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Triangulation, Surprises and Personal Growth: The Essence of the Thunderbird Emerging Market Laboratory Experience

We started our TEMLab consulting project with a pretty good idea of the client’s expectations for our deliverables: a marketing plan which included an online presence and rebranding of the company’s products, a plan to improve operations on the factory floor and an analysis of the company’s sales channels and cost structure. We spent the first couple of days at the office hashing out a contract that would clearly specify the areas and deliverables we would be working on as to avoid “scope creep” – consulting jargon for when the client system adds deliverables midway through the project.

 We presented the contract to our main client and she seemed excited about all the deliverables we planned on producing. Nevertheless, she asked for some time to think before signing it. The next day she said she agreed with everything on the contract, but that she wanted to add another deliverable: an analysis of the Human Resources situation at the company and recommendations for improvement. This was NOT part of the original agreement.

 We were reluctant to agree to her request as we had already promised quite a few big deliverables within the original functional areas she requested. We detected many opportunities for improvement and were eager to implement as many of the tools and theories we had learned at Thunderbird as to add the most value for the client system and the business. Our client explained that she thought her employees were lacking motivation but she didn’t know how to improve the situation. And, since her sweet and caring motherly demeanor makes it impossible to say “no” to her, we discussed the request as a team and promised we would do a quick analysis and provide some recommendations. However, we decided the HR analysis  would be more of a bonus deliverable, and we wouldn’t spend too much time on this area. She agreed.

 As we began assigning work amongst the team, I agreed to take on the HR part as a lighter counterpart to the quant-heavy cost analysis activities I would be focusing on. I began the discovery phase of data collection: meeting with the client to understand her needs and scheduling interviews with all of the factory workers, administrative staff and the two owners/managers (who are also our clients).

 True to our promise that this part would not be a major focus of our project, I did some basic research on factory related HR issues and theories, brainstormed some ideas with the team, and drafted a set of about 12 questions for the interviews. The questions to employees and management were very similar to ensure triangulation – asking the same question from different stakeholders to check the validity of the data. Kelly and I scheduled employee interviews together: Kelly for branding and I for HR.

Kelly interviewing Marissa for branding

One by one the employees came into the small meeting room, which is also where they eat lunch and spend their breaks. Some seemed visibly nervous about being interviewed while others seemed excited to get a chance to voice their issues and speak with foreigners, both of which were novelties for them. As I reflect back on the experience, the latter employees were much more relaxed and talkative; I suspect they already knew what questions to expect, our demeanors as interviewers, etc. 

Patricia interviewing Erica, a factory worker for HR data callection

What I discovered was astonishing. I had assumed, along with our client that the employees’ biggest complain would be the low salaries they received (even the most senior employees, some whom have been there for 14+ years receive a monthly minimum wage of 750 soles, approximately $268 USD). However, we were completely wrong. The employees’ biggest complaint and main de-motivator was their perceived lack of supervision, accountability, and quality control on the production floor. They also complained of the frustrating lack of communication/involvement from management with employees. These workers spend 9 hours a day in a very small, hot, dark, window-less production room, which they share with two industrial size ovens and other mixing machinery. They perform heavy-duty manual labor while constantly bumping into each other. In this context, and with more Western/Developed Country point of view, it shocked me that employees would request more supervision and communication with management before asking for better working conditions and/or money.

Even more interesting to me was that when asked about what they thought their ideal salary would be, a question suggested by the client, those who gave numbers would only ask for about 100 more soles per month. They seemed embarrassed for even voicing those numbers and would immediately proceed to provide a plethora of justifications for why they needed that raise  - ex: children’s schooling, babysitting, transportation, etc. Still, many others would defer completely from giving a number, just affirming that, considering the size of the company and its sales volumes, what they were paid a just amount, and that they believed their salaries would increase as the company grew. This belief is completely unjustified as they have colleagues who have worked for the company for over 14 years and still make the same minimum wage as the new comers.

Celebrating one of the factory worker's birthday at the office with delicious chocolate cake and Inka Cola

 My surprise slowly subsided as I pondered the context of the environment we are in and did some additional research on HR practices and culture in Peru. Firstly, most of the factory workers at our client’s company are women. In general, women as a group do not feel comfortable asking for raises, and when they do it, it is usually not because they think they deserve it, but because they need it for family and children. Furthermore, women tend to think much more communally, attaching their professional success to that of their employer (Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg). This tendency is still the case in developed countries like the US, so it is not surprising that, in a male-dominated Latin country such as Peru, the tendency would be even more pronounced.

 Secondly, most of these women come either from el campo (the countryside) or las Provincias, which are second level administrative subdivisions in Peru. These regions are generally much less developed and educated, and with higher levels of poverty than the bustling commercial hub of Lima. Additionally, the long history of economic and political volatility and high inflation rates meant that employers used to hire workers on a more temporary basis, creating a sense of insecurity in the psyche of the Peruvian working classes. Thus, it is easy to understand  why for many of the workers, having a steady job is their number 1 priority, and that they likely fear losing their jobs by asking for more money.

 Thirdly, as Prof. Mary Sully de Luque’s research on Human Resources Management in Peru suggests, employees expect strong, paternalistic leadership from their managers. According to Prof. Sully de Luque, like most Latin American countries, Peru is a high power-distance and high in-group oriented culture. These cultures “generally prefer leaders who are charismatic and team-oriented…friendly and compassionate as well as participative and prone to delegate” (The Complexity of Managing Human Resources in Peru by: Mary F. Sully de Luque and Lydia Aurora Arbaiza). These cultural characteristics help explain the employees’ yearning for greater supervision at work and more involvement of the employer/manager with them, including at a personal level.

 These findings came as a surprise to our client system as well. In the triangulation process, one of the owners thought the employees’ main issue was low pay while the other thought employees were generally happy since she did her best to give them a relaxed work environment and not micro-manage their work.

 As a consultant, this actually makes my job a lot easier. There are many free HR best practices which our clients can implement to improve their workers’ productivity and motivation. The only requirements are time and commitment. As a Latin American woman who grew up in the poor countryside of Brazil, I felt a strong connection to the employees; their attitudes, personalities and responses served as gentle reminders that I must be constantly vigilant of and manage those gender and cultural tendencies in my own career path. It was also a huge reminder of how lucky I am to have had the opportunity to move to the USA, get a top level education and pursue a fulfilling and lucrative career path.

 Clearly, the HR portion of the project ended up taking a much larger portion of my time than I had anticipated and intended it to…and I have loved every second of it.

Saludos desde Lima.

Patricia Brito