Overseas conflict tricky for HR

Canadian HR professionals must work with leaders and HR in host country to resolve conflicts involving expats.


Workplace conflict is normal — it’s natural for groups of individuals to disagree when working together. However, it is not desirable to have ongoing and highly charged workplace conflict. Interpersonal conflict affects team performance and conflict between employees and managers is a leading driver of costly absence problems and disability claims.

These are big enough problems when occurring in the office but when conflict arises among a relocated employee and local workers overseas, it raises a host of new problems for HR professionals. Given the cost of relocating employees for international placements, the premature return or decreased productivity of even a small percentage of personnel can be a considerable economic cost.

HR needs to consider the situation of the expatriate on placement, and the national corporate situation or culture he has entered. Getting along well in a Canadian workplace does not ensure a good match for every culture, and each placement will be unique. The location and the workplace will have norms of communication and expectations of style and manners. Adapting to a new culture, country and working environment can result in elevated stress and conflict, as well as decreased morale.

One thing HR must take into account is how long the relocated employee has been in the host country. “When an expatriate is new to the country, the culture and position they are in put them through an intense period of transition. Conflict at this early stage in the placement can be partially due to the stress of adjustment for the employee, which may be affecting their level of patience, demeanour or usual level of interaction,” said Brooke Owen, an expatriate and conflict resolution professional at Human Solutions in Vancouver.

Conflicts that occur later in the placement may be due to ongoing stress and the cumulative effects of being away from home or family. Many cultural distinctions and nuances that were charming and interesting early in a placement can become difficult to deal with as deadlines loom and pressure builds. Job pressures tend to cause people to revert to their usual way of managing and coping and this can be in conflict with the prevailing culture overseas.

Conflict that occurs overseas can also be caused by many of the normal drivers of conflict, such as competing needs for resources or finances, lack of compatibility and patience, a misunderstanding of expectations or lack of management and leadership.

What drives conflict among global teams?

Four common drivers of interpersonal conflict in global teams are:

  • language issues
  • suspicion or lack of trust
  • role ambiguity
  • lack of clarity or change in expectation of the job.

For expatriates, it can also be about poor management. Local management often assumes an expatriate is being managed by the home office or out-of-country head office. This can lead to misunderstandings about role, poor behaviour due to a lack of accountability and even workplace and social isolation for an expatriate.

Among local employees overseas, there may be fear or suspicion regarding an expatriate, lack of understanding of his role or the nature of the assignment and a lack of trust or willingness to work with him.

Steps to take before relocation

There are some important steps that can be taken prior to a placement to prevent conflicts:

  • Prepare the host country team for the arrival with cross-culture training.
  • Provide the host country team with as much information as possible about the assignment.
  • Provide the potential candidate with cultural sensitivity training prior to departure.
  • Conduct a thorough pre-departure assessment for the expatriate to identify potential difficulties or indicators this employee may not be suitable for a placement overseas.
  • Include accompanying family in the pre-departure assessment, since family adjustment issues are a common reason assignments end early and are a major stressor and driver of conflict for the employee.

For a Canadian HR professional dealing with an overseas conflict, it’s important to fully understand the situation by speaking to an employee’s local supervisor and liaising with the local HR department.

In some cases, the conflict may stem from specific cultural differences and lack of trust. Providing both parties with cross-cultural training and absolute clarity about roles, expectations and the purpose of an assignment can help each party gain a basic understanding of each other and dissipate any wariness they may have about each other’s motivations.

Family concerns

For some expatriates, family disruption and discord occurs when the family has accompanied them to the new location. Isolation of a spouse, poor adaptation for teens, difficulty obtaining medical care or education suited to their children’s needs are fairly common challenges.

Expatriates with family back in Canada have their own concerns, face different areas of risk and may have added travel pressures. These family and social pressures complicate the placement and may lead to conflict at work and even an unsuccessful assignment.

Building trust and helping each employee stay on task and on project takes a great deal of work but this can be achieved with help from local resources. Utilizing local leadership can help mitigate the risk of a conflict spiralling out of control while the Canadian HR professional is thousands of kilometres away, unable to intervene effectively.

A team approach with Canadian HR, local HR and management is often needed in these situations. In addition, a team approach will be a great model for the conflicted employees to follow and a way for both Canadians and local employees to work well together.

Judith Plotkin is the Toronto based vice-president of business development at Human Solutions, an employee assistance, disability and health management firm providing global services and predeparture assessments for employers. She can be reached at (866) 850-5824 or [email protected] For more information, visit www.humansolutions.ca.

© Copyright Thomson Reuters Canada Ltd., December 14, 2009, Toronto, Ontario, (800) 387-5164. Web site: http://www.hrreporter.com