What's often more complicated than the legal terrain is the cultural divide, which can make the difference between a successful and unsuccessful stint overseas, experts say.
Used to working weekends, maybe banging out a Sunday afternoon email to get ahead of the workweek? That's not going to fly in lots of foreign cultures where days off are sacrosanct, says Craig McCollum, vice president of Meditech International Services at the U.S.-based health IT services company CereCore.
"There's definitely a [difference in] work/life balance" between the U.S. and the United Kingdom, where McCollum is based, he says. "Work/life balance is important." Vacations are respected, and many Brits are away from work for two or three weeks during August, he adds.
One of the biggest cultural barriers is communication, experts say—and it's not the language barriers as much as it is how people express what they think and feel.
First, abandon U.S.-centric expressions. Don't say a colleague "hit a home run" with a successful project or that the team will have to try a "Hail Mary pass" to save a flailing endeavor. Those comments will be met with baffled looks.
"We hear a lot of people say that Americans abroad need to learn not to speak in American," says Greta Bauer, head of International Fulfillment Solutions for Sterling, which conducts background and identity checks for global employers. Bauer, who is based in the U.K., says, "I did find I had to find a new way of speaking," including putting more pauses into conversations and being more deliberate in word choices.
‘We hear a lot of people say that Americans abroad need to learn not to speak in American.’
Americans also tend to be very direct, which can be seen as too abrupt or even rude in other cultures. In Malaysia, for example, people generally want more context and detail when being given a message—and the communication can be indirect, Bauer says: "It takes some getting used to."
In Britain, a no-go idea will be met with the phrase, "That would be less than ideal," she adds. "That's British for 'Absolutely not; it's unacceptable.' "
Nonverbal communication can be a big adjustment for Americans as well. In Latin America, there tends to be more touching—a hug or kiss hello that might make some Americans worry about a sexual harassment complaint.
Different cultures also have different ideas about and approaches to business interactions, and Americans working abroad should be prepared for that.
In some countries, people like to haggle about transactions, Mertens notes. That's an adjustment for many Americans who are used to considering a price or a deal to be done once it's signed.
Also, in many cultures, getting to know the other parties has to come first to create mutual trust, says Mark Hedley, vice president of talent recruiting at recruiting firm G-P. "The first meeting is about building a connection, building a relationship, not about discussing business," he explains.
Hedley adds that we tend to move quickly in the U.S., but a lot of countries are relationship-based when it comes to doing business. "Sometimes, relationships will override everything," he notes. "Even in a fast [deal], you have to build a bond."
"We sort of established that you only have three months to establish trust," adds Natalie Abegesah, SHRM-CP, vice president of human resources at the U.S.-based nonprofit development group Partners of the Americas. And that means understanding and respecting how other cultures do business, she says.
Hierarchies and leadership are also more defined in some cultures, says Steve Smith, president, international at Sterling. "There are some cultures across Asia where [employees] will look to the leader to tell them what to do," he says. "Actually, encouraging them to collaborate can be difficult."
The best approach in such cases, Smith says, is to give people space and permission to speak. But "especially in Asia, you won't find people volunteering their opinion," he says. "They wait to be asked."
In the Netherlands, the very idea of entrepreneurship is a foreign concept, says Christine Sullivan, a partner in the Amsterdam office of the immigration law firm Fragomen Global.
‘We sort of established that you only have three months to establish trust.’
Natalie Abegesah, SHRM-CP
Sullivan, whose husband is Dutch, found that it was difficult to start her own business when she arrived in the Netherlands 16 years ago. She couldn't open a bank account as a self-employed lawyer then, and since internet access had to be paid for through a bank account, it was hard to get online.
You could be a millionaire, Sullivan says, but if you didn't have an employer, you couldn't prove to a landlord that you could pay your rent. "Everything was based on having an employer," she says.
Different cultures also have different sets of business manners—and violating them could create problems in work relationships.
Accustomed to interjecting during an online business meeting? Don't do that in Britain, McCollum notes, where participants use the "raise hand" feature on video calls and wait their turn.
Mertens, who is originally from Brussels, cautions Americans not to address someone by their first name right away; in Belgium, Germany and France, the custom is to use honorifics. Shake hands at the beginning and end of a meeting. And don't be late—in several European countries, the Americans attending a party might show up 15 minutes after the start time, while the Europeans are likely to be in line to get in when the event is set to begin, he says.
Don't be inadvertently dismissive either, expats say. If someone gives you a business card, don't just put it in your pocket; look at it first, Mertens advises. Sullivan adds that a common complaint she hears about Americans is that they ask, "How are you?"—and then don't bother to wait to hear the answer.
Companies can make the adjustment process smoother by preparing American workers for the move overseas with information and advice about everything from navigating foreign business norms to adjusting to local living customs.
"We make sure we hold training sessions and webinars—not only for our people, but also for our clients," says Jezel Elladora, director of client experience at Cyberbacker, a U.S.-based virtual assistant services company. "They have to build rapport, or at least build relationships," to make the business dealings run better.
Ultimately, experts agree that relationships are essential to establishing trust—no matter what the culture.
Your company offers very flexible work schedules, maybe even the option of working remotely full time. Your staff checks in regularly, joining Zoom meetings and conference calls and answering emails and Slack messages expeditiously.
You assume they're relatively close to the office.
In fact, they may actually be in Costa Rica (or Portugal or Thailand), maintaining an elaborate ruse in which they keep their U.S.-based jobs while working in another country.
As remote work exploded during the pandemic, some workers took the idea to a new level: What if they moved to some far-off foreign location and just kept working?
The internet is rife with advice on how to carry off the deception. Arrange your background for Zoom calls so it looks like you're back home instead of on the beach. Dress for the weather back in the home office. Hide your computer IP address or get a virtual private network (VPN) of your own so the company IT team can't track you. Or get a travel router so it appears you are logging on from back home.
Not a Good Idea
That might sound like a good plan. But experts say it's just a bad idea, putting both the employer and worker at risk.
"From the employee's perspective, the biggest risk is if you get caught," possibly putting your job on the line, says San Diego-based attorney Patty Shapiro, who counsels companies expanding their global workforce in her role with Ogletree Deakins' Cross-Border Group. The foreign government could also toss the employee for breaking immigration or visa laws, issue fines, and even ban the person from returning, she cautions.
Meanwhile, secretly working abroad creates "exposure for the company," Shapiro explains. If the worker is found out, local employment laws could kick in, leaving the company on the hook for everything from complying with payroll laws to paying corporate taxes owed to the foreign host.
Due to the inherent subterfuge of the arrangement, it's not known how many employees are attempting the ultra-remote scheme. The best way to avoid thorny legal problems? Talk to your employees, experts advise. If possible, offer workers the chance to work very remotely. For example, Google lets employees take four weeks a year to do so, with manager approval. Meta last year agreed to allow some staff to work from anywhere.
Employers need to make sure they're following each country's laws about American workers. Oh, and workers might want to check to see if the weather in their Zoom backgrounds is correct. –S.M.
Susan Milligan is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
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