, adding that she could have broken bread with her colleagues and discussed why “Vietnamese and Koreans have some conflicts,” such as disagreement over what they consider the right work pace.

Small gestures help smooth over misunderstandings, Wallack said. He suggested reading the local news before visiting a country to have conversation topics, learning what value the foreign culture places on titles and rank and accommodating a society's “different perceptions of time,” such as when it's OK to meet and what time to arrive.

Wallack noted that in Anglo-Saxon nations business transactions tend to come before relationships, but the opposite is true in some other countries. It is sometimes necessary to “choreograph an introduction,” so HR professionals should request contacts through trade associations, business chambers and alumni groups in the country they're visiting.