Strangers In Strange Lands

November 3, 2006
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His intention was to temporarily fill the role of the pregnant human resources director of his company's Eastern European manufacturing operation. But instead, Cascade Engineering Human Resources Manager Bill Place got a crash course in Hungarian labor laws — for instance, women in Hungary are allotted three years of maternity leave.

"The laws are greatly influenced by culture, and that is a big challenge right off the bat," said Place. "They are very much family oriented. You don't schedule overtime without two weeks' notice. Women are offered three years maternity leave. It is very difficult from an organizational perspective."

To his additional surprise, Place discovered that Hungarian women tend to conceive children in three-year intervals. Facing the distinct possibility of holding the position for a decade or more, he finally hired a replacement.

In this emerging former Soviet bloc country, there is no at-will employment. Workers sign individual employment contracts, and if terminated for any reason, receive a full-month severance pay. Some basic U.S. practices, such as alcohol and drug screening, are considered blatant invasions of privacy.

Another local company, Grand Haven automotive supplier GHSP, is rapidly expanding in China, with hopes to dominate the market for gear shifters there. It sent 34 employees overseas this year and brought a smaller number of Chinese nationals to Grand Haven. For any interested employee, the company offers training sessions on Chinese culture.

"People ask me what the Chinese are like, and I tell them to look in a mirror," said Dan Fisher, vice president and COO of GHSP Asia. "They're just like you and me. (They) want to make a living and raise a family. But the way of doing things and the values are quite different over there. There are real cultural differences of historical origin, and we're taking the effort to appreciate those."

As West Michigan companies increasingly expand on global platforms, more and more are being challenged by cultural differences with foreign partners, particularly when direct communication is involved.

"As companies are acquiring businesses overseas and hiring experts in certain areas or sending U.S.-based employees to run operations, they are running head-on into this," said Sonja Johnson, interim director of the Van Andel Global Trade Center at Grand Valley State University. "It's hard enough to facilitate a global project without all of this other stuff coming in. You need to be constantly paying attention."

The trade center has seen a surge in consulting business on these issues. A recent package completed late last month concerned a virtual project that involved a company's local headquarters, an Indian software firm, and facilities in the United Kingdom, France and Canada. The hope was to proactively address where cultural differences could lead to communication breakdowns and misunderstanding within the deployment of a system-wide technology upgrade.

With both an Indian and Chinese national on staff, Johnson has seen in her own office how easily communication can break down between cultures. During meetings, the Indian graduate assistant is boisterous and bubbling with ideas, often dominating the conversation. The Chinese staffer, on the other hand, is uncomfortable interrupting her colleagues and has difficulty contributing her ideas. Johnson finds herself mediating the conversation to allow for the two to communicate.

Place worked hard to prepare himself for his overseas experience. He researched Hungary in the library and on the Internet, even joined discussion forums specific to Hungarian ex-patriots. He sought guidance from others at Cascade who had experience in the country, and with other firms that have facilities there, including Grand Rapids stamping firm Pridgeon & Clay. Upon arriving in Hungary, he boarded with an elderly widow who tutored him on the local culture.

But despite all his efforts, Place could never completely overcome some basic communication issues. There were only a handful of workers on staff who spoke English, and all communication had to go through them.

"Just about every company I deal with transacts business in English," said Matthew Heitmeier, director of non-ferrous metal marketing for Louis Padnos Iron & Metal Co. "The people you are dealing with, English is their second or third language. They're making a great effort to do business with you."

Heitmeier is grateful for international standards that simplify communication in his industry. When a foreign buyer requests a load of brass honey scrap, he is confident they are talking about the same thing.

In many situations, however, this is not the case. As an example, there are no words for "yes" or "no" in the Chinese language. Often, if a Chinese manager answers "yes" to a question, a better translation of what he means would be "It could happen" or "I heard you."

"A company needs to communicate this or there will be massive confusion," said David Hemmings, president of Pacific Rim Alliance, a Grand Rapids company that facilitates business in Asia. "People will all walk away thinking it is agreed it will be done on Friday, when in fact all that happened was you said, 'It will be done on Friday.'"

Hemmings advises using only open-ended questions with Chinese business people, and to ask for specifics and be certain both parties understand the objectives. It is wise to write down exactly what answers must come out of a meeting, he said, and check them off when they are discussed.

"Don't listen for what you're being told," Hemmings said. "The problem will be in what you're not being told. Whatever they're not talking about, that's what you want to hone in on."

There is a similar concern when doing business in Mexico. There, the meaning is understood, but the urgency is not, according to Ned Crouch, a retired international business consultant and author of the book "Mexicans and Americans: Cracking the Cultural Code."

"People are so agreeable — whatever you ask them, they'll say 'yes,'" Crouch explained. "You have to play the game, interview people."

Crouch recently returned from his annual lecture to diplomats at the federal Foreign Service Institute, where he was disturbed by the lack of cultural training available. He believes there is more cultural training found within local companies such as Alticor Inc., a former client, than the diplomatic corps.

"You shouldn't send anyone down to Mexico without in-depth training," Crouch said. "I've seen mistakes on every level. CEO, lawyer, accountant, purchasing all get it wrong; the little things they just don't understand."

He also emphasized the need for face-to-face interaction.

Responding to a growing need among its clients, The Employers Association (TEA) is hosting a seminar this afternoon at Calvin College examining cultural differences and acclimation. TEA also has programs for local cross-cultural issues, including the Workplace Culture Program, intended to teach employers about Hispanic, Bosnian and Vietnamese cultures, and teach recent immigrants about U.S. culture.    

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