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Global Communication Brings Challenges, Opportunities

HR professionals and other business leaders need to be able to communicate as effectively with workers across the globe as around the corner. Yet that can be a challenge, because face-to-face communication is the preferred method for spreading news and information, experts say.

Face to face “is the method that humans have been using for as long as time,” Sebastian Bailey, president and co-founder of corporate consulting and training company Mind Gym, Inc., wrote via e-mail to SHRM Online. “Humans convey so much in closer communication—a raised eyebrow, a wry smile, a flash of sorrow, a look of confusion. Well-crafted prose, or a snazzy website, certainly helps with scale and collation of data, but nothing beats the intimacy of a group of people entering into dialogue to describe problems,” he observed.

“Nothing replaces [face-to-face communication], and nothing compares to it,” Rachel Berry, a communications consultant based in Boulder, Colo., agreed. “If you don’t have any face-to-face communication, the world’s cleverest e-mail/intranet/newsletter is not going to have ‘sticking power’ because employees won’t be able to connect it to a leader they know and trust.”

However, for large companies with offices in multiple locations, face-to-face communication is not always feasible. Gilbert Manzano, chief administrative officer for ACI Specialty Benefits in San Diego, is a proponent of a “robust company intranet.”

“The best [intranet websites] allow for basic employee information to be entered, such as name, organizational reports, location, contact information and a photo,” Manzano, a Society for Human Resource Management member, explained. “Companies must invest in training staff on such tools and make it a part of the culture.”

Employee communication specialists praised the use of Skype as an alternative when face-to-face communication is not possible. Yet they recommended avoiding the video function on Skype, in order to make employees more comfortable.

Steve Grubbs, president and CEO of technology communications company Victory Enterprises, Inc. in Davenport, Iowa, said he uses Skype texting—not video, as a primary way of “visiting” contract employees in India, Pakistan and China. “This gives me a chance to keep a record of the conversation while at the same time, letting [my colleagues] communicate at a pace that works for them.”

Evelyn Castillo-Bach, founder of Miami-based UmeNow, said she conducts 99.9 percent of her communication with clients worldwide via chat, e-mail and Skype and describes the results as “outstanding.”

“But the one thing I never do is turn on the camera,” she noted.

HR experts and corporate communicators say it is important to be flexible and to take one's audience and work circumstances into consideration when selecting communication methods.

“Asking employees directly is not always helpful, because there’s a really good chance you’ll hear ‘e-mail is fine’ when they just haven’t considered other methods,” Gerry Matthews, a writer for Custom Mechanical Systems Corp. in Indiana, wrote via LinkedIn. “Internal publications, poster campaigns, e-mails, intranet content, town hall meetings all have their place and always will.”

The Social Network

A study by Towers Watson & Co. published in November 2011 found that more companies worldwide are embracing social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to facilitate employee communication better.

According to the study:

  • Almost two-thirds of survey respondents are more knowledgeable about using social media tools than they were in 2010.
  • Around 69 percent of respondents said they plan to increase their use of social media—including leadership journals and blogs.

“The way companies handle employee communication is fundamentally changing, largely due to increased expectations, diversity and globalization, as well as the growth of social media and networking,” Kathryn Yates, global leader of communication consulting at Towers Watson & Co., said in a statement. “Social media and networking clearly open an opportunity for dialogue, rapidly integrate employees into the company culture and create a sense of community.”

‘Culturally Competent’ Workers

Although rapid changes in technology are impacting global communication, employees must be aware of linguistic, cultural, religious and social differences to build strong communication channels with colleagues and business contacts.

Neal Goodman, Ph.D., president of Global Dynamics, Inc., a cross-cultural training firm, said technology tends to race ahead of social norms. He added that it hides cultural differences between employees.

The solution, Goodman explained, is to train all employees, not just managers and CEOs who travel overseas, to be “culturally competent. Ideally, it should become second nature to all employees to adjust their style and work ethic on the fly when working with international colleagues.”

But some cultural obstacles need to be addressed, Goodman added, particularly in face-to-face communication.

“Although eye contact is key in the United States, it can be overwhelmingfor people in some other countries,” said Brigitta Toruño, president of UNO Translations and Communications in Northern Virginia. “Asians tend to avert eye contact as ameans of politeness and respect. Middle Eastern cultures tendto make more direct eye contact than what we are comfortable with in theUnited States.”

Managers need to receive cultural awareness training so they knowhow to work best with employees of all cultural backgrounds, Toruño explained.

“When amanager sits down one on one with an Asian employee and they notice thatperson is not looking directly at their eyes, they should recognize this as asign of respect and not be surprised about this or think that person isfeeling guilty about something,” she added. “This comes from having been educated incultural awareness.”

Goodman has drafted several strategies to develop cross-cultural competence among global offices, teams and indiv


  • Be concise. Office communication may be translated into several different languages. Keep the message to the point to preserve its meaning, no matter what language is used.
  • Avoid jargon, slang and localized expressions. Outside of the United States, many employees would be baffled by sports analogies such as “hitting a home run” and “making a slam dunk.” Use clear, simple language and expressions that “travel well.”
  • Be respectful of cultural and religious differences. Corporate communications should be edited so that they do not reflect a particular religious bias. Humor should be used judiciously; what one culture finds amusing, another might find offensive.

“Most people will forgive a cultural error as long as a leader is thoughtful, respectful, curious and polite,” Bailey concluded. “It’s a mindless approach and blundering behavior that tends to provoke dissatisfaction and anger. So, the first step is reminding leaders to adapt their style so that it resonates with different audiences and cultures while remaining authentic.”

Catherine Skrzypinski is a freelance writer in Newport News, Va.

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