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Culture as a Major Aspect of HRM Overseas

19 January, 2016 - 15:28

Culture is a key component to managing HRM on a global scale. Understanding culture but also appreciating cultural differences can help the HRM strategy be successful in any country. Geert Hofstede, a researcher in the area of culture, developed a list of five cultural dimensions that can help define how cultures are different.  1

The first dimension of culture is individualism-collectivism. In this dimension, Hofstede describes the degree to which individuals are integrated into groups. For example, in the United States, we are an individualist society; that is, each person looks after him- or herself and immediate family. There is more focus on individual accomplishments as opposed to group accomplishments. In a collective society, societies are based on cohesive groups, whether it be family groups or work groups. As a result, the focus is on the good of the group, rather than the individual.

Power distance, Hofstede’s second dimension, refers to the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations accept that power is not distributed equally. For example, some societies may seek to eliminate differences in power and wealth, while others prefer a higher power distance. From an HRM perspective, these differences may become clear when employees are asked to work in cross-functional teams. A Danish manager may have no problem taking advice from employees because of the low power distance of his culture, but a Saudi Arabian manager may have issues with an informal relationship with employees, because of the high power distance.

Uncertainty avoidance refers to how a society tolerates uncertainty. Countries that focus more on avoidance tend to minimize the uncertainty and therefore have stricter laws, rules, and other safety measures. Countries that are more tolerant of uncertainty tend to be more easygoing and relaxed. Consider the situation in which a company in the United States decides to apply the same HRM strategy to its operations in Peru. The United States has an uncertainty avoidance score of 46, which means the society is more comfortable with uncertainty. Peru has a high uncertainty avoidance, with a score of 87, indicating the society’s low level of tolerance for uncertainty. Let’s suppose a major part of the pay structure is bonuses. Would it make sense to implement this same compensation plan in international operations? Probably not.

Masculinity and femininity refers to the distribution of emotional roles between genders, and which gender norms are accepted by society. For example, in countries that are focused on femininity, traditional “female” values such as caring are more important than, say, showing off. The implications to HRM are huge. For example, Sweden has a more feminine culture, which is demonstrated in its management practices. A major component in managers’ performance appraisals is to provide mentoring to employees. A manager coming from a more masculine culture may not be able to perform this aspect of the job as well, or he or she may take more practice to be able to do it.

The last dimension is long-term–short-term orientation, which refers to the society’s time horizons. A long-term orientation would focus on future rewards for work now, persistence, and ordering of relationships by status. A short-term orientation may focus on values related to the past and present such as national pride or fulfillment of current obligations. We can see HRM dimensions with this orientation in succession planning, for example. In China the person getting promoted might be the person who has been with the company the longest, whereas in short-term orientation countries like the United States, promotion is usually based on merit. An American working for a Chinese company may get upset to see someone promoted who doesn’t do as good of a job, just because they have been there longer, and vice versa.

Based on Hofstede’s dimensions, you can see the importance of culture to development of an international HRM strategy. To utilize a transnational strategy, all these components should be factored into all decisions such as hiring, compensation, and training. Since culture is a key component in HRM, it is important now to define some other elements of culture.

Table 14.3 Examples of Countries and Hofstede’s Dimensions


Power Distance



Uncertainty Avoidance

Long/Short Term Orientation

New Zealand












United States















































(this dimension was only studied in 23 countries)

Power distance: Refers to the comfort level of power differences among society members. A lower score shows greater equality among levels of society, such as New Zealand.

Individualism/collectivism: A high ranking here, such as the United States, means there is more concern for the individualistic aspects of society as opposed to collectivism. Countries with high scores on individualism means the people tend to be more self-reliant.

Masculinity/femininity: A lower score may indicate lower levels of differentiation between genders. A lower score, such as Chile, may also indicate a more openly nurturing society.

Uncertainty avoidance: Refers to the tolerance for uncertainty. A high score, such as Japan’s, means there is lower tolerance for uncertainty, so rules, laws, policies, and regulations are implemented.

Long/short term orientation: Refers to thrift and perseverance, overcoming obstacles with time (long-term orientation), such as China, versus tradition, social obligations.


Culture refers to the socially accepted ways of life within a society. Some of these components might include language, norms, values, rituals, andmaterial culture such as art, music, and tools used in that culture. Language is perhaps one of the most obvious parts of culture. Often language can define a culture and of course is necessary to be able to do business. HRM considerations for language might include something as simple as what language (the home country or host country) will documents be sent in? Is there a standard language the company should use within its communications?

Fortune 500 Focus

For anyone who has traveled, seeing a McDonald’s overseas is common, owing to the need to expand markets. McDonald’s is perhaps one of the best examples of using cultural sensitivity in setting up its operations despite criticism for aggressive globalization. Since food is usually a large part of culture, McDonald’s knew that when globalizing, it had to take culture into consideration to be successful. For example, when McDonald’s decided to enter the Indian market in 2009, it knew it needed a vegetarian product. After several hundred versions, local McDonald’s executives finally decided on the McSpicy Paneer as the main menu item. The spicy Paneer is made from curd cheese and reflects the values and norms of the culture. 2

In Japan, McDonald’s developed the Teriyaki Burger and started selling green tea ice cream. When McDonald’s first started competing in Japan, there really was no competition at all, but not for the reason you might think. Japanese people looked at McDonald’s as a snack rather than a meal because of their cultural values. Japanese people believe that meals should be shared, which can be difficult with McDonald’s food. Second, the meal did not consist of rice, and a real Japanese meal includes rice—a part of the national identity  3 and values. Most recently, McDonald’s introduced the McBaguette in France to align with French cultural values.  4The McBaguettes will be produced in France and come with a variety of jams, a traditional French breakfast. Just like in product development, HRM must understand the differences between cultures to create the best HRM systems that work for the individual culture.

Norms are shared expectations about what is considered correct and normal behavior. Norms allow a society to predict the expected behavior and be able to act in this manner. For many companies operating in the United States, a norm might be to dress down for work, no suit required. But if doing business overseas, that country’s norm might be to wear a suit. Not understanding the norms of a culture can offend potential clients, customers, and colleagues.

Values, another part of culture, classify things as good or bad within a society. Values can evoke strong emotional feelings from a person or a society. For example, burning of the American flag results in strong emotions because values (love of country and the symbols that represent it) are a key component of how people view themselves, and how a culture views society. In April 2011, a pastor in Florida burned a holy book, the Koran, which sparked outrage from the Muslim community all over the world. This is an example of a strongly held value that when challenged can result in community rage.  5

Rituals are scripted ways of interacting that usually result in a specific series of events. Consider a wedding in the United States, for example. The basic wedding rituals (first dance, cutting of cake, speech from best man and bridesmaid) are practiced throughout society. Besides the more formalized rituals within a society, such as weddings or funerals, daily rituals, such as asking someone “How are you?” (when you really don’t want to know the answer) are part of culture, too. Even bonding rituals such as how business cards are exchanged and the amount of eye contact given in a social situation can all be rituals as well.

The material items a culture holds important, such as artwork, technology, and architecture, can be considered material culture. Material culture can range from symbolic items, such as a crucifix, or everyday items, such as a Crockpot or juicer. Understanding the material importance of certain items to a country can result in a better understanding of culture overall.

Human Resource Recall

Which component of culture do you think is the most important in HRM? Why?

Key Takeaways

  • Offshoring is when a business relocates or moves part of its operations to a country different from the one it currently operates in.
  • Outsourcing is when a company contracts with another company to do some work for another. This can occur domestically or in an offshoring situation.
  • Domestic market means that a product is sold only within the country that the business operates in.
  • An international market means that an organization is selling products in other countries, while a multinational one means that not only are products being sold in a country, but operations are set up and run in a country other than where the business began.
  • The goal of any HRM strategy is to be transnational, which consists of three components. First, the transnational scope involves the ability to make decisions on a global level rather than a domestic one. Transnational representation means that managers from all countries in which the business operates are involved in business decisions. Finally, a transnational process means that the organization can involve a variety of perspectives, rather than only a domestic one.
  • Part of understanding HRM internationally is to understand culture. Hofstede developed five dimensions of culture. First, there is the individualism-collectivismaspect, which refers to the tendency of a country to focus on individuals versus the good of the group.
  • The second Hofstede dimension is power distance, that is, how willing people are to accept unequal distributions of power.
  • The third is uncertainty avoidance, which means how willing the culture is to accept not knowing future outcomes.
  • A masculine-feminine dimension refers to the acceptance of traditional male and female characteristics.
  • Finally, Hofstede focused on a country’s long-term orientation versus short-term orientation in decision making.
  • Other aspects of culture include norms, values, rituals, and material culture.Norms are the generally accepted way of doing things, and values are those things the culture finds important. Every country has its own set of rituals for ceremonies but also for everyday interactions. Material culture refers to the material goods, such as art, the culture finds important.
  • Other HRM aspects to consider when entering a foreign market are the economics, the law, and the level of education and skill level of the human capital in that country.


  1. Visit and view the cultural dimensions of three countries. Then write a paragraph comparing and contrasting all three.