Why Is Practicing HR in the Middle East So Different?

By Jeff Leeth Jan 14, 2015
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The breadth of typical HR responsibilities in the Middle East is much broader and diverse than practiced in the U.S. In essence, U.S. domestic HR duties are a subset of responsibilities of most HR professionals in the region. In addition to the usual roster of responsibilities like recruitment, training, employee relations, performance and compensation management, international HR generalists are expected to handle repatriation of bodily remains and personal effects, provide basic coordination and support in the event of criminal arrest, deal with spousal and family issues, and assist employees with initial housing and transportation requirements.

In some countries the focus of HR heavily gravitates toward manpower planning and staffing-related issues due to governmental pressure for increasing employment of nationals. For example, the expatriate work visa system in Saudi Arabia is complex, extremely lengthy and subject to abrupt sweeping changes. Acquiring work visas is done in nationality/professional qualification “blocks” and governmental processing takes a minimum of two months and frequently much longer. Inopportunely, the associated work immigration rules shift and change as the government adjusts regulations to continually increasing levels of employment of nationals. Regional HR generalists must balance the skill-set needs of business operations with nationalization compliance requirements.

Cultural Adjustments

Expatriate “Lifecycle”: Most western expatriate employees spend 2-3 years on foreign assignments and expect to return to a domestic career. A growing minority thrives in the expatriate lifestyle and extends their career overseas. These expatriates and often their family enjoy larger spendable incomes, extended vacations, more extensive travel and enriched cultural experiences.

Cultural Surprises: It’s a common shock for international travelers to use a public bathroom and not find a standard sit-down toilet or even toilet paper. On the other hand, it is a nice surprise to find that rudimentary transactional English is commonly spoken across the globe in most tourist areas. Expatriates are directly exposed to different religions, cultures, ideas and political beliefs.In some cases, these experience differences can be quite shocking and often rewarding.International work frequently leads to increased tolerance and a broader appreciation of other people and cultures. A high tolerance for ambiguity and diverse viewpoints is a prerequisite for a career in international HR.

Sense of Time: Americans live tightly tied to the clock. This rigid perspective isn’t shared in the Middle East. Strict adherence to start/end of day, meeting schedules and adherence to plan timetables isn’t a habit that has been widely adopted. This usually is immensely frustrating to first-time expatriates.

Unreasonable Expectations: Expatriates typically arrive with preconceived ideas about life in a foreign country. Frequently inexperienced family members expect a lavish lifestyle well beyond previous home country experience. Working in a foreign country often becomes like any other job, just with different conditions & issues.

Spousal/Family Impact: An unhappy spouse predictably will truncate most assignments, therefore attending to their needs and concerns is a good investment. While it is very common for male expatriates to live as a bachelor in a foreign country due to job requirements, human nature craves friendship and familial companionship. This strain can severely impact employee retention and recruitment if mixed with harsh remote environmental conditions or abusive management styles.

Safety Concerns: Typically, Americans are geographically illiterate. All too frequently Americans assume that all countries in the Middle East are “all the same.” Political upheavals and war zone struggles are usually limited to specific countries. Americans generally forget that each country is culturally, politically and economically unique. Very low crime rates in the Middle East are a frequent surprise to most Americans. On the other hand, daily driving usually is the biggest safety risk to most people. In general, employees and family members need to maintain situational awareness and act accordingly.

Criminal Justice: Employees often forget that they are subject to the legal system of a foreign country. Seemingly minor offenses can result in severe punishments. For example, possession or consumption of alcohol can result in very strict punishments. HR support will act as a communications conduit with company management, local authorities, defense attorneys and the home-country embassy. Support can involve supplying daily living needs such as food, bedding, medicines or basic dental care supplies. Jail time in the Middle East is very harsh. Ultimately, resolving legal issues can cost the employee considerable legal fees, involve physical punishment, expulsion from the country and a loss of a lucrative job.

Death Overseas: International HR departments deal with mobilization of employees into and out of foreign assignments. Unfortunately, accidents and disease happen even on foreign assignments. Employee remains must be repatriated, however processing always involves local authorities to investigate causes and settle estates. Finding a body is traumatic and activates a series of events. Sadly, swift return of the employee’s remains to his home country often isn’t simple or speedy. In some cases it can take several months. Once sanctioned by the authorities, it is often required that someone must physically accompany the remains to the “home country of record” and insure delivery to the mortuary. In some cases it can be customary to attend the funeral and pay some of the expenses.

Loneliness: Life as an expatriate can be emotionally tough. Loneliness and adjusting to unfamiliar social circumstances and financial pressures of life can seem overwhelming. Expatriates often make great personal and financial sacrifices. Isolation and unreasonable familial pressures for greater funds create a fertile ground for depression and suicidal thoughts.

Overall, an international career in HR can be challenging, intellectually stimulating and financially rewarding. But as with any career mobility choices, extreme distance from family and friends isn’t for everyone.

Jeff Leeth is senior general manager and HR business partner at Abdul Latif Jameel, an automotive distribution, financing, advertising and media company, based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

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