International relations

What should have been a gratifying event turned sour a few years ago when my IT department provided performance-based bonuses to our worldwide staff. We discovered some international employees view bonuses as entitlements rather than rewards, and the local personnel were the only ones familiar with this notion. As a result, we ended up revising the bonus plan to ensure we met the conditions applicable to each country.

As director of more than 110 international employees in more than 20 countries in my former job as an IT executive with a major US corporation, I discovered managing an international staff presented an entirely new challenge. However, the job goes more smoothly when you hire local staff familiar with local business practices, cultural influences, language and customs. These factors make it difficult for someone from the outside to be accepted.

While it's important to understand country-specific differences, it's even more critical to make sure new hires are already familiar with local issues where they'll be working. Corporate executives may not be able to recognize every nuance of different cultures.

The four most significant challenges in managing an international IT staff are language, country-specific customs/laws, time differences and motivation factors.

Language barriers

Finding good people is as difficult in many other countries as it is here. Although many international corporations require all new hires to speak English, you can't expect perfect English to be spoken. As managers, we need to be aware of the problems associated with English as a second language. Simple changes, such as eliminating slang in our terminology and speaking more slowly, greatly improve our ability to communicate.

Providing an environment where questions are encouraged and making sure staff knows that language differences are accepted as part of being an international company can help improve communication.

Unique customs

Second, understanding country-specific customs and laws can be onerous. For example, national holidays are a consideration in scheduling server downtime. We may have a four-day holiday weekend during Thanksgiving, but the rest of the world is working two of those four days. And again, bonus expectations differ between countries. Not understanding this variance makes your company susceptible to morale problems.

Time differences

Next, time differences make communication difficult. It's impossible to have meetings with people around the world without significantly inconveniencing some team members. As a result, e-mail becomes the tool of choice for much of today's communication. This isn't an ideal situation when a two-way, interactive conversation is most effective.

Motivating employees

Finally, turnover is as significant outside of the US as it is here. As a result, managers need to understand how to motivate international staff. A survey I conducted of more than 100 non-US employees last summer produced some interesting results.

Most employees viewed the corporate culture, policies and use of technology as the main advantages of working for a US-based corporation. Specifically, they liked their career growth prospects, compensation and benefits, and the ability to use and learn new technologies.

These people felt that working for any US-based firm was generally superior to companies headquartered in other countries. Along with the benefits cited above, they appreciated the political stability, fast pace and strong team environment.

On the other hand, some respondents simply preferred working for an international firm in general as opposed to one based in the country in which they lived. Such employees appreciate the ability to travel, work in another country and understand how other countries conduct business.

The survey data was useful in not only making hiring decisions, but also understanding reasons for turnover. As we market job openings to those outside the US, we should use these motivators to our advantage. Be sure potential employees know:

-- What kind of leading-edge technology your company uses.

-- The variety of jobs your company offers.

-- How your compensation/benefits plan works.

-- All the benefits associated with working for an international company.

Managing an international staff is very different from managing US employees, but it can be one of the most satisfying aspects of your job. Knowing these issues changed the way my staff and I approached strategic objectives and operational problems. We also could establish processes that prevented us from reinventing the wheel whenever an unfamiliar country-specific issue presented itself.

Try surveying your international employees to determine motivation factors. Not only will they appreciate your interest, but the results could also provide you with information key to your management success.

Bettmeng has nearly 30 years of IT management experience with J.D. Edwards, American Airlines/ Sabre and United Airlines. Now with Strategic Systems Technology in Denver, she can be reached at dbettmeng@excite.com.

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