It is a common practice to hire anthropologists to represent the interests of the company in matters of Social Responsibility. For example, mining companies often hire anthropologists who specialize in environmental impact and community relations when extraction and production of mineral resources activities begin. However, and at the same time, they are mediators between the community and the company, since the goal of social responsibility is precisely to positively impact the community where the organization works.
Similarly, technological changes that occur rapidly at a global level, which have generated changes in how companies are created and managed, coupled with the exponential use of social networks and the diversity of new virtual and non-virtual products the Internet offers, have made it almost mandatory to use anthropology to support market research and product design, and to analyze customers’ buying and consumption experiences.
But something not very widespread, especially in Latin America, is the added value that anthropologists can bring in human resources matters, or as the Professor Guido Stein of the IESE Business School at the University of Navarra says in the “management of people”. And by applying the anthropological lens to people management, we can help businesses to fulfill the mission and achieve the vision advising them in the selection of HR practices that best fit the needs of all those who are part of an organization (that is, the “stakeholders”), especially those that in corporate communications we call “internal clients”. Because not everything in a company is to satisfy customers (external agents as foreign to the internal dynamics of the company), but also to make the practices that workers carry out in their daily activities very productive.
What do I understand by Human Resources in an organization?
Given my wide experience using administrative, psychological, and anthropological perspectives, in my opinion Human Resources is a system composed of five basic processes (organizational design, recruitment and selection, organizational development, compensation and benefits management, labor relations). Within these processes there are procedures (for example in organizational development there are procedures about training, internal communications, culture management, leadership, among others) which are composed of practices and tools (in talent acquisition we can mention the use of tests, or the way in which recruitment advertisements are written) that vary according to the industry, technology and / or material resources available, and the needs of each organization.
How Anthropology contributes to the management of people within an organization?
Although this is not a complete list, anthropology can make very specific and valuable contributions in the following areas:
– Expats Management
Probably on “intercultural communications” we have read before, referred to as “business etiquette” in some countries. That is, cultural customs that facilitate business according to idiosyncrasy of each society (or country). For example, who should pay for business lunches, the best time to do the meetings, or how we should behave depending on the hierarchical level of the one with whom we negotiate. And although intercultural relations apply to business management in general, the management of expatriate staff is a much broader matter.
In my experiences in international environments, it has been important to ensure a complete orientation process, not only to the company, but to local customs, and not only for the employees but also for the relatives who accompany them in the process of relocation. For example, in Venezuela, Honduras, and El Salvador, the issue of physical security is relevant, so workshops on prevention are mandatory, since expats from the US or Canada, for example, haven’t had exposure to high levels of urban violence in their origin countries. It is important to carry out a process of adjustment to the company and the city, which aims to reduce the cultural shock.
Likewise, designing work processes with an anthropological attitude, that is, recognizing the differences between locals and expats, providing tools that allow them to mix to achieve common goals, even when there are important cultural differences, makes performance and teamwork much more effective. An example of this is punctuality. Canadians for example are always punctual, while in LATAM what punctuality means varies (it may be just in time, 5 or 10 minutes later, an hour later); managing these differences seems like a detail, but in daily activities it affects the organizational climate.
– Organizational Culture
Perhaps it is in this process that an anthropological attitude necessarily drifts into better practices. And I’d dare to say that Anthropologists are the ideal professionals for this procedure, because companies, like every social entity, also has a culture, that is, a series of patterns that organize the behavior of their individuals. These patterns are not only given by the procedures that employers themselves have designed (manuals, policies, codes of conduct), but also by group dynamics, inter-departmental dynamics (the “hallway behavior”, knowing whom to ask or not, groups of influence, etc.), and interdependence with the methods or production that affect the behavior of individuals (material and / or technological resources sometimes shape specific group dynamics).
I believe that Anthropology can and should appropriate this procedure of management of organizational culture, since its methods (especially ethnography and participant observation) can document how culture is, then intervene to change it (if necessary), or simply to design strategies for its consolidation.
Within the organizational culture, a fundamental element is the type of leadership that is implemented in the different organizational levels. Anthropologists have the tools to make descriptions of the dynamics of leadership, and the symbolic relationships it implies.
Another element of the culture that is strongly emphasized today is the organizational learning style of a company, and how workers assimilate continuous changes in technology, and how they transform information to innovate in processes. Change Management is a suitable task for anthropologists who can intervene to achieve innovation and competitiveness within organizations.
– Wellness Management
Here we can circumscribe all the practices that are oriented to include in compensation systems, specific benefits, or those practices that are included within the management of climate and organizational culture. A typical example of how an anthropologist can advise on benefits is as follows: Transnational corporations with tight benefit procedures tend to apply the same manual in all countries where they work, and not always the same benefits or wellness activities (corporate events) have the same impact on employees.
The social security (health) system, for example, and how it is valued by employees is not the same in all countries. While in Venezuela offering the full payment of private medical insurance is highly attractive for workers, in Colombia or Peru, where the Health Service Entities (EPS) merge with the public social security system, it is the coverage in a given percentage of the payment corresponding to the worker what becomes attractive.
Another example is the common “sick days” payment policy in the US. There is no obligation to pay sick days, so if a company offers this payment, it becomes a benefit, but this practice does not apply in countries where sick days are paid by law, even up to 30 days.
This type of activities tend to have an impact on labor relations, especially if there are union organizations within the company, since the management of benefits and wellness programs is what is mainly discussed in union agreements. That the employers are well advised in this matter, not so much from the point of view of law (for which they may hire lawyers), but from the point of view of the local culture, is fundamental.
– Recruitment and Selection of Personnel (Talent Acquisition)
An “anthropological attitude” can greatly benefit the processes of talent acquisition, with the aim of making it more efficient. First, we can do qualitative and quantitative labor market studies if a company wants to know in detail the reasons for its difficulty in filling specific positions, or if it wants to relocate in a particular country. In the same way we can do macro analysis on the labor market in a specific region, and develop public policies that improve employability.
Second, recruitment campaigns can also be “tailored” according to the locality in question, as recruiting in large or small cities is not the same, and strategies must fit local knowledge (how ads are written, where they are published, legal limitations on discrimination, among others matters).
Third, there is something I call “cultural management of interviews” (if you live in areas with ethnic communities this is essential), since in national and international talent acquisition projects, knowing what can be and cannot be asked, how to structure the interviews, and knowing the culture of whom we interview is indeed an “anthropological way” of making talent acquisition.
How an Anthropologist becomes professional in Human Resources?
I think all of us, as professionals, are different. In my case I studied psychology, I specialized in business management and organizational psychology, and then I understood that there is an anthropological way of analyzing and doing things in HR departments, which results in greater productivity, so I decided to do a formal master’s degree in Anthropology. That is why if something I can suggest to someone who started with anthropology and wants to work in people management is to guide their acquisition of knowledge towards the area of Organizational Behavior and Development.
Based on this idea, counting on a theoretical and empirical framework that allows us to describe, analyze and interpret the group dynamics (including social dynamics) that run within a company, with the aim of intervening to improve processes, and increase productivity (as it’s the goal of all profit institutions, but also non-profit organizations that provide social welfare) makes anthropology an exceptional tool for effective people management.
To conclude, Anthropologists have the tools required to intercede in companies in the management of human resources (people), and provide employers with local knowledge of their employees and the community where it is located. In the same way we can intervene in the change processes due to acquisition of new technologies, mergers (of companies), and relocation of operations. Anthropology is also an attitude, and a filter through which we interpret realities, consequently covers the entire business system, from corporate strategy, guiding the practices (and even the tools) of each of the HR processes.
The position of “Organizational Anthropologist” may well exist inside organizations as much as there are accountants, administrators, or coordinators. However, I consider that its influence can be located at a strategic level rather than in an administrative level, since the “holism” (scientific) on which anthropology bases its practice allows to summarize all the human aspects that a business strategy can consider. And when I refer to human aspects, I refer not only to organizational behavior per se, but also to the relationship of people with their work tools, technological changes, geographic context, and the predominant culture (or philosophy) of work in a particular society (culture).
 In my experience, the vast majority of small and medium companies do not have a documented “organizational culture”, which generally impacts negatively all HR processes, since there are no specific guidelines on general aspects of the company.
 In Spanish EPS is for ”Empresas Prestadoras de Salud”.