The New Workforce

busteamworkhandsSCENARIO: THE U.S. MANAGER OF A GLOBAL PROJECT TEAM at Goldman Sachs became frustrated when team members in Japan offered little feedback during conference calls. Across the world, the Japanese team members felt similarly discouraged, feeling their input wasn’t being solicited. Is any side to blame?

Goldman Sachs has more than 30,000 employees representing about 160 nationalities. Like most major corporations, its conversations around diversity have expanded from domestic concerns about race and gender to international discussions around culture.

In 2005, it took six months for American firms to exhaust the federal quota of 65,000 H1-Bs—work visas given to foreign college-educated employees. In 2008, these visas were gone in a day, according to U.S. officials. Factor in outsourcing, increased emerging markets, and the growth of multi-national companies, and you have a veritable global village redefining HR’s role.

In its annual study on workplace diversity, the Society for Human Resource Management reports that the “current global business environment has created many growth opportunities for organizations, however, there are new challenges facing today’s organizations, such as cultural differences, divergent expectations, and dissimilar belief systems.”

One of the biggest challenges for human resource professionals now is managing fundamental business procedures that in a global setting are no longer that basic, says Karen Beaman, founder and CEO of the Jeitosa Group International, a San Francisco-based HR consulting firm for global organizations.

“Lateness is defined differently in different cultures,” Beaman explains. “In some cultures it’s five minutes, and in others, it’s 30 minutes. Also, there are cultures that shy away from emphasizing the role of the individual above the role of the team, but this is precisely the point of most American performance reviews.”

GAINING CULTURAL DEXTERITY IN MANAGEMENT IS KEY TO CREATING A GLOBALLY UNIFIED WORK ETHIC. LET’S REVIEW THE JAPANESE SCENARIO:

Managing leadership Divergent expectations were to blame, says Lance LaVergne, Goldman’s vice president and global head of diversity recruiting, and Aynesh Johnson, vice president and global head of the office of global leadership and diversity. The Japanese team came from a culture where deferential preference is given to leaders.

Once the project manager understood the different perspectives, he was able to proactively engage the Japanese team members, who then felt more comfortable offering their input, LaVergne says.

New Roman;”>Managing meetings “In some cultures, building camaraderie comes first,” Johnson explains. “It’s more about making sure we connect, that I know you as an individual so that we can agree. In other cultures, it’s transaction-oriented. Understanding those nuances will impact how business gets done.”

Managing language Idiomatic expressions often don’t transfer well across cultures. “Being specific and clear when communicating is the best policy. “For example, could you turn this around for me? To one person, that could mean on my desk in the morning; to someone else, that’s later in the week,” Johnson says.

Even simpler adjustments can make a difference, LaVergne says, such as “varying the time of global conference calls so that the burden of late-night calls is shared equally among the regional participants, or understanding the issue of deference versus assertiveness.”

Stressing the importance of global diversity is a corporate imperative, Johnson adds, “Over 50% of our revenues are generated outside the U.S., [reinforcing] the business case for diversity.”

This story originally appeared in the November 2008 issue of Black Enterprise magazine.

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