Management Tools: Learning from Our Overseas Counterparts

By Paul Falcone Feb 1, 2004
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HR Magazine, February 2004Adopt some practices that help keep your foreign colleagues flexible in face of stringent workplace laws.

As U.S. citizens and employers, we all gripe about high taxes and the numerous workplace protection laws that make it challenging to manage difficult employees. That’s especially the case in “employee-friendly” states like California, where courts and juries appear to assume that employers are guilty until proven innocent. And the grumbling continues like this: How are companies supposed to deal with restrictive and expensive laws like the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), pregnancy disability leave and everything that comes with Title VII compliance?

It’s a lot to deal with and keep track of as employment legislation constantly changes on the federal, state and local levels. However, take a gander across the pond, and you’ll see that U.S. managers have it pretty easy in comparison. What challenges face our overseas management counterparts, and, more important, what can we learn from them in terms of how they deal with their own challenges?

International Sensitivity

As unique as our problems appear, U.S. managers may be surprised to learn of some of the woes facing their overseas counterparts. Nothing helps you appreciate your situation more than viewing it through the comparative perspective of others. So let’s briefly scan the globe and highlight some of the more salient issues that plague our management counterparts in foreign countries.

The European Union (EU) currently has 15 member states and is poised to accept another 10 in May. The EU gives new meaning to the term “work/life balance,” tipping more heavily onto the “life” for many of its workers. For example, EU countries start with four weeks of vacation; however, in some countries that’s just the beginning. In France, for example, employees are guaranteed five weeks of vacation per year, unless they are between 18 and 21 years old. Then they are entitled to a 30-day annual leave regardless of how long they have served in the company. Maternity leave is a minimum of 16 weeks (10 of which must be taken after the child is born) but can increase to 26 weeks for a woman’s third pregnancy. More significant, the initial duration of unpaid parental leave in France is one year, which can be extended until the child’s third birthday.

Maybe those sound like wonderful perks if you’re an employee in the EU, but managing around four weeks of annual vacation and three years of child care leave (as opposed to our 12-week FMLA baby-bonding period) can certainly strain your business operations.

Try this one on for size: In Spain, workers who are laid off commonly receive nine weeks of severance for each full year of service. In the United States, it’s a much more common practice to award one week of severance for each full year worked. That means a five-year Spanish employee who is about to be laid off (or “made redundant,” as they say in most other parts of the world) would be entitled to 45 weeks of severance. Under such financial constraints, a layoff may not be as attractive an alternative for your company becoming more economically competitive after all.

To make matters worse, certain EU countries such as Germany mandate a “social plan” in light of a pending layoff. In addition to objective selection criteria like years of service, performance track records and education or specialized technical skills, German employers also must consider a worker’s age and number of dependents. Generally speaking, the more difficult it would be for a worker to find employment elsewhere or the more children that a worker has to support, the greater the level of job protection. Employers are also obligated to create a retraining plan to help those redundant workers re-enter the workplace with suitable skills to find employment elsewhere.

Here’s a twist to the high cost of employer-paid benefits: One in seven people in the EU works part-time. Because many part-timers are female, part-time employees hold the same employment status (including benefits) as full-time employees. Otherwise, the disparity in benefits could be seen as a form of sex discrimination. That’s one of the reasons why employee benefits are evaluated at 70 percent of wages in France and 92 percent of wages in Italy (as opposed to 37 percent in the United States). Ouch!

And don’t think these employment-related headaches are only limited to EU countries. Other parts of the world beyond Europe face employment-related challenges as well. In Japan, for example, female employees are entitled to a monthly (partially) paid absence called “menstruation leave.” A great perk for employees, no doubt, but a challenge nonetheless for operational supervisors.

In Mexico, a Christmas bonus, consisting of at least 15 days’ salary, is considered part of the salary. In fact, there are “13 months of annual salary” in many Latin American countries, just to make sure employees have enough money during the holidays to buy presents for their families.

Lessons Learned

Now that we’re all a little more au courant with some of the challenges facing our non-U.S. counterparts, let’s see how successful managers abroad face their key day-to-day issues. Clearly the result of so many employee rights is the concern that an entitlement mentality may plague European workers. Because of the prevalence in the European Union of strong unions and works councils that are empowered with information and consultation rights on behalf of covered workers, employees may be more apt to challenge management’s directives. To make matters worse, many European employers are required by statute to provide detailed employment contracts to new hires outlining the terms and conditions of employment. Employees have been known on occasion to refuse additional work responsibilities if those duties were not clearly outlined in the original written agreement.

To delicately work around such restrictions, many European managers attempt to create a work environment where employees can find meaningful ways to contribute. “There are a number of universal traits that make a good manager, including flexibility, credibility and active listening skills” according to Rensia Melles, director of clinical products, global services at FGI, a provider of international employee assistance program (EAP) services in Toronto. “There is an increasing need for global managers to develop relationships with employees—and the context of how this is done will differ from culture to culture. However, managers everywhere need to consider putting less of a focus on discipline and more emphasis on coaching as a means of creating change and motivating staff. This acknowledgment of the individual often takes the form of guidance, mentoring and training.”

In essence, by giving employees the flexibility to reinvent their jobs in light of the company’s changing needs and to take ownership of their work, there is less chance that workers will take a strict adherence to their job duties or otherwise look for ways of avoiding work.

Finding qualified staff to replace workers who are on leave can be time-consuming and costly, and regulated temporary services no doubt play a role in the process. “Since companies must comply with statutory leave benefits, creative employers will take the opportunity to reorganize departments and realign resources with business needs. This is a good opportunity for change in the department and to motivate those employees on leave to return to new and challenging responsibilities in the workplace—possibly even earlier than originally planned,” according to Deena Baker-Nel, senior manager of international assignment services at Deloitte in Los Angeles.

“Some companies meet with an employee before the leave even begins to discuss potential responsibilities upon return,” says Baker-Nel. “Adding rotational assignments or new meaningful roles that employees view as critical to their career development can go a long way in motivating people to return early.”

And because it’s so costly to lay off workers and difficult to terminate for cause, many organizations forego the opportunity to shed individuals, even if it means going into an over-budget/overstaff situation. When facing the challenge of retaining substandard performers or genuinely “redundant” workers, employers may likely continue the employment relationship.

“In such cases, the company may have no choice but to rethink the individual’s role,” according to Heather Hand, senior vice president of global human resources at Sunrise Medical in Carlsbad, Calif. “For example, we were faced with a situation where a marketing director overseas had lost interest in her job. She rarely came out of her office and only dealt with her staff via e-mail. The cost of making her redundant was excessive, so we re-purposed her role in a way that she could focus more on her clients and spend less time managing people and dealing with creative services. We changed her title to director of affiliate relations, which allowed her to save face internally, and she tuned back in and became a solid team contributor. I don’t know that we would have looked at that very same issue quite as creatively or strategically in the United States in order to come up with an employment solution that benefited both the employee and the company.”

From time to time, it’s important that U.S. managers increase their sensitivity of how others see the management world and thereby lessen their U.S.-centric view of things. U.S. challenges may seem unique, but there are other systems and ways of doing business that in some respects are superior to ours from a worker’s standpoint and perhaps inferior from a managerial or competitive standpoint. In appreciating our differences, we can learn and share lessons that help keep our daily challenges in perspective.

Paul Falcone is director of international human resources at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood, Calif. He is the author of four books published by AMACOM, including The Hiring and Firing Question and Answer Book (2001) and 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems: A Guide to Progressive Discipline and Termination (1999). This article represents the views of the author solely as an individual and not in any other capacity.

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