HR challenges on a multicultural island: How to overcome national differences and foster inclusion?
Sponsored Article 13:40 - 08 August 2023
Cyprus is a land of diversity, where many cultures and traditions have met and mingled over the centuries. It has welcomed people of various origins, faiths, and languages for many years. As a result, Cyprus has become a place where multiculturalism is not only a reality but also a value that fosters dialogue, collaboration, and mutual respect.
Today, we will hear from AdTech Holding’s Chief Administrative Officer, Elena Dolia, and her colleagues from other Cyprus-based businesses, who will share their experiences and best practices for managing multicultural teams. Through their insights, we will try to learn how to create a positive and productive work environment that embraces and celebrates diversity.
Who We Asked?
Elena Dolia, Chief Administrative Officer at AdTech Holding. 350+ employees from Cyprus, Armenia, Serbia, Sweden, India, France, the Czech Republic, and CIS countries.
Yana Legkaya, Director, People Operations at Prodly. 60+ employees from the USA, Cyprus, Netherlands, Great Britain, Romania, CIS countries, and Canada. Everyone works remotely.
Daria Shovkun, Head of HR, Centro Holdings. 300+ employees from Cyprus, Ukraine, Canada, USA, Georgia, and worldwide remote.
Nadia Kolb, Global HR & Operations Director at Cryptology. 100+ employees from Europe, the UK, Brazil, India, and Bali.
On Hiring Process
International recruitment is about more than finding the right seasoned professional. HR specialists agree that a big challenge is understanding if there is a match between a company and an employee. It is not even always about nationality — as Elena Dolia puts it, ‘it’s essential that a new professional fits into the overall vibe of the existing team.’
Daria Shovkun also notes that soft skills play a big role in the hiring process, and it is especially remarkable among the Northern American HR community. For example, the Canadian colleagues of Centro Holdings tend to spend much time on interviews that test a candidate's communication skills.
In their opinion, it is essential to ensure a person will successfully pass the probation period — rather than fire this new employee after a couple of months. At the same time, hard skills are not the main interview focus as they are regarded as proven experience and the default requirement.
— Obviously, even a several-step interview may not be enough to determine whether a candidate has a 100% cultural match with the company. Thus, what solutions are to be as accurate as possible?
Yana Legkaya: We are strongly aware of all the peculiarities of our company and how we build communication and interaction within the teams. This allows us to filter out people who are unlikely to accept the companies’ culture and might experience issues due to this gap.
Besides, the job interview involves several colleagues — it is not only a concern of an HR and a hiring manager. At the end of the day, it allows us to employ people who are very likely to feel comfortable among coworkers, and this will be mutual.
Elena Dolia: We at AdTech Holding also practice interviewing candidates with future team members involved. An important part of this process is the control of the HR manager: team members might focus on evaluating soft skills and be unintentionally subjective in their judgment — so we are striving for the balance between the overall cultural fit and hard skills that will be valuable for our company.
The interview should be more than just an intuitive process, of course. Checking for this mentioned ‘cultural fit’ implies a framework that HR managers follow to avoid missing the essentials.
Yana Legkaya: One of the practices we use during the interviewing is asking a candidate to tell their favorite joke that will sound clear and funny to people of any nationality. Such a humor compatibility test is one of the very effective ways to understand if the candidate and the team complement each other.
Daria Shovkun: We follow a specific hiring process that can accommodate any culture. However, we also pay attention to the subtle differences that matter. For instance, North American candidates often look for a cultural fit with their prospective employers themselves — and pay attention to brand values described in job postings.
Still, some cultures excel at soft skills and communication and know how to present themselves perfectly. In this case, we must also verify employees’ hard skills. For example, we can ask them to provide exact case studies from their past work.
Overall, no interview framework can give you a 100% guarantee that a candidate will succeed at work and will cope with cross-cultural differences with colleagues. However, it is possible to give accurate enough predictions, so this is not an issue and not a major stumbling block.
Even successful candidates might later need help adapting to the new environment, especially if significant cultural gaps exist. Obviously, even the language barrier can create certain insecurity — especially when everyone speaks English as their second language.
Sometimes, such issues are minor and even funny — for example, one of Prodly’s employees went on a business trip, which was his first time in Europe. He spent 12 hours in a hotel room with a firm assurance there were electricity issues. He patiently waited for maintenance until he discovered that European hotels had a special socket where you put your room card to activate the lights.
However, some more serious cases and problems may arise. As Elena Dolia puts it,
‘Unfortunately, hiring a person from a completely different culture for the first time often results in a failed test. In simple words, when a European company recruits its very first professional from, say, an Asian country, a big chance is that both company and the employee will not get accustomed to each other. The next recruitment effort will most likely be more successful — so sometimes, achieving harmony with particular cultures might require several efforts. It certainly doesn’t mean that some cultures are harder to match the others — and it is simply a matter of experience.’
For example, when we opened one of our overseas offices, we noticed that the employees from that office worked best with the tasks when they were decomposed and had a very strict deadline. Besides, these employees' efficiency became significantly higher when their manager traveled to their office and was physically around. This observation helped to develop a particular managing guideline for future cooperation with colleagues from this country.
— So, are there any frameworks that can help onboard people effectively to minimize the risk of misunderstanding and miscommunication?
Elena Dolia: First, giving team leaders and managers the right guidelines is essential. The whole onboarding process must not lay on the HR department, which doesn’t communicate with employees as often as their direct supervisors. Thus, our onboarding policy (in fact, it relates to everyone, not only foreign employees) involves thorough work with heads of departments.
Daria agrees that the right onboarding process has much to do with the managers’ involvement.
Daria Shovkun: Overall, there is no big difference between onboarding a new employee from the same country or a foreigner. I would say that it is a bit harder when the person is working remotely, as he lacks personal, informal communication with colleagues. However, the manager's work is the key to success for any onboarding.
This is why we invest much effort into training managers: explaining the importance of timely feedback, transparency, etc. If a manager understands and appreciates our mutual goals, there are usually no onboarding issues, no matter the employee’s culture and background.
Besides, some tools might be used to help employees — for example, Prodly uses Grammarly for Businesses to help non-native speakers communicate with natives.
On Teams Structuring
Sometimes, it might be tempting to build monocultural teams. Generally, it can make sense: sharing the same background, speaking the same native language, and understanding the peculiarities of each other’s mindset simplifies communication and the overall workflow.
However, when we asked HR professionals’ opinions, it turned out that such an approach is not at all a must for a cross-cultural company.
Yana Legkaya: We are a multinational and multilingual company, and we want to remain one. Thus, according to our experience, it makes sense to distribute people by teams exclusively according to their skills. After all, there is no guarantee that people with the same mentality will work any better than a multicultural team. Moreover, the synergy of a monocultural team might boost not only the positive qualities of people’s mindsets but also the negative ones.
In fact, all our respondents agreed multicultural teams tend to broaden people’s minds. Professionals share their unique experiences and practices and often help each other strive for better efficiency. Besides, people complement each other when they have different working approaches depending on the working environments they are used to.
For example, some nationalities tend to work harder than others and do their best to perform precise tasks. The others prefer finding creative solutions that save time and effort — and both types are required in every company.
Daria Shovkun: There are two approaches to building teams in the multinational environment, and both can be applied depending on particular business needs. One of them, really, does suggest that people sharing the same language, background, and working patterns might work more effectively — quicker, at least.
However, we cannot deny that multicultural team members benefit from each other and might deliver new, unexpected ideas and brilliant results. So, another approach suggests, on the contrary, not just accepting but seeking diversity and inclusion in the business space.
On Performance Evaluation
Various countries evaluate workers' performance differently, depending on their cultural values and other factors.
For example, a German performance appraisal system focuses on individual performance, feedback from multiple sources, and setting new goals.
At the same time, say, Chinese companies usually evaluate employees based on their group performance, provide them with feedback from a direct supervisor only, and focus more on maintaining the current performance level.
— So is it necessary to evaluate people according to frameworks familiar to their culture, or flexibility is not required in this case?
Yana Legkaya: You definitely need to evaluate all employees equally according to the accepted company’s standard. This standard has nothing to do with religion, nationality, age, gender, race, etc. Everyone works under the same conditions when you have a particular standard and particular expectations. And this significantly reduces the risk of any conflicts.
Elena and Daria agree that the framework is essential — and the main requirement here is to create it in a way to be clear and transparent for everyone, no matter where the employees are from and how they used to work before.
On Personal Communication
As Daria Shovkun puts it, ‘There is never too much of communication.’
Communication seems to be the key to building a healthy working environment in any team — including a multicultural one. And it is especially important to be open to communication when there is a cultural gap.
Elena Dolia recounted a story about a team leader who generally excelled at his work. However, he often alienated his team members by raising his voice for no apparent reason, creating a constant atmosphere of tension. Once, he solicited feedback from his colleagues, and some of them admitted that they kept feeling uneasy with his tone.
To their astonishment, the team leader explained that he never intended to be harsh or offensive. It turned out he had grown accustomed to being very loud in his native country, where it was essential to succeed, stand out from the crowd, and thus secure a good job or recognition.
This is a very good example of how timely communication could have helped when facing an obvious cultural gap.
Daria Shovkun: We often encounter mindset differences and sometimes need to fight the issues arising from them. For example, Americans are basically considered very forthright and straightforward people. However, they are not like this for our CIS teams — simply because the CIS countries’ mindset implies an even higher level of straightforwardness.
This is why we feel it is important to teach all our employees the art of feedback — but this will require big involvement from all sides. In my opinion, any miscommunication issues always need an immediate reaction from HR and management—and it’s essential to find opportunities and resources to solve them.
On Working Schedules
According to Elena, the working schedule is mainly based on the country where the business is located. This makes sense: when relocated, people are usually willing to meet the local requirements, even if they seem unfamiliar at first.
However, this can also have a particular level of flexibility. For example, if we speak about remote employees of AdTech Holding, their schedules depend on their local time zones, and they have days off on their local international holidays.
This idea is shared by Yana and Daria, too.
Yana Legkaya: Prodly focuses on the work’s result, quality, and the overall employee’s attitude — not the weekdays and hours when you work.
On Religious Practices
All our respondents agreed that any employee’s religious commitment must be respected. This respect can be revealed in different ways, depending on if a person prefers their religion to stay a private matter or, on the contrary, requires some support in their religious feelings.
Such support can include:
● Flexible working hours that allow employees to follow their religious precepts
● Additional days off for celebrating religious holidays
● No limit to religious clothing and accessories
● An opportunity to openly express the religious views
Nadia Kolb: One of the things we do as part of our practice is to share knowledge with our employees about various religious and cultural traditions from around the world, right in the places where our team members are situated. This really helps everyone to become more acquainted with each other and broaden their perspectives. For example, our Indian team talked about their vibrant Holi festival celebrations, while the Brazilian team shared their incredible experiences from the lively carnival festivities.
Building a business in different locations is challenging, but all our respondents agree that it pays off. Flexibility, communication, and some kind of curiosity are probably the three main keys to creating synergy in a multicultural company — and this is a practice that anyone can adapt when they understand the value of people being different.