One Size Fits All? An Elusive Goal for Global HR Policies

Establishing HR policies and work rules that apply universally can be an effective way for an employer to foster its values and ensure consistency in every market where it does business. However, companies must be pragmatic about achieving uniformity if they also want their policies to be effective and lawful anywhere in the world, according to Peter Talibart, a partner in the International Labor & Employment Department of Seyfarth Shaw LLP. 

Speaking in a recent webinar, Talibart said the biggest challenge that companies face when trying to draft global policies is that local statutes can differ widely between jurisdictions. "What is good practice in one country can be unlawful in another," he said. "For example, LGBT laws in some countries are entirely relaxed and give full equality, while in other places same-sex relationships are a criminal offense." 

The same holds true for family leave laws, which are very generous in Europe but not so in the United States and some other parts of the world. Other challenges that employers must contend with are language differences and nuances in workplace terminology that vary from country to country. Job titles such as "engineer" or "director" may mean entirely different things in certain job markets, and they may trigger pay or benefit obligations in some countries or may otherwise create liability issues that would not be the case in the U.S. 

Also be mindful of union involvement, which could affect efforts to develop uniform policies, Talibart said. In some places, employers may need to consult with employee representatives and gain their consent. Even when making lawful changes to policies or practices, the local workforce may be resistant. "I was involved with an employer that decided to give Christmas turkeys to all of its employees. The employees felt that if the company was able to give them turkeys, it could also afford to pay higher wages, so they struck as a result," Talibart said. 

The first step that an employer should take when devising universal HR policies is prioritize. Do you want to ensure absolute consistency in your policies across all markets? If so, this might entail raising your HR practices to a higher, and more costly, level. Often it is more beneficial to address a few compliance or risk issues that the company would like to address uniformly and build up from there. 

Many employers take a slightly different approach and include the clause "subject to local/applicable law" throughout their policies as a way to provide greater legal cover. While this provides a little more flexibility, it doesn’t give workers clear guidance on the rules they should be following in their local market. 

An even more nuanced approach involves developing a generic code of conduct that applies universally throughout the company. However, this approach also tends to be vague in terms of specific guidance at the local level and can feel like an administrative formality with no practical use. 

Instead of striving for a single policy to apply globally, Talibart said, it is often most useful to attach addendums to the over-arching document that spell out rules that must be followed in specific markets. This gives the document a balance between a global and a local focus. 

Given the complexity in developing a global HR policy, employers might be inclined to keep such a project on the back burner. Doing so can be short-sighted, however, as such policies can bring clarity to an organization’s mission, values, and goals when it has operations in many parts of the world.

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