Vol. 45, No. 10
HR learns valuable lessons while on assignment abroad.
Expatriate assignments for HR professionals aren’t all that different than they are for other employees. They can be exciting, career-changing experiences, but they’re not without their difficulties. Knowing what to expect from your overseas advance can make all the difference. Success will come earlier, and easier, if you’re prepared.
Today companies are much more likely to assist employees in making the transition than they were in past years. But, ultimately, the outcome of the assignment rests on your shoulders. While all overseas assignments are unique, there are some common issues that surface for HR professionals.
Hearing the experiences of those who have gone before you into the intrepid territory of foreign assignments may help you plan and navigate your own path.
Baptism by Fire
Many of the expatriates interviewed for this story recalled how—even prepared with cultural and language training—most of the learning process occurs while abroad.
Peter Goldstein, now vice president and HR advisor at Deutsche Bank in New York, was senior vice president and HR generalist at J.P. Morgan in New York when he was transferred to Brussels in the early 1990s. While he was given no preparatory training before the move, he was offered language classes while overseas. However, Goldstein says most of what he learned about the culture he learned “through social induction.”
Michael McCallum, now vice president of business and product development at Cendant International, a provider of consumer and business services, including HR, in Danbury, Conn., went to Brazil for nearly four years in the 1980s. Prior to his departure, he was given lessons in Portuguese, but he didn’t finish the training. “It’s very common because there is so much else going on to prepare for the move,” he says. Fortunately, he was proficient in Spanish and able to make the transition to Portuguese once in Brazil.
Melanie Young, director of global career development and international assignment programs at NCR, a provider of relationship technology in Dayton, Ohio, took a one-year assignment to Japan in 1997 and then did another one-year stint in Singapore. She was on her own in terms of preparation for her assignment, although the company offered some logistical help. “But when I got there they did assign me a language tutor who came to my office,” she notes.
And, sometimes, there just isn’t enough time to prepare. John Cunha, currently vice president of international compensation and benefits at Tricon Restaurants Inc. in Dallas, spent 10 years as an expat for companies such as Price Waterhouse, Solomon Brothers and Deutsche Bank, moving seven times from Belgium to the Middle East to Singapore.
For his first assignment in Brussels, he had little time for language training. “They needed someone in a hurry so I was sent within four weeks.” For that assignment, he says, he was given three hours of French and sent to work.
Although his subsequent assignments were diverse, Cunha says, “After the first one, I didn’t need much help,” he says. “By talking to people [in those countries] in advance you can get an idea of what to expect.”
If you haven’t been provided with cultural training and you have no prior experience with a culture, it’s best to keep yourself open, advise experienced expatriates. Each country has its own work culture, something that all expats find at once frustrating and enlightening.
For Goldstein, culture shock came in the form of difficulty dealing with the unions, which tend to be more powerful in European countries. “It can be frustrating, but you learn the art of negotiation,” he notes. “Because the union is brought in on any big company decision, you learn to find solutions that are win-win because you can’t move forward without building consensus.”
Cunha had similar experiences in Europe. He was required to be a member of the union there. “The union rep came to talk to me about how many hours a day I [was allowed to] work,” he recalls. “It’s hard for the ‘Type A’ American to adjust. I was used to working until the job got done. I had to learn to adjust.”
And over the course of his two-plus years in Saudi Arabia, Cunha learned to adapt to another kind of cultural difference—a slower pace. “You hear ‘God willing’ a lot. That meant if something didn’t get done, it wasn’t God’s will,” Cunha explains.
Jennifer Henne, deputy manager of the Expatriate Service Center at Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) in McLean, Va., spent five years working in Germany and England for several companies, including Robert Bosch and Motorola.
Because Henne began her career in Germany, the only work culture she knew was German. When she took a job with a company that was a joint venture between Americans and Canadians, she felt lost.
“The work styles are so different,” she says. Meeting leaders and managers “put cartoons up making fun of HR. I was used to German companies where we had serious meetings with facts and figures.” Henne explains that the meetings run by the Americans and Canadians were much more informal. “No one asked us what we thought [at the German company meetings],” she says. “So it took some adjustment to realize that they [the American-Canadian company] wanted our feedback.”
In Japan, Young’s biggest challenge was adjusting to the precision of Asian workers. “In Japan, there’s a process for everything,” she says. “At first it was frustrating until I realized that when the Japanese turned in work, it was perfect.”
In Latin America, McCallum says, there’s a formal hierarchy that typically isn’t found in the United States. “In the U.S., things are much more egalitarian, so you have different responsibilities and have a different way to deal with people,” he notes. “In Latin America, there’s a certain way that information flows. You never have to type anything because there’s a secretary who takes care of that and other administrative people who handle many of those things you wind up doing yourself in the U.S. You have a certain status while there.”
Wherever you’re sent, if you want smooth relations with the new workforce, Henne offers this piece of advice: “Bite your tongue. Don’t compare your country to the country you’re in.”
Mentors can ease you into an international assignment, veteran expatriates say. While some companies have formal mentoring programs, most do not. Luck often has more to do with these important pairings than anything else. Keep your eyes open; finding a good mentor can make all the difference.
Cunha found something of a long-distance mentor in a tax partner in the Paris office while in Belgium. “He played the role of uncle to me,” he recalls. “He helped me with career decisions. He helped me decide how to use this assignment as a stepping stone to the next level. Specifically, he helped me by talking me through my decision to go to the Middle East, which was seen as a hardship transfer but which really helped my career.”
Expat life is difficult, and, for that reason, expats often find themselves spending off-hours with others who are having the same experience. About 30 expats at J.P. Morgan in Brussels made up the majority of Goldstein’s social circle while abroad.
“It wasn't deliberate,” Goldstein explains. “It's just how it developed. It depends on what network you're in. In Belgium, people are very private so it’s a big deal to be invited to someone’s house. Eventually, we got to know our neighbors. Your social circle is driven largely by the things you're involved in.”
Like Goldstein, Young says, “I associated on a personal level with other foreigners, though not necessarily other Americans.”
In all of Cunha’s assignments, he also socialized with fellow expats more than with the locals. This was most true in Saudi Arabia, where the cultural differences were most great. “Even though we’d work together, our lifestyles were radically different, and we ‘blue eyes’ were seen as different,” he explains.
While it may be easier to associate with other expats, it’s not always the best option, says McCallum. For him, knowing the native language was key to connecting with the locals. Expatriates “retreat to expat ‘ghettos’ because they’re so alienated,” McCallum says. The fact that his wife and son also speak Portuguese helped them connect to locals in Brazil. “We were able to socialize with a wide variety of people, including locals and expats of many nationalities,” he notes.
Henne’s prior experiences in Germany, her German husband and her fluency in the language made her assimilation with locals easier. “You know you’ve made it when the locals feel free to American-bash in front of you,” she notes.
Staying Connected to Home Base
With different time zones and “out of sight, out of mind” mentalities, it is easy to get out of the loop with headquarters. Many companies are making great strides in staying more closely connected with their expats. But, most expats agree that keeping up networks back home is your responsibility. That involves maintaining contact with home base to stay up to date with the company, colleagues and the culture. Not all expats do, and it can be detrimental when they don’t.
For Goldstein, the time difference meant that most communication came through the London office, not his New York office. As for reconnecting to the home base, Goldstein didn’t. “I never went back to the U.S. because business operations were on a hub and spoke with London,” he says. “If I did it again, I’d maintain my professional network at home. It’s very important to keep up with the [home job] market.”
Today, it’s a rare company that fails to bring expats home at least once a year. Cunha was flown home annually from Brussels and Singapore; in Saudi Arabia, because the assignment was a considered a hardship, he was flown home twice a year. However, he says, that wasn’t enough to stay in the loop back home. If he were to do another assignment, he would rely on e-mail to stay connected. “I’d make a point to keep on top of that,” he says.
Young’s role required her to be a liaison between the United States and Asia. That ensured she was back at the home office at least four times a year. But even that wasn’t enough. “While you’re overseas, you have to be the one to make the effort,” she says. “I’d stay at the office until midnight so I could check in with the home office. I didn’t have to, but I wouldn’t have been connected if I hadn’t.”
Most expat assignments are temporary, meaning that one day you will come home, probably to work for the same company. But that transition is the hardest to accomplish. And even HR professionals aren’t spared. Be prepared to feel isolated and lost when you come home.
“It’s much harder to come home than to leave,” maintains McCallum. “There’s a myriad of reasons for this, some professional, others personal. Oftentimes, the new skills and experience expats have gained aren’t utilized.”
“I wasn’t fully leveraged,” Goldstein acknowledges, explaining that he doesn’t feel the skills he learned abroad were put to good use.
He’s not alone. “About 75 percent of repatriated employees don’t come back to a promotion where they can use what they’ve learned,” McCallum says, referring to the Global Relocation Trends 1999 Survey by the Society for Human Resource Management Global Forum, Windham International and the National Foreign Trade Council. “I was one of them, and repatriation was a miserable time for me.”
Henne had the same experience when she repatriated. “Companies spend so much money on expatriation but lose repatriated employees because they don’t know how to reintegrate them,” she laments. “I had to start over again and gain recognition.”
“When you tell people about your international assignment, their eyes roll up like dead fish,” Cunha adds. “You come back and the group has changed, and you’re not part of it anymore.”
Henne agrees. “You feel as though you’ve fallen into a black hole,” she says. “They think you are the same person who left, and that can be isolating.”
But, there are some success stories. Although NCR didn’t have a formal repatriation policy, the company planned for Young’s return. NCR approached her about opportunities back home about six months out. “I met with the senior vice president of HR, and he asked what I’d like to do,” she says. “A month later he phoned, asking if I’d like to do what I’m now doing,” heading up the company’s global career development and international assignment programs.
“NCR realized that repats find themselves in need of help because they are often disillusioned and frustrated upon coming home,” she adds.
Invariably, expat assignments leave an indelible impression. As for the HR professionals themselves, despite the difficulties, all believe the experiences were more boost than bane. “The assignments did nothing but enhance my career,” Cunha maintains.
“I grew personally and professionally because it broadened my experience,” Goldstein adds.
McCallum agrees. “The international experience made me a globalist. It was a real career builder.”
Most of the HR professionals say they would go on another foreign assignment, but, based on what they learned the last time around, all have one caveat—repatriation strategies. “I’d go in a heartbeat, but I’d make it absolutely clear what the plan is,” Henne says. “I’d talk about repatriation before I left so I knew what I was coming home to.”
In a broad sense, all HR expatriates interviewed for this story say the experience made them better managers, especially when it came to handling global issues in their new roles. Cunha says without his international experience, he wouldn’t be able to understand or quickly solve the problems his expatriates face.
Goldstein agrees. “Right now I’m bringing someone over from Australia and I’m very sensitive to his needs and the issues he’s facing because I’ve been there.
“At J.P. Morgan I brought a guy over from London and helped him make the adjustment. I realize that everything is different—everything from contracts to how to find an apartment. I realize that simple things can be immobilizing and I try to make it easier on them.”
Young was able to put her experiences to direct use when she returned by creating the following programs and policies at NCR:
Consistent pre-assignment consultations for all expatriates, including a Required Destination Services program to assist with settling in, learning a new living environment and helping with those “basic” things that should be easy but are often confusing in a new country.
A web site for expats as well as a quarterly newsletter for the company’s expatriate community.
A data-sharing program so business units are better informed to make expatriation and repatriation decisions.
More emphasis on career planning for the expatriate.
Stronger emphasis on the approval process—gathering and understanding information to select candidates. The company now requires a costing analysis for every assignment.
Andrea C. Poe is a freelance writer based in Easton, Md., who specializes in human resource and management issues.