Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) President and CEO Henry G. “Hank” Jackson recently led a delegation on a six-day trip to Havana, Cuba, under a professional exchange. The purpose of the trip was to gain an understanding of the economic changes underway in the country, explore the implications of these reforms for human resource management, and identify opportunities for the Society to support the HR profession there and promote the use of effective human resource management in Cuban organizations consistent with U.S. law. Jackson said “Cuba is at a crossroads.”
As reforms take hold, “Cuba will have to employ current business systems to meet the needs of its people in the 21st century,” Jackson added. This visit could help create a foundation for greater SHRM engagement with Cuban HR professionals on the condition that U.S.-Cuba relations improve as expected.
Accompanying Jackson were SHRM Board Chair Jose Berrios, several SHRM board members and senior HR professionals from among SHRM’s membership.
The trip was prompted, in part, by two laws that became effective in January 2011. One allows private ownership of property and equipment; the other allows ownership of businesses previously operated by the central government. These laws are intended to incorporate private enterprise principles into Cuba’s stagnant economy. The country has about 5 million people in its workforce.
The Cuban Communist Party has identified 181 activities such as farming, hair styling, auto repair and real estate rental that small, privately owned businesses could perform. The government announced plans to shift 500,000 employees from state-owned enterprises into the new private sector. Now the question for the Cuban government is how to build a human resource management system with appropriate incentives to help drive success for the new businesses. Said Berrios, “this is SHRM’s strength.”
SHRM’s outreach effort is “not to dictate standards or policies to Cuba but to make sure we engage them in an exchange of best ideas,” Jackson said.
During the trip, Cuban officials indicated a need for basic training in HR practices such as writing job descriptions and setting up performance management systems. In addition, they expressed interest in getting U.S. research data for the latest U.S. scientific developments, which have been unavailable to Cubans since October 1960. Also, Cubans are not able to attend conferences in the U.S. or purchase subscriptions to U.S. journals.
Officials at the Cuban Ministry of Labor and Social Security and the Center for Study of the Cuban Economy anticipate that as the reforms progress they might have the opportunity to become more involved with SHRM and asked about the possibility of gaining access to SHRM information or becoming SHRM members, delegation members reported. Additionally, the Cuban vice minister of labor and social security was interested in becoming involved in SHRM’s initiative to create global HR standards through the International Standards Organization, SHRM officials report.
The officials with whom SHRM representatives met were “extremely well educated,” but “the isolation from the mainstream of the world economy has left them lagging in human resource management and other standard business practices,” Berrios said.
“They realize they don’t have this business knowledge,” Jackson said of the Cuban officials they met. “For me, business knowledge at its core—whether in Cuba or Europe—involves the management of people,” he said. “SHRM has a wealth of information on how to engage people.”
The Cuba trip, Jackson said, “is part of a grander strategy of making sure we’re engaging HR professionals wherever they are.” A SHRM-sponsored People to People delegation to Brazil, for example, took place from Nov. 26 to Dec. 4, 2011. Also, in September 2011, Berrios and Jackson were in Mexico representing SHRM at the 46th annual conference of the Mexican Association for Human Resource Management (AMEDIRH). Berrios was a featured speaker, and Jackson met with Mexico’s minister of labor and social welfare about proposed reforms to that country’s labor laws.
“As opportunities emerge to engage Cuba, SHRM must broaden its global strategy to include that country if we truly are to exercise leadership of the profession in meeting the needs of HR practitioners,” Jackson observed.
Cuban officials emphasized the importance of their government’s initiative to strengthen its private sector, and they view HR practices as a way to improve productivity and performance in the new private sector and in state enterprises, according to Jackson.
SHRM executives on the trip noted a significant gap in the training to prepare former employees of state-owned enterprises to operate private businesses.
One of the greatest challenges for Cuba is preparing its workforce with the skill sets and mind-sets to succeed in the private sector, according to Berrios. Repeatedly, SHRM delegation members heard from Cuban officials that they want advice on people management strategies and employee motivation.
HR practices there are geared to personnel administration, Berrios said, likening it to HR of the 1960s in the U.S. The idea of HR as a strategic business partner is not even on the radar in Cuba.
“It’s really an administrative process, not an HR system,” Berrios said. Everyone is paid 20 pesos a month, no matter their job. This creates a challenge in incentivizing workers, he stated.
Berrios said SHRM’s delegation suggested that Cuba build on employees’ pride in collaboration by using team recognition strategies and skills training.
“Team is huge in Cuba, almost like the Asian culture. The team is more important than the individual,” Berrios noted.
Cuba’s pharmaceutical sector practices modern HR management. For example, managers at the National Center for Scientific Research in Cuba provide frequent, regular and result- and performance-based evaluations of employees, according to the SHRM delegation members. High performers receive regular bonuses; employees who cannot meet high standards must find jobs outside the center.
The biggest challenge Cuba faces, Jackson noted, is introducing a culture change that will overlay the entire country. For decades, the entire workforce was employed by the government, “so there was no great need to develop HR practices,” he said.
“The will is there” to make that change, “but I’m not sure they have a plan that is based on the concepts of managing human capital. That’s going to take a little longer than they anticipate. They are going to need a more robust plan, a more widespread dissemination of HR information. They are going to need an education process for millions of employees and managers,” said Jackson.
Three senior-level Cuban government officials have been invited to become SHRM members as a result of the visit. SHRM extended these complimentary invitations Oct. 26, 2011 to Cuba’s vice minister of labor and social security, a representative of the National Center for Scientific Research and a representative of the National Association of Cuban Economists.
The professional exchange trip was carried out under a license from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control in September 2011. U.S. regulations restrict travel to Cuba to 12 categories, which include trips that are of an academic and noncommercial nature, according to the U.S. Department of State. Jackson pointed to his previous employer, Howard University in Washington, D.C., which sponsored trips to Cuba to share academic information.