Catherine Trombley: Holidays are in the eye of the beholder

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The end-of-the-year customer satisfaction surveys were in. As I glanced through the stack, a message in all-caps from a South American customer stood out, “please reduce your downtimes around ridiculous holidays such as Thanksgiving and Labor Day as this causes an interruption for our staff”.

To provide a spin-off of an old adage, “Vacation is in the eye of the beholder”. Surely any American reading this comment would be aghast to hear such time-honored traditions being treated so lightly. For those who are not aware, Labor Day in the USA and Canada is on the first Monday of September and brings summer to a close. Compared to the rest of the world which celebrates Labor Day on May 1st this is indeed an oddity.

On the other hand May 1st in the USA and Canada is just any other work day and those of us who do business internationally find it a slow and frustrating day for getting things done since the rest of the world is not there.

Thanksgiving is a New World tradition celebrated in the USA on the fourth Thursday of November that commemorates the discovery of America and the bounties the settlers found in the New World. This holiday results in a four-day weekend for most. Note: Canada and other Central and South American celebrate Thanksgiving or related holidays typically in October. For Americans Thanksgiving is emblematic of family and stirs warm images of childhood. Americans drive, fly, bus or take the train on this holiday to be reunited with their loved ones if only for that one holiday dinner.

Curious to see how our holidays compared with our client’s I did a quick Google search. In this client’s particular South American country there were certainly many holidays of which I had no previous knowledge; In fact 4 of these tied to that country’s battles for Independence in 4 different months. Not to mention that this particular client is closed for 1 week at Easter and 2 weeks in December for Christmas and New Year’s—when our office is closed a lack-luster four days if we are lucky to have Christmas fall near a weekend.

International HR managers reading this will probably relate to the frustration that can mount around a perceived inequality of vacation days and holiday benefits between country offices and subsidiaries and the complaints that arise as result.

What’s that you say? The staff in Latin America gets a 13th month of salary at the end of the year regardless of performance? The staff in the Middle East gets a week off at the end of Ramadan and works reduced hours?

The reality is that our holidays are reflective of our cultures and values. The world as we know it of Blackberrys, i-Phones and 24/7 connectivity is just over a decade old (the Blackberry came out in 1998). Whereas these holidays that may seem archaic and superfluous to an outsider are centuries old. Some workaholic souls will likely connect briefly on these days, but that is their prerogative not their duty.

Perhaps as HR practitioners we would do well to remind our staff not only of the importance of respecting our global colleagues’ cultures, but also of planning ahead and communicating. If you waited to the last minute to work on a proposal and you now cannot make the deadline because you need input from half-way across the world, is that really your vacationing colleague’s fault? On the flip side, if you know you have your 5-weeks yearly vacation coming up, would it not be a polite courtesy to let your teammates know your availability?

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About Catherine Trombley

An international professional, Catherine Trombley brings an innovative approach to the world of international insurance at Rutherford Financial Services Inc. In an industry so focused on the needs of individuals and groups, a truly personalized approach is needed.

Prior to coming to Rutherfoord, Catherine was involved in translation and interpretation. She dealt with clients across a wide range of lifestyles from Embassy personnel to underpriviledged medical patients. My experiences in this field have taught me the need for clear communication across cultures as well as how critical it is to understanding multiple points of view when attempting to disseminate knowledge across a linguistic or cultural barrier.

Bilingual in Spanish and English, fluent in French, with knowledge of Portuguese and Arabic, Catherine is always interested in connecting with people... if it can be in their native language, all the better!

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  1. Ironically we decided this Xmas that it would be the last year we could run a full ‘office shutdown’ in the period between Xmas and New Year. I say ironically because our business is the supply of an absence management system!

    Even though our shutdown period does not adversely affect the vast majority of our customers, we simply feel that it’s good Customer Service practice to have someone on call during this period.

    For multi-national companies a system like e-days (ahem, excuse the pitch) solves some of the problems outlined in the article, as staff across the globe can see the upcoming public holidays for divisions in different countries.

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