Employee Relations in Global Organizations

Ensuring smooth employee relations can be a challenge for any organization - let alone a globalized shared service structure having to deal with a number of different legislative frameworks and a variety of linguistic and cultural relationships. Yet it’s a challenge which must be overcome; the old lesson that a happy workforce is a productive one is no less true today than ever, and while the tactics used on the ground may vary across geographies the strategic aims must remain the same: strong employee engagement working towards optimal productivity.

A key tension for shared services lies between corporate structures and policies, and local practices and legal parameters; aligning these two potentially quite different constructs, and keeping the gaps between them as small as possible, might not be a simple task but it’s an unavoidable one in that a company at odds with its different environments will not achieve world-class status, while one that is able to work with its various local idiosyncrasies rather than against them is far more likely to succeed. Unsurprisingly the key to securing that success is talent.

Talent retention and development requirements are a major part of the core need for robust employee relations. Keeping your best people is a no-brainer in any and every part of the world, and a big paypacket isn’t the only determining factor in a top employee’s thought processes when he or she is faced with a new career opportunity (although a 2009 Society for Human Resource Management survey found that for 57% of employees pay’s still "very important"). The creation of a secure and enjoyable working environment, with the possibility of personal professional development, is crucial for companies keen on keeping key talent - and the ability to bind different geographies together through a supportive and proactive corporate architecture creates opportunities for intra-organizational migration and advancement, and thence to the dissemination of fresh ideas and influences throughout the organization. In this way the geographical and cultural differences between distinct elements of the organization can become a great asset rather than the challenge they may originally have been.

"Give your top talent a good look at the ladder, and the possibility that they could climb right to the top; it’s a quick win on a number of levels," says talent and resource specialist Seb Donovan. "And if they get the chance to see other aspects of the organization so much the better. The more familiar your top employees are with your company and its environment the more easily and effectively they can contribute towards eventual success."

An increasing number of globalised service delivery organizations are offering their curve-leading talent quarterly or even yearly postings to different corporate locations. Skills are much more transferable within an organization that outside it, and the more familiar the working environment, the simpler the adjustment from one location to another. This familiarity should include, of course, the "invisible blanket" of HR systems and structures supporting an employee making such an adjustment - and it should also feature consistency in the provisions companies make for the occasions when things go wrong in terms of ensuring homogeneity of grievance procedures, disciplinary issues and investigations, and separation agreements. In practice though this unity, and environmental homogeneity in general, are often well-nigh impossible to achieve.

Total homogeneity of processes isn’t feasible in organizations operating in multiple languages but the laws of efficiency demand that at least a proximity to perfection in purely procedural terms should be a target for institutions whose very raisons d’etre are founded in process improvement, efficiency and effectiveness. However, when legislative frameworks and the relative strengths of organized labor vary so greatly from location to location, the temptation to differentiate employee relations practices and architectures is at least understandable and can be overwhelming (especially during negative economic climates: turning the screw somewhat on the workforce during a downturn, should that be corporate strategy, is a lot easier in locations with less entrenched and more industry-friendly labor legislation). A company that can minimize that differentiation whilst adhering to local requirements such as working hours, health and safety infrastructure, disciplinary and/or grievance issues and the like is one step closer to the unattainable.

Nevertheless while process homogeneity might be sought-after in some areas, great flexibility is required in others - as indeed it is even within non-globalized organizations. Applying a blanket and rigid homogeneity across all geographical locations would be catastrophic; what is sought is that aforementioned familiarity rather than an anyway-illusory global uniformity.

"The problem with global shared services that include any element of employee relations is that it is very difficult, yet vital, to recognize the differences in employment law, policies and procedures and culture that exists from one country to another," says Andy Cook of employee relations experts Marshall-James. "It is a misgiving to look upon employee relations as something transactional that can be compartmentalized into a ‘one size fits all’ solution. This does not take account of the very fabric and relationships that make an organization work."

Companies will benefit from another variation on the talent theme: the importance of top employee relations talent in putting the corporate vision - whatever that may be - into practice. Implementation of any such vision or strategy on the ground - and this goes too for any serious change program - has to be carried out by those familiar with the corporate infrastructure, a knowledge and understanding which can only by generated within that infrastructure. It is immeasurably easier for those brought into the location to oversee change efforts, or to monitor and enhance that location’s employee relations environment, to do so if they have a minimum of cultural and systemic disassociation to deal with. But if their very role is to implement the changes which will dampen any dissociating impulse, these individuals will not only have to represent the corporate vision but will have to find a way - the best way - to bind it to local custom.

Obviously this isn’t a task for sub-optimal talent - and nor are those facing the teams which the corporate evangelists must create on-location. Establishing true synergy between corporate vision and local custom takes top local talent too (thus there needs to be a connection made very early on in the process of setting up in a new location between corporate employee relations specialists and someone or some entity which can act in an advisory capacity with regards to the local employee relations environment) - only in partnership at a personal and individual level will the partnership between location and organization reach fruition.