How to balance corporate culture with local culture

May 2023

When sending expats to work in new countries with very different societal values and norms, should you:

  • Stick with your existing corporate culture?
  • Find a balance between your existing corporate culture and local culture?

It can be a difficult area to navigate and we hope to give you an overview of both options with real-world examples.

It is important to have a good understanding of what corporate culture is when managing it at an international level. Corporate culture is the “how we do things around here” ideology that exists in every company. The norms of company founders may initially influence an organisation’s culture. However, as a business grows, other behavioural norms are likely to evolve. 

The Society for Human Resources says most corporate cultures are based on assumptions around: 

Effectiveness: what metrics indicate the business is doing well? This needs to be supported by an effective mission statement and strategy that ties in with the organisation and desired culture. 

Appropriate emotions: what emotions should employees express and which should be repressed? 

Human nature: Do we react in advance of a situation arising or wait until there is a problem? An organisation’s views on these assumptions will impact how people interact within the organisation but also how customers and suppliers are treated. 

Fostering a good company culture can be a fantastic way to give your business a competitive advantage when it comes to its talent. Animation giant Pixar is a prime example of creating a culture that: 

  • Puts people first 
  • Encourages self-expression 
  • Focuses on purpose 

Pixar’s road to a positive company culture wasn’t without its challenges. But by continuously investing in the company’s mission, they were able to raise employee satisfaction and make their business an even more attractive place to work. The result of improving their company culture is a happier workforce who continually create animations that are box-office hits. 

HR influences an organisation’s culture in a number of key ways: 

Hiring: Traditional hiring focused on matching an employee’s skills to a role. Today, ensuring an employee is a good cultural fit for an organisation is also important. An ill-fitting employee is much more likely to be unhappy in the role.  

Onboarding programmes: International HR Management play a pivotal role in the design and implementation of employee orientation. These programmes should communicate the employers’: 

  • Norms 
  • Value systems 
  • Desired behaviours 

A great onboarding process is essential to helping new employees assimilate into the existing culture within the organisation. 

Performance management: As the employee settles into their role, effective performance management programmes help reinforce the company culture. Setting goals that align with company culture allows HR to ensure employees fit in with the culture of the organisation.    

The Society for Human Resource Management says research shows that national culture has a greater impact than the culture of the organisation. Therefore, international human resource managers who work with expats based in countries with very different cultures should work out the best approach to help them to adjust. Robust pre-departure training may be required to minimise cultural clashes. 

The approach you take will depend on your organisation's needs and goals. To avoid a collision between your organisation and local culture, Equatex recommends knowing your objectives. 

What does the business want to achieve? What are the potential cultural points of conflict that may prevent this from happening? 

Organisations need to be aware of the following: 

  • How are important decisions made? Is it by consensus or does the manager have the final say? 
  • How important is timekeeping? Is being on time critical or is flexibility more important? 
  • How do people communicate? Is direct communication valued or is politeness valued more? 

Decisions need to be made on whether the local culture will be incorporated or if the organisation’s existing culture will prevail. There is no one right answer to this. There are multinational companies that do both. Take Google as an example. Their corporate culture is largely built around the innovative Californian work of working where they were founded. Rather than adapt, Google now focuses on hiring people who are a good fit for their existing international corporate culture.

If your business already has an expat contingent, then cross-cultural engagement is likely to be something you factor in. Employees are naturally more likely to build the closest relationships with those they see every day. The introduction of expat employees and a focus on diversification within the workplace can help build an understanding of where gaps do occur in cross-cultural business. 

It is an effective way of breaking down the ‘you versus us’ mentality and building an effective dialogue around any issues in the cross-cultural management of the business. Global work culture only thrives when employees, no matter where they are based, feel heard and respected.

There is no doubt that developing the work environment of your business as it becomes more international is a challenge. When managing international employees, it’s important to think of every aspect of their wellbeing, including their safety. Ensure your expat employees' physical and mental needs are met with international health insurance.