Human resources in the Holy Land (Guest commentary)

A dozen Canadian HR professionals set out to find out what HR is like in Israel
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/14/2011

Last fall, 12 HR and business professionals from across Western Canada set out on a journey to Israel to learn how a region rich in complex history, with a diverse and sensitive religious value system, impacts the practice of human resource management.

It was the third Canadian HR delegation through People to People Ambassador Programs, an organization set up in 1956 by American president Dwight Eisenhower to unite professionals in various disciplines with international colleagues. The previous two visits took us to China, Vietnam and Cambodia. (To read stories from those journeys, go to www.hrreporter.com, click on “Advanced Search” and enter articles #6857 and 7610.)

There was some trepidation about travelling to a region with a history of conflict and instability. The level of security we encountered leaving Canada did little to settle our nerves.

But on arrival in Tel Aviv, our concerns were alleviated by the warm, friendly people who openly and eagerly welcomed us. Over the course of the delegation, we met with professionals in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem and travelled throughout Israel, including a trip through the West Bank.

Each major Israeli city has a very distinct personality. Tel Aviv is a contemporary city nestled on the shores of the Mediterranean. While it has a strong business centre, it is known by the locals as the “place to play” and is a hot spot for young professionals who seek the trendy beach lifestyle. Haifa, also situated on the Mediterranean Sea, is known as the commerce centre of Israel and the “place to work.” It features stunning hanging gardens clearly visible from every corner of the city. Jerusalem, known as the “place to pray,” is an extraordinary city where history, diversity and complexity are the mother of all invention.

We even took a precarious trip to Bethlehem, Palestine, to learn more about the political complexities and to see life in action in the region. Accessible only by foot, we made our way through the Cold War-like border and the heart of the conflicting divide between Israel and Palestine. It was the experience of a lifetime but one none of us wish to recreate.

Israel is a fascinating country and region — over the course of thousands of years, diverse civilizations have unfolded and evolved and now multiple, diverse religions are virtually living on top of one another.

It’s an experience Canada should eye carefully — we need to ensure we don’t put too much emphasis on our differences. If we continue down this path, where cultural differences trump being “Canadian,” are we destined for the same eventual fate of ongoing and escalating conflict? History has taught us rewarding differences only serves to wedge the divide deeper.

HR faces similar challenges in Canada, Israel

While Canada and Israel have vastly different political structures and geographies, we have similar business goals and objectives with similar HR challenges. In fact, the Israeli HR association has many similarities to the Canadian HR association system.

In both countries, professionals direct the associations and both have established accreditation programs with corresponding codes of ethics. The HR profession is still evolving to build awareness of the associations as recognized authorities and HR as a credible profession to enhance business performance. This is consistent with the strategic evolution of the HR profession from an administrative model to an organizational effectiveness model.

One of the top organizational issues for Israel is the brain drain due to limited opportunities for people with higher education. It’s working to create a national value proposition on why it’s better to invest in Israel than China or India. Mexico and Brazil are also emerging players in the high-tech industry, which adds even more tough competition.

Another factor to contend with is the Israeli government’s decreasing educational funding as a result of budgetary constraints. But Israel is hardly alone on that front — it’s happening in Canada and around the world. It’s a problem that needs to be addressed — not investing in education carries a heavy price tag and will only compound the global talent shortage. Otherwise, down the road, we’ll be forced to be reactionary and throw money at the problem. It’s better to strategically plan for this eventuality. Pay less now or pay a lot more later — and not just dollars, as there are significant human and societal costs attached.

Military investment in youth

An issue that sets Israel apart from Canada is its strong investment in educating youth in the military. All young people, from the ages of 18 to 22, serve their country. This experience is invaluable from many perspectives. The elite education, training and skills development they receive is highly valued by employers. The system also inherently provides social awareness and cultural strength by creating structure and discipline in young people’s lives at a time when they need the most guidance, direction and support.

We do not see the social dysfunction in Israel that we see in Canada and the youth culture is radically different.

Labour laws in Israel are rooted in a socialist system that is quite comparable to Canada, particularly in matters such as benefits and health care.

Strong emphasis on family

Israeli employers place a strong emphasis on the care of an employee and his family. This can be an added challenge when considering benefit or employment changes, as the impact to the whole family must be considered. In Israeli companies, it’s common to have a “welfare manager” position with a mandate to create a family-friendly culture that connects the employer to the family.

Not surprisingly, these types of expenditures have no real direct or quantifiable correlation to the actual targets of the company, according to senior HR executives.

On this side of the world, strategic Canadian employers are establishing employee wellness strategies to address organizational health as well as employee health. Quite similar to the organizational culture in Israel, this certainly links the health of an employee’s home life and family, but in a different way. While work-life balance in both Israel and Canada is becoming an increasingly important factor, it is also universally true for the younger generation who place a high value on personal time.

Innovation

With respect to innovation, consider this: There are five Intel centres throughout Israel, which is a tiny country. These centres focus on design, manufacturing and research and development. For the third consecutive year, Intel has been voted the best place to work across all Israeli industrial sectors.

Israel has an inherent capacity to foster creativity and innovation as opposed to the “manufacturing, process-driven capacity” more commonly found in North America. As a result, many companies such as Intel have made strategic decisions to leverage this talent in Israel.

They manage to successfully blend the Israeli culture of innovation excellence with an American flavour. There is a strong managerial commitment to take on HR management responsibilities and Intel is now in the process of educating managers on the importance of work-life balance and maintaining a strong sense of corporate social responsibility. Companies are committed to giving back to the community by investing in education and learning and development, and Intel invites other companies, even competitors, to partner in community programs.

Demographics

The government’s Central Bureau of Statistics provided some interesting statistics on demographics. In the areas of population growth, structure, density, life expectancy, infant mortality and population projections, Israel is not dissimilar to Canada. However, it has unique issues around ethnicity, marriage and divorce, immigration and emigration. All Jewish people are allowed to freely move to, or return to, Israel from anywhere in the world. However, there are strict immigration policies for non-Jews. Israel keeps particular records of its diverse population: six million Jews, 3.5 million Palestinians, 1.5 million Muslims, 300,000 Christians and 150,000 Druze. The population is also very diverse as a result of an immigrant workforce primarily from Thailand, Romania and Nigeria.

The trip underscored the fact that many of HR’s challenges are truly global. The same problems facing Canadian and Israeli HR professionals plague their counterparts around the world — there is a need to figure out effective ways to demonstrate a true return on investment for strategic HR solutions. In the war for talent, these strategies will have a high market value in attracting and retaining talent in organizations and certainly be a competitive advantage for organizations that operate around the world.

Upcoming trip: Join the delegation to Brazil

The fourth Canadian HR delegation is scheduled to head out in September 2011. This time the destination is Brazil and it’s a rare professional development opportunity open to anyone who wants to learn more about global HR practices and shaping the future development of HR in Canada. Visit www.peopletopeople.com/dianewiesenthal for more information.

Diane Wiesenthal is vice-president of people and organizational services at the Canadian Wheat Board in Winnipeg. She has led international delegations to China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Israel for the People to People Citizen Ambassador Program.

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