Employees in Kenya

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My article ‘Attract, retain and find employees in Kenya’ has originally been published on the CUBE IN platform of the EU, for SME’s in emerging markets.


The 5 most important things to know about managing employees in Kenya are the following:

  • Bosses are expected to have a rather directive management style. Subordinates respect the superior who takes the lead and gives clear instructions.
  • It’s crucial that a manager takes care of his/her employees (and their families). The employees will remain loyal and follow leadership, as long as they feel they are being supported, both at work as well as in their personal lives.
  • Employees are more hesitant to take the initiative and tell the manager there are issues or concerns. Information flow from bottom up is a challenge and needs continuous attention from management.
  • Meetings are often used as a means of explaining the way forward. The manager solicits viewpoints and opinions before the meeting, makes up his/her mind and then conveys the decisions during the meeting.
  • Fun activities like a yearly party or other smaller celebrations are well received and are good for social relations and keeping up the spirits.

Short Introduction

In Africa, with a relatively high power distance, a powerful man is often portrayed as a mighty tree. In the team building sessions that the author of this article facilitated in the past, people were asked to draw themselves and where they wanted to be in ten years’ time. There would always be a few ‘trees’ in the room. When a powerful man dies, it is common to say: ‘A mighty tree has fallen.’ Subordinates are able to sit underneath this tree, benefitting from the shade and the fruits. This is a powerful image which is easy to keep in the back of one’s mind. In hiring employees, you will be perceived as a tree and the subordinates underneath will look at you for their well-being.

Attracting and finding employees

There are two main ways of finding new employees. The first is the formal way: through advertisement and job interviews with objective and transparent selection criteria. This worldwide best practice is also used frequently in Kenya and will allow your business to find the personnel you’re looking for. Secondary schools enrollment are up, from 25,7% in 2002 to net 48% in 2009. Also, tertiary education enrollment significantly increased from 4% in 2009 to 11,6 % in 2016. These figures tend to be a bit higher than in other African countries, such as Nigeria, Ghana or Tanzania.[1] Yet, internal training will often be necessary and on-the-job-coaching is also very common.

Secondly, while finding business partners is often done via referrals and the business network (as described in the article on finding partners), this is also true for starting or building the workforce. There’s a funny cartoon from Ivory Coast about job interviews. A manager from the US is portrayed, asking the applicant: “What can you do?” The French manager is asking for diplomas, while the manager from Ivory Coast asks: “Who sent you here?” This basic principle is true for Kenya as well: employees often get introduced, either by a business partner or by another employee, saying his ‘brother’ (which might also be a cousin or a neighbour) is able to do the job.

In Europe, this is often frowned upon. Generally, Europe is more individualistic: one needs to give the same right to every individual and refrain from favouritism. In a collectivistic society, however, it is morally correct to provide somebody from your in-group with a job opportunity.

Apart from this difference in understanding of morals, hiring personnel in this manner is also a form of risk mitigation. Of course, it is necessary to find out whether the person is, objectively, up to the job. In addition, the introducer will feel responsible for the new employee and usually will go out of his/her way to assure that the novice will perform up to standards. After all, if the new employee is not performing well, it will negatively impact the credibility of the introducer. The manager can speak to the introducer first, to discuss any issues he/she may have with respect to the novice. In other words: the introducer acts as an intermediary. This can be considered a local form of delegation of the often centralised power.

Another question may arise: is it a good idea to have the majority of the employees from the same ethnic background or should one rather strive for diversity among Kenyan staff? The answer is not straightforward. There are advantages and disadvantages to both options. The truth is that local SMEs in Kenya are generally homogeneous with people from the same tribe. Information flows fast internally and there’s a shared value of responsibility towards each other and a surrounding larger community to enforce it. The most important reason to choose personnel from the same ethnic background is to prevent internal conflicts or mistrust, which may occur in multi-ethnic teams and organizations. On the other hand, homogeneity could jeopardize skills and talent management. It may also influence innovation since diversity brings a variety of viewpoints. Finally, diversity may lead to a larger variety of clientele and thus more market share. Ethnicity is a sensitive topic and is not easily discussed. Yet there is more diversity than visible at first sight and as an employer it is considered wise to be aware of it.

Motivation and expectations from a manager

Research shows that the number one motivational factor for employees, which forms the best chance to retain internally trained personnel, is the assurance that the company (and especially the direct manager) will take care of them.[2] In a hierarchical culture like Kenya, a powerful man is respected and instructions are followed. In return for such loyalty, the employee seeks protection and care. The relationship between boss and subordinate, therefore, is more personal rather than just contractual and is comparable to a patron-client relationship.

In case the employee has personal problems at home, he/she expects the boss to take this into account or even to help out. Many companies provide health care for their employees and their families. Housing may sometimes be provided; transport from and to the working sites or the possibility for a leave in case one has to go to the village for a funeral. In essence, this is the first motivating factor and it is definitely a tool in the reward system of the Kenyan manager.

While power distance remains important, recent research among the Kenyan business leaders shows that 77% of the respondents would prefer to see less hierarchy than they currently witness within society.[3] Especially among the younger generation, there seems to be a need for a more inspirational, people-oriented leadership style and there is room for experiments with new forms of participation. One needs to keep in mind, however, that people prefer harmonious relationships and the ‘us-against-them’ dynamic of the western style works council will usually not have the desired effect. Finding innovative ways of involving employees in decision-making, possibly inspired by local custom or indigenous channels for speaking up, can also be very motivating.

The third motivating factor we’d like to mention is the boss regularly contacting an employee, being interested both in his/her well-being as well as in the progress of the work. In the north of Europe, with a relatively low power distance, one may assume that no news is good news and that the subordinates will come to the manager, in case there is an issue in the workplace. In Kenya, employees will be more reluctant to take such an initiative and to ‘bother’ the manager. Therefore the information flow from bottom-up always needs more and special attention. Kenyan managers will go out of their way to find the necessary information to make good decisions (and to prevent wild strikes). They may often have informal informants, but they will also check, reconfirm and follow up. Subordinates expect a boss to be present in the workplace and to ask them how they are doing and about their work. This way the employee gets a chance to hint in case there’s an issue (look carefully for indirect clues!), and it is clearly understood that his or her work is important.

Short case study 

An organisation was going to set up an office in a new county and a lawyer from this region offered to introduce two possible employees to the new (European) manager. The manager had mentioned to all that the new employees would have one month of probation. After this month was over, he had the impression that one of the two was up to the job, while the other person was a bit too old and wouldn’t be able to keep up with the vibrant and innovative culture the manager had in mind.

So he called the employees one by one to his office and told one that he was hired, while the other would, unfortunately, not be able to continue the activities. That evening the news reached the lawyer and he was not just angry, he was furious.

Several cultural boundaries had been crossed. The manager had considered the hiring and firing to be his sole responsibility and had no idea that the lawyer had expected to see him first to discuss the issue and come up with a joint solution. He had looked at the situation purely from a task-based perspective and had not taken his own relationship with the lawyer into account, nor the relationship of the potential employees with the lawyer. With his direct way of communication he had inflicted pain on an elderly person from the community and he had not realised that the two candidates were ‘sitting underneath the tree’ of the lawyer. By sending one of them home like this, the manager had actually insulted the lawyer, since the latter had not had a chance to protect the elderly man.

Should the manager have hired a less performing candidate? The answer to that question is: it depends. It depends on the importance of the relationship with the lawyer. If the manager is taking care of this person (by providing work and income), there is surely a possibility of asking for a favour back at a certain moment in time. At all times, it should have been discussed with the lawyer first and it is also possible that the lawyer would have come up with a much better (and indirect) way to dismiss the elderly person, or offer something else in return than this manager has done.

The best lessons are learned when cultures clash and things go wrong. In the above case, the manager had to go out of his way to restore the relationship with the lawyer and he remained in close contact with the fired person and his family as well.


References & Interesting Links

  • African Studies Centre’s Country Portal: http://countryportal.ascleiden.nl/kenya
  • Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G.J., Minkov, M. Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010
  • Iguisi, Osarumwense (2014). African Values for the practice of HRM. Beykent University Journal of Social Sciences, Vol.7 No. 1, p. 56-77.
  • Jordans, E., Ng’wena, B., Spencer-Oatey, H.  (eds). Developing Global leaders: Insights from African case studies. Palgrave Macmillian, 2020
  • Pendatti, M. (2016). Cultural Implications on Management Practices in Cameroon (Thesis). University of Wales, Trinity Saint David.


[1] UNESCO figures in: Jordans, 2020, p. 79.

[2] Iguisi, 2014. Pendatti, 2016, pp. 164 and 184

[3] Jordan, 2020, pp. 218, 226 and 322


The original article can be found here: Attract, retain and find employees in Kenya