Investing in Culture Awareness Training

Eric Pengelly of K2 Corporate Mobility

Any international assignment which, depending on the individual’s overall salary and benefits package, is likely to cost your organisation between 2-5 times annual home based salary, is likely to be most successful when your employee and accompanying spouse/partner are both thoroughly prepared and briefed, and thus able to base their decision to accept the assignment on realistic expectations about the host location.

Organisations are increasingly concerned with ROI. Being well-prepared is key to a successful assignment, not just for the logistics of the physical move but in facilitating a smooth transition, enabling your employee to “hit the ground running”.

The importance of family

It is not just the employee who needs to be able to adjust quickly - accompanying dependants also need solid support and preparation. In many ways, the transition of dependents can be more difficult- they lack the “day job” and support network of colleagues and office/plant infrastructure. It is the accompanying spouse/partner who will have to cope with the absence of friends and family, and increasingly also with a loss of their career.

Instead they are expected to focus on dealing with day to day domestic activities such as shopping, schooling, health, driving, domestic staff etc., often in a foreign language and in an alien environment. Involving them in pre-assignment HR briefings, familiarisation visits and intercultural training courses, will be a major contribution to the assignment.. They will respect your company disproportionately more than the effort entailed which will pay dividends in the long run.

Indeed, statistics consistently show that an assignment is most likely to fail due to the inability of the accompanying family members to cope with the new culture and location. A seemingly successful assignment may not in reality have delivered against objectives if the assignee has been distracted and stressed by an unhappy home life. “Failed” assignments tend only to become visible if there is an early repatriation.

Defining worth

Cross-cultural training is recognised as one of the most important ways to help assignees and their dependants to settle and adapt to living and working abroad quickly and smoothly, without too many social gaffes and faux pas, both in the business and social environment.

In my experience, it is a “need to have”, not a “nice to have” and should be mandatory for all first time (and certainly all accompanied) assignments, and recommended for any transfer to another, very different culture or after a long gap between assignments. There is a demonstrable commercial “payback” for such an investment although it can sometimes be difficult to persuade line managers of the investment value- both in cost and time. Explaining that feedback from assignees undertaking such programmes is almost universally positive, and that research demonstrates that well-prepared assignees are more likely to transition efficiently and effectively, and they may find the ROI they are looking for!

Inter-cultural training should cover cultural awareness, some host country knowledge/information and some guidance on cross-cultural communication skills. This training is best undertaken on a face to face basis and tailored to the needs of the individual/s to address their respective priorities and concerns to give strategies, reassurance and even role play scenarios. Alternatively, virtual or online programmes are available.

Recognising need

Your company’s international assignment programme should promote open, positive and curious attitudes to other cultures and to new experiences by encouraging (and ideally selecting) people who have shown themselves to be flexible, adaptable, democratic, socially empathetic, emotionally resilient and tolerant of ambiguity. Successful assignees will be open and honest about their own values and attitudes as well as their preferred style of behaviour in a work and social situation. They will be mindful to, and respectful of, the etiquettes and protocols of their host country of assignment

The vast majority of assignees go through a period of “culture shock” when the reality of life and work in the new location does not conform to their expectations. This can manifest itself as stress brought on by the need to adapt, a sense of loss as friends and family are far away, a feeling of dejection and helplessness and even doubts about one’s identity and purpose. This is because we each absorb a number of core values early on in life, just as other cultures have their own core values, making a clash or disconnect inevitable. People have different value systems and different ways of communicating. The key is to transition through this phase as quickly as possible. It is usually a temporary phenomenon. When briefing your assignees, encourage them to be open to the new culture, not to shy away and stay in an expat “bubble” with other expatriates and essentially, not to constantly compare things to home!

It is often psychologically easier to go to an extremely different culture such as China, than to one which seems similar/more familiar, such as North America. A mind-set in embarking on an assignment to the former is braced for differences, in a way that a move to the latter is not. On arrival, it can be a greater struggle and challenge to adapt to the cultural differences in the ‘familiar’ environment where differences were not anticipated.

As a Global Mobility practitioner don’t ignore the reality for some assignees of reverse culture shock. On repatriation, some assignees have become so ‘at home’ in their assignment country that they feel alienated and uncomfortable about what they perceive as a deterioration in cultural standards back home! This is usually experienced by assignees that have spent a number of years away from home. In these instances, it can be helpful to give assignees some “off the record” time to unload their experiences and articulate their feelings of disconnect: think of it as therapy! An expat is often a “big fish” in a “small pool” and finds re-entry difficult. Upon repatriation, few will be interested in how much responsibility they had whilst on assignment, and their world will have moved on in their absence.

To conclude

Culture is all about innate norms and values, and ways of doing/saying things. These traits are nurtured from childhood and dictate how your assignees perceive the world and how they behave in their interventions with the world around them. They need a degree of self-awareness and an ability to modify their instinctive style to adapt successfully into a new culture and avoid inadvertently causing unintentional offence through a perceived lack of respect. The key is to respect the cultural differences and to embrace them.

About the Author: Susie Inwood
For 33 years, Susie was the Global Mobility and Global Mobility Policy Manager for BG Group PLC, where she was responsible for a suite of international assignment policies and global service provider contracts covering some 600 assignees in 25 countries, managing a Global Mobility Team of 10 staff. Susie is a Fellow of the CIPD and former Trustee of and sometime presenter at the Centre for International Briefing at Farnham Castle in Surrey, England.