Guest Column - March/April 2009

Rewards Beyond Borders

Cultural Considerations for Global Incentive Programs

By Michelle M. Smith, CPIM, CRP


wenty-seven percent of the employees in U.S.-based multinational companies work outside of the United States. In some cases, Americans are working abroad, but in most cases, those employees are local to the country in which the company is operating, and they come to work each day with very different sets of cultural norms and beliefs than their American colleagues. If you're running—or contemplating—an incentive program outside America's borders, you'd be well served to fully understand those cultural values and beliefs.

However, we don't have to venture past our own borders to be faced with this issue. Our increasingly diverse workforce right here at home makes this a topic on which we all need to be fluent if we expect to fully engage our employees and optimize our program results.

Cultural context may be more pronounced in its home country, but employees everywhere are highly sensitive to missteps that pertain to their cultural beliefs. No one wants to receive a malfunctioning award, but the scars of a cultural faux pas will be much deeper and longer felt than many of the other snafus that are bound to occur in an incentive or recognition program.

By improving our awareness and understanding of cultural differences and how culture impacts behavior, we show respect for program participants, improve performance and may even decrease program costs by avoiding problems. Let's take a look at a few cultural contrasts and how to address them effectively.