International talent: Asia integration is a 'two-way street'

In the wake of Toyota conceding it didn't do enough to help Julie Hamp integrate in Japan, what responsibilities does the PR industry have towards international employees?

Julie Hamp resigned from Toyota on July 1
Julie Hamp resigned from Toyota on July 1

One of the more surprising statements folowing the arrest in Japan of ex-Toyota global comms chief Julie Hamp on drugs charges came from Toyota, in which it accepted it could have done more to help her integrate when she moved from the US.

Following her arrest for importing the heavily regulated painkiller oxycodone (she was subsequently released without charge), the firm said: "We intend to learn from this incident to help ensure a secure working environment for everyone at Toyota around the world as we continue to take the steps necessary to become a truly global company."

The PR industry, especially at agency-level in Asia, is already "truly global". Many of the big agencies are headed up by expats and the lower levels are staffed by a mix of international and global talent.

What’s more, the movement of the brightest and the best between markets within Asia is also increasing, and it is being actively encouraged.

The vast majority of the leading agencies we spoke to have formal programmes in place to promote the merits of working in different countries. This is particularly beneficial in emerging Asian markets, where someone who has seen the development of the PR industry in one nation, is well-equipped to pass on his or her expertise in the next hot location.

But with such moves becoming more commonplace, what responsibilities do employers have when it comes to integration? After all, Asia is an especially diverse region, with vast variations in local laws, customs and expectations. Clearly, a move to Singapore will provide a far less bumpy landing than some of its neighbours in Southeast Asia and the wider region.

While many agencies like to promote the idea of international working as a staff retention strategy, few were prepared to go on the record to explain what policies they had in place to aid integration—especially in direct relation to Japan.

One agency head who was willing to share his views on the importance of developing a deep understanding of a new country was Hill+Knowlton’s John Morgan (pictured above). He is currently president and CEO of Asia, and president and CEO of Japan, based in Tokyo. He has previously lived in Hong Kong and Singapore.

"We take great pride in creating international career opportunities for our staff," he said. "When an individual transfers into a 'foreign' country, it’s important for both our firm and the individual to realize that this is not a vacation—it’s a high-pressure, real-time career commitment in an environment which may be unfamiliar. The responsibility lies with both our firm and the individual to ensure we set forward a path for success, whether it’s a short two- to three-year assignment, or a longer-term life and career commitment.

"When we do transfer our more experienced talent into new countries, of course we provide a wide array of career and logistical support, via both formal and informal ways. Formally, of course we support on what is legally required to work in a foreign country, from work visa’s to tax filings. We also provide assistance via consultants and even our own staff to prepare the transfers for life outside the office, from housing to schooling for their children, to whatever it takes to ensure the work and life experience is a success for both employee and our firm."

Even though he said Hill+Knowlton provided a great deal of support to its international transfers, he maintained there was always a significant amount of preparation the employee must do on their own.

"The passion to experience life abroad must be there, as well as the need to respect the fact that they are going to live in a country which has its own unique culture and rule of law," Morgan said. "They must dedicate time to learn about their new country, how they will adapt, and in some cases what is appropriate and not appropriate behavior.

"As an international transfer myself, having lived in Hong Kong, Singapore and now Japan, I’ve learned the importance of respect and doing my homework. Respect the fact that I am not at home—respect the country and its people and culture, and do whatever is necessary to ensure my family and myself enjoy and benefit from this wonderful experience. That’s not always readily apparent, though, so it’s important to do homework on where we’re going, how we’re getting there, the rules of play, and the support systems which are available."

Another senior exec, who asked not to be named, said he had experienced little in the way of formal integration policies. He first arrived in Asia almost a decade ago and said the experience was daunting.

"Integration was very much left in the hands of colleagues in that country," he said. "While they did their best to make me welcome and show me around, I felt it was very much a sink-or-swim situation. Thankfully I’m a strong swimmer!

"I moved again four years later, to another agency in another country, where I received far greater HR support around lifestyle, expectations and social norms. I think that is vital, there has to be more to HR than handing out a contract and helping you find a house."

Hamp should be able to rebuild her career elsewhere, and her experience will be a wake-up call to both employers and employees.

The responsibility will always lie with the individual, but as Toyota acknowledges, some employers need to do more to equip them with enough local knowledge to make the right decisions.

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