Helping Expatriate Employees Deal with Culture Shock

To succeed in expatriate assignments, employees need ongoing cultural training.

Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. June 4, 2019
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The president of one of the largest Dutch companies in the world thought he wasn’t a successful leader while on assignment in the United States. Three company vice presidents would not argue with him, but instead followed his orders without question; in the Netherlands, he would have expected his subordinates to debate with him. The company president believed he wasn’t generating enough confidence in his colleagues to get them to disagree. He had stumbled into something common for expatriates: culture shock.

Training before, during and after an employee’s time spent working abroad can help him or her understand cultural differences in management and communication styles, says Neal Goodman, Ph.D., president of Global Dynamics Inc. in Miami. Goodman shares the Dutch company president’s experience as an example of the difficulties his expatriate clients have faced in adjusting to different cultures around the world.

While the president of the Dutch company perceived his American vice presidents as unassertive, someone from Pakistan might view the situation differently. The U.S. has a more individualistic culture, while Pakistan has a more collective culture, according to Shahma Zahid, SHRM-SCP, head of HR with the Institute of Chartered Accountants Pakistan in Karachi. “In Pakistani culture, the work environment is more autocratic, where the employees cannot take decisions on their own, whereas in the U.S. and Canada, the supervisor enables the employee to take independent decisions,” she says. 

In a culture where the communication style is direct, a manager might be blunt when providing feedback, which could leave an employee who is used to a subtler approach feeling insulted. Where indirect communication is common, if a boss says someone is doing a great job and points out areas for improvement, the employee may erroneously assume that the manager thinks he or she is doing a bad job, Goodman cautions. 

Through cultural training, an expatriate can gain an understanding of the management and communication style that’s most likely to be effective for the assignment. Of course, that doesn’t mean the road ahead will necessarily be easy.

Cultural training sometimes oversimplifies, and there’s no substitute for actual experience abroad. 

“In no place are generalizations really valid,” says Nina E. Woodard, SHRM-SCP, president of Nina E. Woodard & Associates in San Diego and a lecturer at California State University San Marcos College of Business Administration. Within a country, cultural differences may vary by region and individuals may not conform to cultural norms. But training can give employees assigned to work abroad at least some idea of what to expect.

Preparation 

Often, a company will provide “a day or two” of cultural training to the person who’s going abroad, says Donald Dowling, an attorney with Littler in New York City. Otherwise, the expatriate might be on his or her own.

Some companies do more, which can head off employees’ being miserable and quitting in the middle of an assignment. Ihuoma Onyearugha, SHRM-SCP, a recently retired executive director of human resources and medical at Chevron Nigeria Limited in Lagos, recalls an incident when a would-be expatriate turned down an assignment after getting a firsthand look at the host country.

The employee went on a preassignment visit with his spouse, and the host manager took them out to dinner. “It took hours to go and return because the traffic was terrible that day,” Onyearugha says. “The spouse insisted she was not going to come on that assignment, and the would-be expatriate had to reject it.”

Family support is critical to a successful experience, Onyearugha notes. For assignments lasting two or more years, Chevron Nigeria encourages expatriates to relocate their families with them.

Not all couples relocate abroad together, however. Dowling says his wife, also a lawyer, is currently on a three-year assignment in Amsterdam. “It can be very difficult,” he says.

Employers typically don’t offer job placement for the spouses of expatriates. Remote work abroad may be a possibility, but this places certain demands on the business compensating the remote worker that the company may or may not be willing to take on. For example, the employer must pay the worker in a way that’s legal and ensure that any visa needed has been secured, Dowling adds.

For the expatriate, “HR’s role includes onboarding and ensuring that the appropriate visas are obtained,” says David Epstein, SHRM-SCP, director of domestic human resources for Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres in New York City. Expatriates may need assistance opening a bank account and getting a driver’s license. “HR also helps address relocation, family issues and housing.” 

Some goods that are needed immediately may have to be sent by air, while others can be shipped. Expatriates with kids may need help selecting schools abroad. And some workers may ask to live with other expatriates, while others may seek advice on where to live safely and affordably on their own. 

Goodman advises that diversity and gender relationships in the office may look different outside the U.S., so HR should make sure employees are sensitive to cultural norms abroad, even while seeking to bring about change. 

This can be a challenge, particularly if inclusion is defined more narrowly abroad than in the U.S. Expatriates in same-sex relationships have been stopped at the border and questioned in countries where such relationships are unlawful, notes Ute Krudewagen, an attorney with DLA Piper in East Palo Alto, Calif. 

Immersion

Goodman notes that culture shock can occur at any time. “It’s different for everybody,” he says. “Sometimes it’s one month, two months or even six months into an assignment.”

He describes culture shock as “an overstimulation of the central nervous system. There are so many differences that you feel totally fatigued.” Family members can help each other cope.

Goodman recommends that the expatriate visit the home country as often as possible while on assignment abroad. Dowling recently created an expatriate package for a client that provided two trips home each year, for example.

Expatriates also might try to learn the language of their destination country. Although many people around the world know English, it’s spoken differently abroad, Woodard notes. She recalls preparing for a presentation in Thailand on how her organization uses a top-down cascade to communicate information as quickly as possible. During the run-through, she says, the interpreter kept referring to waterfalls because in Thailand there’s no way to describe a cascade other than falling water.

“Remember, you’re a guest and you need to be respectful of the culture,” says Andrea Conner, president of ATHENA International, a nonprofit organization in Cary, N.C. “I always had a mindset that I was an ambassador for my country.” She has worked yearslong expatriate assignments in Malaysia, Germany and China.

Yuichi Sekine, an attorney with Bird & Bird who was born in Japan and raised in the U.S., now lives in London and admits that getting used to the country’s social customs is challenging. “Going to the pub is almost obligatory,” he says. He has also had to start referring to elevators as lifts and lines as queues.

Elsewhere, expatriates have faced serious culture-shock situations, such as being arrested for the improper use of alcohol, Krudewagen notes.

Repatriation

Once an assignment is over, employees should be prepared for a rocky return. Repatriation can be stressful—the employees have evolved; their children are different; and their companies’ processes, missions and technologies have changed. 

Half of expatriates leave their companies within two years of returning to their home country, Goodman notes. Those numbers fall to 25 percent for employees who receive repatriation training when they return home, and to 10 percent if they get such training before they return.

Allen Smith, J.D., is SHRM’s manager, workplace law content.

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