According to a 2008 survey by Worldwide ERC and Cartus, the number of short-term job assignments for employees is on the rise. For many multinational firms, these temporary jobs are scattered across countries throughout the world.
As a result, a main challenge for learning executives managing temporary workers involves training on the cultural, linguistic and other nuances that most affect this segment of the workforce.
Understanding Cultural Differences
To get an idea of the importance of cultural understanding for short-term employees, consider the following scenario.
In July 1995, House Intelligence Committee member Bill Richardson was scheduled to meet with Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. The meeting was almost called off after Richardson unwittingly insulted the president by crossing his legs and thereby showing the soles of his shoes — a great affront in the Middle East. A similar scenario played out more recently when some Israelis were insulted by a press photo that depicted President Barack Obama speaking on the phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — with his feet up on his desk.
Cultural differences exist everywhere — from Europe to Asia, from Africa to Australia. In Japan, there is a protocol to give and accept business cards, and not doing it properly insults the host. In Germany, it is common to serve fruit at the end of the meal. When Microsoft came out with Windows 95, the package jacket in India outlined eight areas of Kashmiri in green, indicating land under question of sovereignty. The Indian government was incensed, and Microsoft removed 200,000 copies of Windows 95 from the shelves.
These types of situations occur routinely in today’s international business world, and without proper training around cultural protocol, professional relationships could be seriously — even irreparably — damaged.
Researcher Geert Hofstede developed a theory to address the effect of culture on the management process. After studying 116,000 IBM employees across the world, he published a study titled “Motivation, Leadership and Organization: Do American Theories Apply Abroad?” In it, he presented a set of five cultural aspects by which societies could be categorized:
- Power distance, which refers to the degree to which people in a society accept centralized power and depend on superiors for structure and direction.
- Uncertainty avoidance, which refers to the extent to which a people in a society tolerate uncertainty and ambiguity.
- Individualism, which denotes the degree to which people in a society look after their own interests or belong to and depend on groups.
- Masculinity, which denotes the degree to which people in a society stress material success and assertiveness and assign different roles to males and females.
- Confucian dynamism, which is a system of practical ethics based on a set of pragmatic rules for daily life — derived from experience.
Each society has a ranking from strong to weak in each of these categories, and by understanding their values in each area, one is better able to understand how to successfully manage and train a group with those specific characteristics.
For example, Hofstede’s “masculine” dimension, which measures relative aggressiveness, ranks Sweden the lowest and Japan the highest. Other measurements include faithfulness, ethics, morality and love. It’s vitally important that a short-term manager or executive not only comprehend these cultural differences, but adjust his or her management style to work with diverse people and develop specific training programs as needed. It’s a fundamental principal for success in a multinational world.
The Language Issue and Localizing Learning
In addition to cultural training, temporary and contract workers need extensive instruction on language. In all likelihood, a learning organization won’t have the time or resources to train these workers for months at a time. But even though these employees may not be able to deliver the Gettysburg Address in the local language, they should be able to “get by” in that language.
This is when organizations might consider working with contract trainers. Considering there are 117 nations in the United Nations, each with its own culture and language, it’s often impractical to have a full-time staff trainer for each environment. Depending on the company’s strategic expansion plans, learning executives’ needs will vary.
Outsourcing comes in different shapes and sizes. This is particularly true in the learning environment. Some organizations make the commitment to outsource their entire operations, allowing the business to concentrate on its core competencies. At the other end of the spectrum, some companies choose only to outsource their trainer requirements.
One tactic is for learning leaders to develop and deploy their own stable of contract trainers. This can be a daunting task for an already overburdened administrative staff, however. Because trainer quality is of the highest priority, a stringent process must be instituted. Once trainers with the right skill sets are recruited, the learning executive must interview them; check their references; assess their previous evaluations and letters of reference; and validate any certifications claimed. It is only after the learning department has gone through this process that learning executives can confidently put that trainer in front of a class — and even then it is somewhat of a gamble until that individual has proven himself or herself.
Pros and Cons of Contract Trainers
Now, many people believe contract trainers cost more than staff trainers. In most cases, this is not true after one takes into account the difference between a fixed cost and a variable cost. The staff trainer, after all, has a base salary. In addition to that, he or she incurs roughly 33 percent of that in direct costs to the organization in the form of benefits, social security and federal, state and local taxes, and about 25 percent in indirect costs such as heat, light, telephone and administrative supplies. So, the true cost for a staff trainer approaches 2.5 times his or her base salary. In some cases, therefore, a contract trainer can save an organization money.
Scope is another issue that favors contract trainers. There are two components to this. The first is scalability: Whether the organization needs one trainer or more than 100 trainers, whether they’re needed for half a day or half a year — with contract trainers, a company can scale to satisfy its needs and save bench time as well as money. The second factor is breadth: Some vendors will have already taught more than 11,000 different courses within their repertoires.
However, when working with independent contractors, learning executives must be aware of two main areas of concern. The first is the potential 1099 problem. The 1099 problem can come to light when the government decrees that a company is overusing one independent contract trainer to avoid having to pay many taxes and benefits it would normally pay for a full-time employee.
The second issue is the added load a company’s administrative staff will be required to absorb when it brings on an independent contractor. Much of the coordination on travel, invoicing, payroll, recruiting, developing, training and scheduling, as well as marketing and managing their time, skills, certifications, history, evaluations and quality, will fall on the shoulders of the administrative staff.
One way around both of these issues is to do business with companies that outsource the trainers, negating the 1099 problem entirely and allowing the outsourcing company to perform most of the administrative duties that were going to be performed by your own staff.
When looking to work with short-term assignment workers, another area for concern is foreign exchange. It is an area over which the learning organization has little control, but one that can affect the company extremely positively or negatively.
The best methodology to gain the greatest chance of success is to individualize and personalize each program. Prior to each assignment, a thorough “gap analysis” should be conducted for each temporary placement. A list of all the skill sets necessary to maximize the experience for both the short-term employee as well as his or her potential subordinates should be outlined. The list then should be compared with the inventory of the short-term employee’s current skills. Whether they are cultural, linguistic, technical or managerial, these capabilities need to be mastered to the appropriate level for the assignment. Think of the Boy Scout motto: “Be Prepared.” With properly individualized education and training, short-term assignment employees will be prepared to maximize productivity — as well as their personal experiences.
It seems short-term assignments may be the way of the future. After all, many corporations have made the decision to take this approach. In that case, the formula for success is to identify the right people, prepare them properly and then allow them to become what just may be the new global executives of the 21st century. Further, organizations may want to consider using contract trainers — who are available anytime, in any geography, and are gone when no longer needed — to help keep costs down.