A multinational reality check

As African businesses increasingly expand across borders, they encounter challenges to their existing human resources (HR) policies and corporate cultures. Attitudes need to change to do multinational business with cultural wisdom.

South Africa is no exception, as organisations rush into neighbouring countries with new ideas and opportunities. However, there is a fear that they will become the America of Africa, forcing one way of life down the throat of another.

How can HR work within these constraints to create a new culture of harmony that works?

Andrew Butters, HR and employee relations practitioner at The HR Hub says: “The key measure that needs to be taken is to approach customers, businessmen and other stakeholders in African countries with respect, dignity and without arrogance.”

In the early 1990s, South Africa represented a level of knowledge and understanding for many African countries and was regarded as a source of best practice.

However, this led to a level of arrogance that has had a negative impact on business relations and on the opinion of other countries regarding South African organisations.

“Until around 2007/2008, South African businessmen appeared to have become more aggressive and imperialistic in the manner in which they approached stakeholders in Africa,” says Butters. “This created a somewhat negative impression of South Africans with regards to the way they operated.”

Amaechi Nduka-Agwu, psychologist and people development expert, says: “South Africa still sees itself as ‘detached’ from Africa, as if somehow it is a separate entity that just happens to share geographical proximity rather than cultural, historical and social realities.”

Mabel Terblanche, who runs her own consulting company agrees: “Some South African companies almost see themselves as the saviours of Africa, while countries such as Kenya and Nigeria are surpassing them.”

Crossing the divide
The concern lies in how HR can take old mistakes and find ways to repair them. There is no easily solution, nor is there any strategy that solves it all, but HR practitioners across the continent are working on way of doing business that allows for acceptance, respect and understanding.

“If South Africa wants to avoid coming across as the America of Africa, they should see themselves as part of the whole rather than completely separate,” says Nduka-Agwu.

“A common challenge I observe when coaching leaders in local companies expanding into Africa is the ‘lost in translation’ effect where well intentioned gestures can have the opposite effect on relationships and credibility. I think that businesses need to see the value in the cultural differences between each other.”

Subtle and overt cultural issues don’t need to become gaping chasms that lead to dictatorial corporate behaviour or one HR policy forced into all countries. Organisations can learn from one another and use their best practice solutions to improve their own processes.

“There needs to be a holistic balance that incorporates local African culture, talent, labour legislation, business practice and general integration into existing or new workforces in the country of their choice,” says Alexandra Hadfield, chief executive of a-Ha! Consulting.

“A one-size-fits-all approach won’t benefit any company expanding across Africa. Businesses, like people, can be complex and unique and any model would require analysis, communication and the collaboration of all parties, cultures and standards.

“Trends speak of building effective relationships by using current technologies and social media platforms by gaining data, metrics and market best practise to get to know your local African business before expansion.”

At the heart of every business lie the basic truths: profit, growth, happy stakeholders. An HR policy has to ensure that these will drive the actions of the organisation. HR practitioners have the complex task of balancing these tenets alongside the needs of the employees.

“HR has to support the company strategy and resource the organisation to grow revenue and ensure that the right people, with the right skills and competencies, are employed,” says Terblanche.

“The organisation will also need to comply with local legislation that will require local shareholding. While there cannot be a one approach fits all for human resource policies across geographies, some of the content can be generic in terms of company values, but this too must respect the legislation of the respective country.”

Bending backwards
Flexibilities have to be built into HR policies so that they can be adapted to local best practice and legislation.

In fact, that is the very word that applies to any business interaction Africa — flexibility. Carrying this at the forefront of HR policy development and business practice means that organisations have the potential to meet the local standards and cultures head on, and formulate a solution that respects the culture and climate of the country in question.

“Cultural differences have an impact on work environments and productivity,” says Hadfield. “Establishing clear lines of communication and a relevant code of conduct that is adopted and agreed upon by local employees would allow for better employee relationships and improved productivity.”

The development of a cohesive HR policy needs to cover more than just cultural differences and local legislation. There are plenty of other issues to consider as well, and these can present some of the most complex hurdles with some unexpected issues.

“To gain a more complete understanding of how to create and apply relevant HR policy across the continent, we need to look at the two sides of labour environments,” explains Nduka-Agwu. “We must gain insight into the realities of local labour laws as dictated by the public sector, as well as how the private sector responds to these.”

Nduka-Agwu points out that, among other things, labour laws vary considerably from one country to another.

Not all countries have the same levels of competency in recruitment and, as a result, it is not easy to find a standardised practice that will fit. Some are pro-labour, and recruitment must be consistent and sophisticated to avoid a poor workforce that cannot be removed.

Others are more business friendly, but HR needs to be on hand to ensure that the more lenient labour laws do not result in abuse.

“Apart from employee relations policies that deal with the management of discipline, conflict and employee dissatisfaction, remuneration policies, policies on the conditions of employment and general working arrangements, you need to consider how health and safety are dealt with as many health issues, such as malaria, are still rife on the continent,” says Butters.

Having a harmonised HR policy that spans the African continent isn’t feasible. There is no one solution that will match the demands of each country.

However, if every HR policy adopts an attitude of respect and develops an in-depth understanding of local laws and practices, then the policies that emerge will be in harmony with whichever continent or country they are approaching.

“The attitudes of the workforce towards the organisational culture will directly affect the acceptance and implementation of HR policies and practices,” says Nduka-Agwu.

“If you want to be successful in expanding across Africa, you must avoid acting as if Africa is the US of South Africa and remember that we have something to learn from our host nations when it comes to how best to deal with and manage human resources both locally and globally.”

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Tamsin Oxford
Tamsin Oxford
I am a professional editor, journalist, blogger, wordsmith, social junkie and writer with over 19 years of experience in both magazine publishing and Public Relations.

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