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Cultural differences and HRM

Based on Human Resource Management, 4th edition, by Alan Price


This section examines the concept of culture at international, national and organizational levels. Human resource literature places considerable emphasis on the role of corporate culture in achieving high performance levels. In particular, people working within a culture of commitment are prepared to work longer, apply greater ingenuity to resolve a problem and try that much harder to win an order.

Culture and international HRM

The market place is global and the key players are the multinational organizations. Modern human resource managers cannot confine themselves to an understanding of people management in their own countries. Everyone must develop an awareness of international HRM.

Further notes: The main perspectives on international HRM are:

  • The global approach - using analytic frameworks or broad thematic interpretations to understand HR issues on a global scale.
  • The comparative approach - comparing and contrasting the different ways in which HRM is practised in the light of culture, history and other factors.

Torrington (1994) concluded that international HRM is not simply human resource management on a grander scale. He considered that several familiar aspects of HRM, such as recruitment, selection and employee realtions are actually outside the scope of international HRM because of the different (primarily national) legislative frameworks to which they must adhere. For example, he stated that:

"Employees are selected in one country or another, and wherever the selection is undertaken there are a range of conventions and legal requirements that have to be met. The person appointed will usually have a contract of employment that will fit within the legal framework of one country but probably not another".

Of course, supra-national bodies such as the European Union are attempting to 'harmonize' such differences out of existence.

Respecting cultural differences

There is a misleading assumption that the social, class and cultural values underlying management ideas are - or should be - 'normal' for every country. (...) Rooted in nineteenth century imperialism, this misconception is based on the belief that important ideas are conveyed in one direction - from western 'civilization' to less developed countries.

International Cultures - Cultures and Standards

We take our own culture for granted. In fact, we are scarcely aware of it until we interact with another. Each culture has a worldview: a set of values and beliefs. This is meaningful to its members but alien to others. As a consequence, we look at people from other cultures, see that their ways are different and often dislike these ways.

Employees who have cross-border responsibilities and/or cross-cultural relationships need to be prepared to effectively handle the inevitable intercultural tasks and challenges involved.

Cultural Variety

(...) there are differences not only between cultures but also within cultures. For example, Australian culture can be identified with that of the majority Anglo-Celtic population; but the nation's culture also encompasses a number of distinctive subcultures.

Hofstede argues that an individual's culture may have several levels: (1) national; (2) regional, ethnic, religious, linguistic; (3) gender; (4) generation; (5) social class; (6) organizational.

We can see readily that this mixture provides an intriguing cocktail for a selector to attempt to disentangle; for a performance assessor to misunderstand; a management developer to 'correct'. All in all, there is massive scope for a clash of cultures - and prejudices. (...)

The Perception of Time

Human Resource Management 4th edition consider some differences regarding the perception of time in different cultures. We all have in-built standards, the origins of which we rarely question and which we interpret as 'normal'. This has profound implications for people management at the global level.

Triandis pinpoints the perception of time as one element of cultural complexity. He argues that different cultures have different attitudes towards time. Time-keeping is treated tolerantly in underdeveloped societies - with few things to do, one can do them in any order. But in industrialized countries there are many thigs to do and they must be co-ordinated with other people. Hence, time becomes more important and is regarded as something precise and highly significant.

Another significant time characteristic is that of short- or long-term orientation. Typically, East Asians are considered to have a longer time perspective than nationals of many other regions (...)


Triandis also relates cultural complexity to the way we define our working and other roles. In complex societies roles become increasingly specific - compartmentalized into separate mental boxes. We can be finance managers, parents and social club officials, and behave differently in each role. In less complex societies, on the other hand, roles are diffuse, affecting every aspect of people's lives. Religion, politics and matters of taste are important in diffuse cultures. They are less important in role-specific cultures. Developed countries tend to be role-specific, avoiding role confusion.

Theory and best practice in key HRM areas such as selection, performance measurement and development assume an equal opportunities approach in which people are dealt without favour or prejudice. However, this notion is alien to diffuse-role cultures, in which it is natural to favour members of one's own family or community. (...)

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