Memoirs of an HR professional

3 HR individuals share stories of personal and professional experiences abroad
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 11/01/2009

When it comes to out-of-country assignments, HR professionals are usually devoted to finding the right person for the job and supporting him while away. But sometimes, particularly with larger companies, HR individuals are the ones going abroad. And while they might be prepared for cultural differences and unfamiliar business practices — thanks to years of supporting relocating employees — the unexpected is sure to arise. Here three people in the HR profession share their experiences.

Southern exposure

South America, Central America and the Caribbean are well-known locales to Elizabeth Lorimer, who has travelled extensively to countries such as Peru, Chile, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, El Salvador and Jamaica for merger and acquisition activities.

But Lorimer, vice-president of strategic initiatives at Scotiabank in Toronto, spent the most time in Mexico where she went to live while implementing HR programs for Scotiabank. It was the early days of the bank’s Advancement of Women program so it involved her taking best practices of that program, along with project management disciplines and recruitment methodologies.

“It was really to help them start up. And also learning from them,” she says. “The work was quite challenging because we didn’t have a lot of blueprints. It was super, super interesting work.”

The foreign experiences have been wonderful because of the opportunity to meet interesting people while getting to know international operations in a very different way. In terms of HR challenges, most were cultural differences, along with the fact Scotiabank was not always well-known, she says.

“You were an ambassador in a way you’re not really in Canada, in terms of dealing with local staff.”

Some of it meant learning on the go, though her employer does provide cross-cultural training to cover the basics.

“Not really, until you get into the country, do you realize the nuances of trying to put that into practice, so it could be challenging sometimes, but in a good way.”

The best approach is to watch and observe, says Lorimer, and get to know trusted colleagues who can provide helpful answers and guide you.

Lorimer makes a point to travel around the country she’s visiting, whether for a weekend or an overnight, and has walked in the clouds of a Costa Rica rain forest, travelled up Guatemalan mountains in chicken buses and observed millions of monarch butterflies that winter in Angangueo, Mexico.

“Knowing they come from southern Ontario blew my mind, I thought it was really neat,” she says. “I like (to travel around) because it maximizes your travel experience but also, in a strange way, it can help you to understand local customs, local approaches better if you know a little more about the country in an informal way.”

The best way to take on these kinds of assignments is to bring enthusiasm and gratitude, says Lorimer, and don’t just hang out with the expats.

“I would say when you get to the other country, it’s not Canada, it’s not like Canada, you’re not going to be able to buy the (same) ingredients and cook the way you cook here. And don’t get hung up on that kind of stuff,” she says. “Really, just say to yourself, ‘This is a totally new, different country, there’s a lot of good fun, interesting, challenging things here.’ Be really open to the experience.”

European interlude

Keen to travel in Europe, Shawn Park headed to work in London in 1997, “one of the greatest cities in the world,” he says.

He worked as a recruiter for QS Network, which links graduates and MBAs with business schools and employers, and found everyone considered him an “American guy.”

But, when he explained his country of origin, it was often a great icebreaker, he says. Almost half the time someone would have a relative who lived in a city such as Vancouver and want to know if Toronto was nearby. Park would politely tell them it was a little farther away.

“I enjoyed this, though, because they always remembered me after that, which was valuable considering that I worked as a recruiter for an agency.”

Park took advantage of his central location to travel to other cities and regions, such as Paris, Madrid, Prague and Barcelona, along with Scotland and Ireland.

And his time away in a foreign locale was a career booster. Park has worked for Shepell-fgi for the last five years as a manager of national and international recruitment.

“I really enjoyed learning about the subtle but different ways that business and recruitment were conducted. It has added to my tool kit and taught me to be more attuned to my audience.”

And Park learned a few life lessons, too.

“(It) taught me the value of being able to adapt my style, to be sensitive to different cultures. (It) provided me with experiences that I do not think I would have had otherwise.”

Postcards from Bermuda

Deborah Best, head of performance and reward in HR at HSBC Bank Canada in Vancouver, has logged plenty of kilometers in her role — often within North America to connect with peers and promote best practices or help move projects along. In 2005, she and her husband also travelled to Capetown, South Africa, for an award event. But in 2007, Best made a bigger move, accepting a two-year relocation to Bermuda with her family.

The biggest challenge to start was the work involved in moving house, jobs, family, schools and everything else that goes with a relocation, she says, such as buying and selling cars, establishing licences, insurance, phones and medical coverage.

“The amount of paperwork and co-ordination can be rather overwhelming and it takes a lot of energy to manage,” she says.

When Best arrived, it was like stepping into a whole new world.

“Everything was new and different: the business, the people and culture and way of speaking, the flora and fauna and stones, the buildings and streets, the rules/laws, the public/private services and more,” she says.

Adjusting to the change could mean small things, such as pedestrians crossing intersections diagonally or everyone greeting each other despite being strangers. Employees were expected to bring cake and treats for peers on their birthday.

“It’s a wonderful adventure to stretch one’s perspective, to try to get a glimpse into the world from another point of view. Respect is not earned. It is a fundamental way of approaching people as an equal.”

The longer Best stayed, however, the more commonalities she found and, ultimately, people — no matter where they are born or raised — are essentially very much the same, she says.

“We made some lifelong friends and gained unique experiences that have changed who we are. I would move internationally again in a heartbeat and found that having done it once only makes it seem that much more attractive to do again.”

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