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HR Chronicles: The expat or the local – who’s to blame?



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What happens when HR is told an expatriate manager is responsible for two local resignations? Toyohiro Matsuda, head of HRD office at Mitsubishi Asia, tells a story about managing cultural differences. 

In my previous role as head of the global human resources department at the Tokyo headquarters, I had several experiences with expatriates from all over the world.

One particular incident that comes to mind was the day I received a letter from an Asian country, which appeared to be written in a strange Japanese dialect. As it turned out, it was actually a translation from English to Japanese, written by a non-native Japanese.

The memo was sent to alert me of an expat within the company, who it was claimed had mismanaged some local staff and had essentially let them resign, thanks to his pressuring style of management and supervision.

It was suggested we let this expat go and send him home because he was to blame for the resignations of at least two staff members.

Based on several previous cases, I knew there could be two outcomes – the expat was to blame, or the locally recruited staff were the problem because of poor performance or being bad hires in the first place.

I then sent a memo to the country head and asked him to look into it. He took this very seriously and conducted a fully fledged study on these allegations by interviewing almost every staff member in the office.

Based on his report, we found the accusations by the local staff who resigned were exaggerated, and that the expat manager was trying very hard to train them in every aspect of the business operations. But we also found the improvements of the local staff were poor because they were not capable of living up to the manager’s high standards. It basically came down to a mismatch between the management style of the expat in question and the poorly motivated local staff.

The mismatch between the enthusiastic and “stressful” style of management of rotating staff and the poorly motivated locally recruited staff with lower potential was the main cause of this “claim” letter.

The lessons in cultural differences in management learned from this case were vital and the example was used as part of our newly assigned rotating staff management seminar.

In fact, the case was modified and is now used as an anonymous case of alleged misconduct of local staff in Asia. The effectiveness of this case study has been obvious to us, and we have not seen this problem appear again in this past year.

“It basically came down to a mismatch between the management style of the expat in question and the poorly motivated local staff.”

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