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HR Challenges with Corporate Expansion into Southeast Asia

Published On: June 11, 2020

Anyone in a thriving business with their eyes set on the world stage must understand that taking an organization to a global level will mean dealing with a variety of unfamiliar HR issues from policies and procedures to the people themselves. All countries and regions around the world have different workforces and environments that lead to ranges of HR challenges.

Consider the expansion of European and North American companies into Southeast Asian countries like Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines. Each company will most likely take great efforts to ensure a consistent corporate culture and high work ethic is introduced and maintained in new locations. However all the differences inherent in the people and culture of those countries creates a need for professionals who have taken human resources courses who can navigate the HR struggles a company might face.

The Need for Human Resources Courses when Expanding

As the world grows smaller for global companies, those who have taken human resources courses online or in-person will need to provide support and an understanding of the differences in HR between one region and another. HR professionals with the background of human resources courses will be able to identify whether blending regional and existing company standards is best or if an assimilation of those existing policies and procedures will better serve the company.

Of course, diverse workforces aren’t new in today’s business environment and professionals with human resources courses taken online or in-person are a necessary part of a management team. However, when the company itself is the “new kid in town” as opposed to an employee or two joining an existing organization, it’s a completely different scenario. Understanding regional differences can make or break an expanding company’s success in a new country and professionals who have taken human resources courses will be key in making it happen.

Expected Challenges in Southeast Asia for Expanding Businesses

It goes without saying that there are a number of differences between Southeast Asian countries and their North American or European counterparts. Some of these will challenge the learning from human resources courses taught online or in-person because what is meaningful to one culture is not necessarily important in another. Motivational factors, satisfaction drivers and appreciation of team dynamics will all differ. Here are five challenges HR professionals can expect when they are part of the team taking a company into a Southeast Asian country.


The concept of “I am the boss, therefore I am always right” is known by the term kiasu. Those in management and supervisory positions are often in those roles due to age and time with the company, which seldom makes for great management skills. Not only is existing management likely to be lacking in leadership skills, employees tend to keep their heads down and their mouths shut in such an environment.

It’s a far way off from the “fall into my arms” trust-building style of team building so often seen in North American workplaces. North Americans and Europeans are also much more comfortable with speaking up when something doesn’t appear right. Unfortunately in a kiasu-driven culture, for HR to get any real feedback there must be an entirely anonymous delivery method.

Lack of Succession Planning and Retention Challenges

Many Southeast Asian companies lack in their ability to provide meaningful job-growth opportunities. This has led to a retention issues, especially within middle-management. What employees hope for and what they may have been told in terms of advancement or progression may not materialize leading to bitterness, a lack of commitment and a lack of loyalty.

Additionally, many workers in Southeast Asia feel that they are not rewarded appropriately and that their work-life balance is definitely out of balance. Unfortunately in organizations where this has happened consistently, word gets around, recruitment becomes a challenge and even those that have a succession plan may find that their plan can’t be put into action.

This is an opportunity for new companies to ensure they “walk the talk”, but they also must ensure they are seen as trustworthy and open to providing advancement.

Language Barriers

Because Southeast Asian countries are long-established regions with dense populations, there are a number of ethnicities and languages in a small geographical space. Although English has become more prevalent in recent years, it still isn’t the language of choice in all areas. HR teams will be challenged to ensure employees can communicate with each other while they must also find efficient ways to deliver corporate communications and information essential to the workforce, job satisfaction and company success.

Conflicting Employee Baselines

Any company looking to expand to a global platform is going to have a mixture of existing employees and new regional employees. Aside from cultural differences there will be generational differences and these may not be at the same baseline as those that are familiar to HR professionals.

For example, Southeast Asian millennials may have a greater awareness and adoption of western culture and practices, but they will still be tied to their local roots. This has led to an obvious greater use of technology as well as an increase in education and business education. However, while they are aware of business operations and corporate standards, there is a general lack of experience and hands-on knowledge and these younger workers will need nurturing and mentoring in order to grow into their education. For some companies, taking on a few millennials may be the right choice, but an entire workforce of them would be taxing on resources.

Growing Economies

Southeast Asia is seeing a significant level of economic growth from both existing and new companies in the region. This can put a strain on workforce retention as well as creating internal conflicts over great performers. While someone is doing a great job in their role in Southeast Asia, others within the company may recognize that performance and plan to move top-performers out to other regions before replacements are properly trained and before the individual is ready.

Growing a business on a global scale is exciting and challenging for HR professionals. Everything they’ve learned in their human resources program will be put to the test as they navigate the range of cultural and regional differences while ensuring harmony and balance within the workforce.

Read our other blog: Human Resources Career in Canada


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