Budding Relationships

By Eric Krell May 1, 2005
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HR Magazine, June 2005Formal global buddy programs can help ease the transition for expatriates and improve retention and productivity.

On one of his first outings in England, South African expatriate Ferdinand Heugh got lost. Fortunately for him, Tony Marsh, his official relocation “buddy,” was there to help him find his way.

With Marsh’s help, Heugh has navigated a variety of other relocation challenges as well. And along the way, the two have formed a friendship that has eased the transition for Heugh and his family from Cape Town, South Africa, to Sheffield, England.

But it all started with a formal buddy program, one that matched Marsh and Heugh in an effort to assist the expatriate’s adjustment—inside and outside the office—to a new country. The process, like many formal buddy programs, focused on elements that often slip through the cracks of intercultural seminars, paperwork sessions in the host HR department or outsource providers.

Buddies at Balfour Beatty (and at other companies) often inform expatriates of host-office norms and politics, invite them into their homes, introduce them to friends and networks, and help bolster their credibility in the office.

On a personal level, they show expatriates where to receive emergency medical assistance, school their children, buy groceries and eat out.

Balfour Beatty, KPMG International and some other global companies invest in buddy systems to alleviate the stress new expatriates and their families normally endure, to reduce the time it takes for expatriates to operate at peak productivity and to help lessen the cost of expatriate programs (by, for example, reducing stays in more expensive temporary housing).

Such programs are valuable because usually there are few safe opportunities to get acclimated to a business environment in a new land. “When you go to a cocktail party for the first time in a new country, you can post yourself in a corner and observe how people behave. You can watch how they greet each other, whether they eat a lot or not at all, and other facets of their behavior,” notes Dominique J. Herrmann, executive director of global mobility at KPMG International in Woodcliff Lake, N.J. “You don’t have that same opportunity when you attend a business meeting for the first time in a new country.”

Despite the value of such efforts, to date, few companies have established formal buddy programs. Only 15 percent of the 200-plus international organizations represented in KPMG’s expatriate information database offer formalized one-on-one support systems for expatriates throughout their assignments. Evidence suggests more companies should follow suit, judging from obstacles that slow the expatriate’s adjustment to the host office and community.

‘People Can Lose It’

Based on her experiences moving to Colombia, Noel Kreicker—a member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s Global HR Management Panel and founder of IOR Global Services in Chicago—can personally attest to the difficulties expatriates face.

When Kreicker, her husband and their three children arrived in the country, her husband’s new colleagues said they were too busy to help the newly relocated family get settled. So the Kreickers had to find, on their own, a school for their son. Fortunately, a parent at the school helped them find housing—another pressing need.

What’s more, the Kreickers’ luggage sat on a rain-soaked airport tarmac for three weeks because no one in the host office had informed them that it was customary to give local customs officials a “gift” to have the luggage located and delivered to their hotel.

Although Kreicker emphasizes that the experience was an aberration in Colombia, variations of it play out in a host of countries when expatriates fail to make in-country connections that can help them navigate logistical, familial and professional challenges.

The top “settling-in” challenges expatriates face, according to IOR Global Services, in order of importance, are:

  • Choosing schools for children.
  • Securing housing.
  • Finding medical facilities.
  • Opening bank accounts.
  • Finding transportation and obtaining drivers’ licenses.
  • Completing government forms.
  • Locating food stores.
  • Learning about community and entertainment offerings.

Aside from the critical decisions expatriates must make in a short time period, the logistical delays inherent in many government offices can be frustrating.

“People can lose it when they’re waiting in long lines for their taxpayer ID number or trying to get their car registered” in assignment locations, warns Timothy Dwyer, national director for international HR advisory services at KPMG LLP in New York. “That downtime takes them away from being productive in the office.”

If an expatriate is married, the spouse tends to bear the brunt of the logistical legwork and its frustrations. Sarah Caldwell, a destination assistance counselor with IOR Global Services, helps expatriates from outside the United States settle in Chicago and surrounding areas.

She also frequently helps expatriates work through personal challenges, such as a child’s learning disability, psychological issues or a special medical need, which expatriates may prefer not to share with their host manager or HR representative. A buddy can also help make such connections with local experts to ease the transition for and alleviate the burden on the expatriate’s spouse and family.

Another set of challenges resides in the host office. When Laura Ponticello, a human resource and leadership adviser at 4C Co., a consulting firm in Skaneateles, N.Y., took an assignment in London, the former Global Crossing vice president encountered difficulty when holding meetings.

“I discovered that [organizational] level is very important in the U.K.,” she notes. “Had people understood that I occupied a senior level, they would have been more inclined to attend the initial meetings I held.”

“This is where the expatriate’s lack of understanding of the host workplace culture can lead to some messes pretty early on,” Dwyer points out.

Enter the buddy program, the success of which depends on the selection of the buddy and the degree to which the program has been formalized and embraced in host-office locations.

“Too often, it ends up being more of a ‘warm-body’ program where, if you have a 98.6 degree body temperature, you can be a mentor,” Dwyer reports. KPMG International’s buddies, who typically have international experience and occupy a similar professional level as their counterparts, are selected by the host-country performance manager of the international assignee—a term the accounting firm uses in place of “expatriate.”

Although “buddy” sounds informal, the term was specifically chosen at Balfour Beatty and KPMG to formalize the role while distinguishing it from a mentor or friend. Informal buddy programs often fall flat, Kreicker notes, because the host manager given the task may lack the necessary intercultural awareness or may simply walk away from the volunteer assignment.

Tony and Ferdi’s Excellent Adventure

Balfour Beatty’s buddy program was conceived to address a shortage of qualified engineers and quantity surveyors (i.e., cost accountants or supply chain managers) in the United Kingdom.

When railway executive Keith Hampson prepared to import 40 new hires from South Africa to the United Kingdom starting in October 2002, he set an optimistic goal of limiting the portion of new hires who would return to their home country to 20 percent.

The acculturation program Hampson’s team devised, which included opening bank accounts for each new hire, is instructive for HR executives who oversee their organization’s investments in long-term international assignments.

The buddies assigned to each new South African hire shared an office or project location but did not work directly with their counterparts. All host buddies received a cultural awareness course, conducted by IOR Global Services, before each of the three waves of South Africans arrived, and the new hires and their buddies participated in joint cultural awareness training sessions. Buddies were also granted considerable flexibility to leave work to help the new arrivals shop for homes, select schools and conduct other personal business.

Balfour Beatty’s Marsh e-mailed newcomer Heugh as soon as the quantity surveyor’s contract was finalized. When Heugh, 35, arrived in the United Kingdom in 2004, the 60-year-old manager introduced the man he now calls “Ferdi” to his three, 30-something daughters. They, in turn, recommended schools for Heugh’s two daughters and helped him find a house.

“The relocation has been excellent for my wife and my daughters because I had a good experience,” Heugh reports. “Tony introduced me to the right people. He took the time away from the company to show me around and made me feel at home and welcome.” The two have hiked together, shopped together and shared laughs about the lighter side of Heugh’s acculturation.

“I got a call from Ferdi on the day he received his company car,” Marsh recalls, noting that filling stations in South Africa are full-serve only. “He sat in his car for a quarter of an hour before it dawned on him to get out and pump the gas himself.” The first wave of South Africans arrived in June 2003; the second and third waves arrived in January 2004 and early March 2004.

Since then, Hampson says, many of the buddies have become friends—by mutual consent rather than by corporate decree.

By the end of 2004, Hampson’s primary success metric also looked golden: None of the new hires had returned home to South Africa. Of the 40 new hires, only three have left the company, and all of them chose to remain in the United Kingdom to work for other companies there.

‘A Leap of Faith’

The value KPMG realizes from its buddy system is less easily measured.

“The support we provide to international assignees is of great value, or else we would not provide it,” Herrmann explains. “But it’s also a leap of faith because it is very difficult to quantify the value. We believe in it. It is part of our culture of being an employer of choice and of helping our people develop and succeed.”

At any time, 1,200 to 1,500 employees among KPMG’s global network of firms are working outside of their home country on assignments that typically last 24 months.

The buddies assume a social role outside of the office by inviting assignees to dinner in their homes. Herrmann notes that buddies also gain value from the relationship by expanding their network and honing their own intercultural effectiveness.

For small companies that may not have the global staff to support a formal internal buddy program, follow the lead of Jerry Torma, director of compensation and international human resources at Nordson Corp., which is based in Westlake, Ohio. Torma helps the company’s 15 or so expatriates get acclimated in their new culture by offering incentives to buddy up with customers and associates.

Torma uses cash incentives to urge expatriates to get involved in local trade organizations and social clubs popular with executives and the global business-to-business community. Bonuses motivate expatriates to meet regularly with customers, suppliers and the “allied vendors” that produce materials, such as glue and paint powder, that require Nordson’s dispensing systems.

“This has all the elements of mentoring without any preconceived notions of one person being older or more senior than the other,” Torma notes.

Torma wants to stimulate social interactions among his expatriates that help them get the lay of the land while expanding their professional networks with contacts who can potentially help Nordson’s business. The allied vendor, customer and supplier contacts in the host country help the expatriates find the golf course, join the right business groups and participate in the local chamber of commerce or its equivalent.

An expatriate’s personal development plan might include attending a relevant national trade conference in the host country. And the expatriate may receive bonuses for making a presentation at the national conference or even for volunteering as a recreational athletic coach in the country.

The payoff is a big one.

“Sixty-five percent of our business and a higher percentage of our profits come from outside the United States,” Torma says. “This is survival for me.”

Eric Krell is a business writer based in Austin, Texas, who covers HR and finance issues.

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