Perfect Strangers

Cultural and linguistic differences between U.S. and U.K. workers necessitate training for expatriates.

By DeeDee Doke Dec 1, 2004

HR Magazine, December 2004

Not long before Christina Seckar, PHR, left her HR job in New Jersey for an HR manager’s position in England, her British boss offered her a veiled warning: “Watch yourself. British people are different from Americans.”

Seckar had also heard that the highest number of failed international assignments involve Americans in the United Kingdom and Britons in the United States. She says, “I thought, ‘OK, if you ever thought it was going to be simple, keep that in mind.’ ”

A year since her move abroad, Seckar is still learning the ropes of British business culture at the oil field technology services company where she works, in Southampton, England. It hasn’t been easy, she says. “I didn’t realize in the beginning how much each and every thing you do is going to be a challenge.”

Seckar’s case is by no means unique. The United Kingdom might seem to require less adjustment for Americans than countries such as China, where English is not the official language and where cultural differences are obvious. But that assumption can set up Americans for difficulty, disappointment and underachievement in U.K. assignments, experts say.

The United Kingdom really is a foreign country—and HR departments ignore that fact at their peril, says Dean Foster, a New York-based consultant on intercultural business issues. “It’s that expectation of similarity that throws everyone off.”

Craig Storti agrees. “Because we speak the same language, Americans think they’re not going to have any communication problems with the English,” says the author of Old World, New World—Bridging Cultural Differences: Britain, France, Germany and the U.S. (Intercultural Press, 2001).

Dealing with a language that’s like your own but full of different turns of phrase, unexpected meanings and unfamiliar nuances is not the only challenge that U.S. expatriates will face when on assignment in the United Kingdom. British attitudes about work, personal ambition, individualism, efficiency, business meetings and communications may run counter to your employees’ experiences and expectations. The conflicts that arise can limit the success of their U.K. assignments—and your organization’s effectiveness.

In a survey of emerging trends in global mobility conducted by the Cendant Mobility relocation firm of Danbury, Conn., 84 percent of companies that responded said they provide intercultural training “typically” or “sometimes” to staff being sent on international assignments. And 47 percent of respondents said less than 50 percent of those employees who are offered such training take it. Although the figures don’t show the percentage of assignees to the United Kingdom who receive or are offered such training, HR professionals and intercultural consultants agree that companies that invest in training do so primarily for countries where English is not the official language. And they say it’s a mistake not to offer such training to those assigned to the United Kingdom.

HR professionals need to be aware of the differences between the two countries that can affect the workplace, and they should take steps to help workers assigned to the United Kingdom understand those differences. Says Seckar: “It’s high on my list of things I think need to be handled.”

Language Barriers

George Bernard Shaw, the early 20th century Irish playwright and political thinker, once described the United States and England as two countries divided by a common language. In this era of increasing globalization, differences in English usage present major, and often unexpected, hurdles for Americans and Britons working together. For example, there’s the American tendency to rely on sports metaphors in business talk, which may confuse Britons. Experts suggest that employees avoid using phrases such as “step up to the plate,” “cover all the bases,” “I’ll touch base with you,” “ballpark figure,” “off the wall” and “out in left field,” noting that the British tend to say more with fewer words and lots of nuance.

Americans “come across loud and clear,” Storti says. “But because the English are relatively understated and indirect, a lot of what they say is in what they don’t say. Americans hear the words, and they understand the words, but they don’t interpret the meaning correctly.

“Differences in communication style are the biggest surprise” for American expatriates with assignments in the United Kingdom, he adds.

“A Brit might say, ‘We have a bit of a problem,’ ” says Matthew J. Kapszukiewicz, a London-based HR manager for Europe, the Middle East and Asia at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). “That could mean it’s a big problem, it might mean it’s a small problem, but you’re not quite sure, and you have to explore that,” he says.

The misunderstandings go both ways. Britons harbor a degree of distrust toward Americans in the workplace because of fine distinctions in language and expression, says Cary Cooper, professor of organizational psychology and health at Lancaster Management School, Lancaster University, in England.

“Americans use words that disguise what they’re doing: ‘process re-engineering,’ ‘restructuring,’ ‘right-sizing,’ ‘involuntary career events,’ ” says Cooper, a longtime U.K. resident with dual U.S.-U.K. citizenship. “They have to learn not to use jargon.” (For more examples of language variations, see "English-to-English Dictionary").

Conflicting Work Styles

Language isn’t the only stumbling block for American expatriates in the United Kingdom, however. There’s also a chasm between American and British business cultures—traceable, some experts say, to the United States’ Puritan roots—and it can leave professionals from both countries frustrated, mystified and often angry when trying to collaborate in the workplace.

For example, Lisa Worrall, an American public relations manager, was advised to “cool down” her natural enthusiasm and drive when she first went to work in a London-based technology company several years ago. While those qualities had contributed to her being hired, they also caused her British colleagues to be not only suspicious of her but also cold and distant toward her. Worrall says: “I could see them thinking, ‘Who’s this direct American girl? Is she after my job?’ ”

Enthusiasm and a Puritan work ethic probably won’t endear Americans to British co-workers, Foster says. “The American is often seen as over-the-top, pushing, putting in more hours than necessary, difficult to work with, always coming up with the solution—even if the solution hasn’t been asked for.”

Foster attributes this cultural bias to the long-ago expulsion of the Puritans from England. The Puritans held that individuals were responsible for themselves, “and that the hard work one does will generate one’s reward,” he says. “The Puritan ethic is certainly understood in Britain, but the older and deeper tradition here is that one does what is required of them in their place. And effort need not equal reward—effort simply equals effort.”

American individualism, ambition, a tendency to speak one’s mind and an emphasis on getting things done—the faster and more efficiently, the better—all drive the British a little crazy when they’re working with Americans, according to experts interviewed for this article. And, as if that doesn’t complicate business enough, Americans’ willingness to take risks, leap into new situations with both feet and “just do it” also are at odds with characteristic British caution and distrust of the new.

When Seckar relocated, she found that it was up to her to bridge that gap. “I definitely think it took longer for people to respect me here than it did in the United States,” she says. “I noticed that no one was coming to seek my services unless they absolutely had to. I started making up excuses to invite people into my office for various things so that I could start getting the word around that I was open for business.”

Making matters worse, the arrival on the scene of an American in a senior position is usually seen as foreshadowing major changes within the business, Cooper adds. Typically, Americans feel they must make an impact early on, and usually it’s done by “getting rid of something, getting out the ax.”

Workers in the United Kingdom perceive the United States as having a “hire-and-fire” culture, and bringing out the ax immediately only cements that reputation, Cooper warns. “Whatever you do, don’t do that. Learn the culture before you do anything. Americans are not very good at understanding culture.”

Meeting Expectations

Americans become easily frustrated with the British need for consensus and cautious approach to making decisions. This frustration often arises in meetings. Americans expect everyone to contribute and jointly make decisions: If you’re not expected to contribute, then why attend? Britons, however, see meetings as opportunities to exchange information while most attendees sit quietly by, waiting for one or two key people to make decisions. Meetings in British organizations are not intended to be brainstorming sessions, and if you don’t have information to pass on, you’re expected to keep quiet and listen.

“I’d attend meeting after meeting, and I’d never understand what the outcome was or what the next step was,” says Worrall. “I’d be scheduled for meetings all the time, and I’d say, ‘Is it necessary to have the fifth meeting on this? We could have a two-minute conversation at my desk instead of booking a meeting room with biscuits [cookies] and tea.’ ”

Americans may need to accept that it’s probably preferable to keep quiet in meetings unless you’re called on to provide specific information. “You have to be very sensitive to the fact that in Britain, you don’t have to push forward these new ideas and new ways of looking at things simply because you want to look like someone who has something interesting to say,” Foster says. “You’ve got to keep a lower profile and see yourself as contributing to the larger key effort [rather] than just making an individual mark. I think that’s something that’s very difficult for Americans to do.”

Adapting to another’s culture—not only for U.S. companies doing business in the United Kingdom, but also for U.K. companies operating in the United States—usually requires training, according to Katharine Vergel, a New York-based spokeswoman for the British-American Business Council, which promotes business partnership between the two countries.

Whether such training succeeds for U.S. workers “depends on the strength” of the U.S. company’s HR department in the United Kingdom, Vergel adds. “If they are strong, then a clearly set-out guide would help the employee, as well as visits to the United Kingdom. The creation of a small ‘in’ group—a group of people that help the expatriate in all aspects—has proven particularly useful. This is not done enough for American expatriates once they arrive in the United Kingdom, and it is one of the reasons that U.S. expats fail more going to the United Kingdom than the other way around.”

Laying the Groundwork

Although some U.S. companies may skimp on training for employees assigned to posts in the United Kingdom, a few companies prepare employees for such transfers as they would prepare them to go to any other foreign country, and it pays off for business and employee alike.

Solar Turbines, a San Diego-based manufacturer of industrial gas turbines, starts with a rigorous selection process. Then, before a final offer is made to a particular candidate, the employee, spouse and sometimes even the employee’s children undergo a day of international assignment assessment with Selection Research International of St. Louis.

“It’s a pretty thorough assessment,” says Paul Murphy, international HR manager at Solar Turbines. “What we’re looking at … is their international readiness. What we try to ascertain is their suitability and their sensitivity toward the people they’re going to be working with. We’ve been very careful about who we send overseas.”

Depending on the results of the assessment, the employee and spouse visit the United Kingdom and the facilities to get a feel for the location and the work environment. Intercultural training will likely be offered to Solar Turbines employees in the U.K. only if a need for it is identified by either the employee or by his or her manager. “We’ve had expats in the United Kingdom for a long time, and we haven’t had issues arise specifically in terms of intercultural sensitivity. I don’t know whether that’s coincident or whether our selection process is just good,” Murphy says. “I’d like to claim credit that our process is good.”

Another company that trains U.K.-bound Americans is British American Tobacco (BAT), a global tobacco products producer with more than 300 brands and with operations in more than 60 countries. BAT sends candidates for U.K. assignments on a look-see visit before the employee makes a final decision on whether to accept the job. Those who accept—and their families—are offered a day of intercultural training at the company’s global headquarters in London, where about 20 percent of the expatriate workforce is American. Two hours of that training is devoted to business culture, says Yvonne Lowe, senior international assignments manager, and typically the training occurs after a staff member’s move to the United Kingdom.

“There are certain theories on when is the best time to have a cultural course,” Lowe acknowledges. “I’m of the opinion that it’s probably when you’ve been in situ a month or two, when you’ve seen a few things and you’re fitting into place.”

BAT’s training is provided through Chicago-based IOR Global Services (formerly International Orientation Resources), which arranges for a facilitator and a “business resource”—another American with a similar job, or who at least works in the same industry—to take part. They join the new American assignee for two hours of discussion about the business culture, from negotiating to socializing on the job.

BAT has few if any problems with intercultural issues, Lowe says. She attributes the company’s success in this area to an emphasis on staff diversity and the international environment of all BAT offices around the world.

Declarations of Independence

For an autonomy-minded American in the United Kingdom, it can be a surprise to discover the cultural importance of consulting with others before making decisions and acting on them. Says Leslie Anderson, an American relocation specialist working in London: “In the United States, you work more independently,” she says. “Here, you have to ask someone’s approval, ask them what they think.”

Anderson also had to learn the meaning of suggestions. “Everything’s very polite,” she says, “and everything is in the form of a suggestion, but really, they’re telling you to do it.”

On the other hand, Americans can be perceived as “very abrupt” when giving directions, says Lesley Putnam, a British relocation specialist at SIRVA Inc., a global relocation company headquartered in Chicago. That abruptness often comes through in e-mail messages, which may not bring out the best in Americans’ communication skills, she says. “Americans will send an e-mail and then send another to say, ‘Have you read [the previous message]?’ because it will seem as though nothing’s happened” if there has been no immediate reply. That annoys the U.K. worker, she continues. “It’s like, ‘You’ve sent me this and you’ve asked me to do something, and I’m doing something, but you keep interrupting me.’ ”

The intensity that many Americans bring to their work is somewhat at odds with the Britons’ more live-and-let-live approach. For example, Britons may opt to enjoy wine or a beer at midday and then head back to work. That’s not common in many American workplaces. “On my first day at work, my boss took me to lunch and ordered a bottle of wine for the two of us,” recalls Betty Kagan, director of product management at the U.K. offices of a high-technology company. She gradually adapted to this practice.

Says Kapszukiewicz of PwC: “There’s a whole different attitude here. You suddenly begin to see that America really is a more conservative place in a whole lot of areas. I find Americans quite enjoy being able to go to the pubs, have a meal, have a beer and go back to work. It’s still actionable if someone returns to work drunk, but it’s just more relaxed here.”

Connecting Two Cultures

Clearly, one way in which U.S. companies, and ultimately HR, can get a better handle on bridging the British-American gap is by joining transatlantic business networking organizations such as the British-American Business Council. It offers its own cross-cultural training course and regularly provides roundtables for senior HR executives of its member companies.

Even companies with solid practices for dealing with international assignments can find room for improvement. Says Solar Turbines’ Murphy: “We’re pretty good at the start of the assignment, and we’re not bad at the finish, but where we need to improve is at the middle of the assignment. An area we would like to improve upon is [to have] a six-month, nine-month, 12-month sit-down with the employees. What worked well? And what didn’t?

“We don’t do enough follow-up on objectives. We recognize this as an area we need to improve upon, and it’s something we’re looking at.”

Most fundamental for HR in dealing with U.S.-U.K. relationships, however, is for HR to make a business case for investing in U.K.-focused intercultural training. As the Business Council’s Vergel notes, “A failed three-year overseas assignment can cost a company upwards of $1 million.”

As with language and food, so too with business processes and even cultural realities: The differences between the United States and the United Kingdom are more important than they may appear on the surface. It’s up to HR to help expatriate employees understand and deal with the fact that England’s Southampton is not like New York’s, or that New England’s Boston is not the Boston of England’s Lincolnshire.

HR departments involved in sending employees overseas must treat expatriates in the United Kingdom the way they treat expatriates in any other country: HR must train them. Americans who arrive for assignment in the United Kingdom must be prepared to accept that they simply aren’t in Kansas anymore.

DeeDee Doke is a freelance business writer based in Cambridge, England, and a former editor of Global HR magazine.

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