I’m sharing this experience with the intention of inviting my two readers to reflect on the common misconceptions we have when our knowledge of a certain topic is not extensive. As a tourist, and even as a temporary worker, it’s easy to believe that we understand the culture of a country, when in reality, we’ve only dipped our toes into a different world. There is an additional layer of difficulty when we’re not really proficient in the local language.

Over the years, I’ve learned that a lot of people tend to think that Latin America is mostly beaches, colonial cities, and old buildings. Also, I’ve seen that people who are not familiar with other cultures tend to imagine that immigrants from the Third World are mostly refugees running away from poverty and crime. And while in a general sense, we all look for a safer and better place to live,  a lot of immigrants come from a not-so-impoverished place. Latin America is huge and encompasses all these contrasting realities.


While working and studying in Canada the last 6 years, I have been exposed to  several organizations, national and international large companies, as well as small local companies, and I did not find any unknown and exceptional practice, except for fairly new trends, such as recruiting using Social Media, or designing training for mobile devices.

Furthermore, in different occasions I found outdated practices and when I designed new projects, part of my inspiration frequently came from projects I did ten years ago.  Of course, I realize that this contrast is due to organizational competencies and individual skills, and not because is a regional or national trend.

Latin America  has a lot of  industrialized cities, with large companies that have cutting-edge technology and practices. Cities that have a bigger population than Canada, for example, tend to become industrialized, have high level of competition, welcome foreign investments and are not limited to a certain type of industry. Foreign companies continue using their own global practices, perhaps adapting them to the reality of the market. I had the opportunity to see how the Japanese, North American and Mexican practices were integrated in one culture in our plant.

Professionals from industrialized third-world cities are quite similar to the first-world professionals: they tend to travel to different countries, read relevant books and other resources from global experts, and network with professionals from any number of countries.  I went to Brazil in 2010 and met people from Chile, Colombia, Argentina, and Brazil that were using the same techniques than our colleagues in the US and Europe.

Additionally, it is not unusual that these professionals learn different languages, obtain Master and PhD degrees (regardless the country where they’re offered), and are open to learn, try and adapt best practices, to meet their needs.

I would like to share a reflection that my husband had when talking with someone from NASA who said that they have the “brightest minds” from India and other countries:  NASA probably has the brightest minds that were willing to immigrate to the US.  Often, the brightest minds will stay in their own countries, unless there is no real opportunity to grow there.

As HR/OD professionals, we need to remember that talent and innovation need to be cultivated, and both are needed to generate competitive advantages. If we hire people that we are familiar with, that watched the same movies, read the same books, went to the same schools, we’re excluding our organization from the rich and abundant experience other people have.


Hiring an eagle to fly in a cage

Building the talent needed for a company is a challenging activity. You should hire the candidate taking into account the job requirements, but also keeping in mind that this person will be part of the pool of talent that will meet the company’s need in the future. You need to create the right mix of external talent and internal candidates.

In Mexico, back in 1998, I read several discouraging job descriptions.  The usual scenarios were entry-level positions that required a very young person (let’s say younger than 25) with 3 years of experience (yes, for an entry-level position), a bachelor degree, bilingual, with initiative, leadership, ambition, and a nice presence (yes, in Mexico you can practically say “good-looking”); the salary was barely the average in the market.  The position would probably be for a clerk, or administrative assistant.  While these two roles are important in the organization, the opportunity to show initiative, leadership and ambition probably will never happen, and the opportunity to grow within the company will also be limited, as a stigma for having been an administrative assistant will persist within the organization. In Latin America, it is still common to hire an eagle to fly in a cage.

Eagle In Cage

Vertical and lateral experience vs. stability?

The recruitment process here is quite different, although cages are still around. While in LatAm we want to discover almost all the abilities and competencies that the person may have, and see how she can grow in the company, in Canada the main focus of the recruiter seems to be finding if the candidate has recently done what the new position requires.  Sometimes, to easily find the right fit, the job description asks for 8 years of experience in the same job; I’m sure about this, I just applied to one of them, after wondering about the extent of flexibility, challenge and growth I may have in the really remote case I’m hired (as I haven’t had that role here in Canada).  Perhaps the hiring manager or the recruiter don’t understand that one year lived 8 times, is not the same as 8 years of experience in roles that are related and that build up for the experience needed for the role.

From what I have seen, the recent experience needs to match with the job description, either to be filtered by the Applicant Tracking System, or because this may bring stability (which is not as important as it used to be). The job description is carved in stone for some employees, who may think that their activities are limited to the 10-15 tasks described in it,  which would explain why the Canadians (IMHO) seem to be tied to strict and limited roles.  It may also hinder the HR planning process in the company and discourage valuable employees. I remember how people reacted when an Accounts receivable employee took an extended sick leave and I took some of her responsibilities to ensure we paid our providers and received our client’s payments. This was not part of my role, of course, as I was in a different area, but the correct functioning of our company was more important to me than my job description.

Competencies vs. industry experience

I have also learned that the recruiters tend to hire having solely the open position requirements in mind. They don’t seem to mind if the person is a seasoned HR manager in, let’s say a manufacturing company, if the open position is in an Aeronautical company. Despite the similarities of the job, the experience that the person may have will be disregarded, as HR will look for someone with experience in the same industry (which in Montreal would be reduced to 4-6 companies).  Using the Competency-based Interview, recruiters may find valuable candidates that come from different fields, and see if the competency they look for can be transferred from one field to another one.  I would bet any day on the competency than on the field experience. Competencies such as Adaptability or Interpersonal rapport -just to mention two- are not easy to develop, while learning the most relevant information in an industry may go from 6 months (the normal learning curve for the job, anyway) to a year.

Foreign talent

One of the most puzzling concepts I found here was the famous Canadian experience.  Perhaps because I was young and naive, this didn’t seem a bizarre concept before I arrived to Montreal -as I idealized the working culture and the North American efficiency- but in less than a year, I understood that this requirement was probably due to the fact that a lot of Canadians think that Latin America cities look more or less like Varadero streets. I’m not joking, one of my friends at work was very ashamed after she asked me if we had tall buildings in my city and I showed her this picture of Monterrey.

In general, people who have a solid career abroad, would need to start all over again, because we lack the famous Canadian experience. Fortunately, it’s not a difficult thing to do, given that the employee had previously worked in competitive companies, but it does take time and we hate to waste it. Don’t get me wrong, but we didn’t leave a mid to high-level position and promising career in our home land, to stay for years in entry level positions here.  The immigration requirements are demanding: at least a bachelor degree, 5 years of experience in the same field, and one or two additional languages.   In my case, I discovered that a all  the “new” practices I saw here, were common knowledge in the last decade in my city (I’m not speaking only of my company, as I was part of Future HR lab, back in 2006).  Yes, I agree that we cannot assume that everyone will fit in the Canadian culture, or work in the same way that the rest, but I can be sure that anyone from a major city in LatAm is even used to more working hours, more competition, more demands and less resources.  Again, a competency-based interview and a couple google searches, will help recruiters to bring very talented people who will be happy to work for your organization.

I just hope to see that eagles are welcomed here, and the cages eventually vanish.