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Send Your Expats Prepared for Success

May 1, 1998
Related Topics: Expatriate Management, Featured Article
Can you imagine buying something with a $1 million price tag and then leaving it in plain view in your unlocked car while you run in the store for milk and eggs? Anything could happen. Most folks would consider it worthwhile to protect something so valuable.

Yet it’s a fairly common practice to send expatriate families overseas with little or no preparation for the tremendous transition companies expect them to make. And you’ve heard the statistics: Cultural adaptation trouble is the one of the leading causes of failed assignments. Clearly, international assignees would be better prepared for the cultural adjustment if companies were more consistent about offering predeparture culture and language training. Consider it an insurance policy. With a budget of only 1 percent of your $1 million investment in an expat assignment—or $10,000—you can put together a predeparture orientation program that will do the job.

To help you design this program, or to provide you with some benchmarking standards for your existing program, Global Workforce interviewed a dozen service providers. In the next few pages, you’ll find a summary of their collective wisdom.

Train the whole family.
Experts agree that every family member should be involved in predeparture orientation. It’s true that employees face a good deal of stress as they adjust to the new workplace culture, perhaps struggling with a second language in informal business situations and learning to read their local colleagues during meetings and negotiations. But in many ways they’re sheltered from the local culture. The language of business is often English. The employees are surrounded by co-workers who realize they may need assistance. And for eight or more hours a day, employees have someplace to be and something to do.

On the other hand, spouses and partners rarely are permitted to work in the host country. For starters, this means they have all day long to think about how different things are. They’re also typically the ones who keep the household running. They’re forced to interact with the local culture as they struggle to buy groceries, meet with their children’s teachers and communicate with neighbors.

So it’s imperative that partners participate in the orientation program. Tracy Colquhoun, manager of client communications in the Chicago office of Cendant Intercultural, The Bennett Group, says: "It’s important the employees understand the kinds of difficulties their spouses are going to face. It’s also important for the spouses to have a realistic understanding of what the expectations are going to be of the employee." Too often, spouses leave for assignments with a vacation mindset, thinking they’ll enjoy seeing more of their husbands and wives than they would usually. Well-prepared spouses understand the opposite is more likely to happen.

Patrick Burns, a trainer with Chicago-based International Orientation Resources, shares another advantage of keeping the employee and spouse together during the training: It gives them an opportunity to talk through their concerns about the assignment with each other. "It’s often very hectic before the move and sometimes people don’t have time to just sit down and discuss what’s happening," he says.

As you’ve probably heard, children make the adjustment extremely well. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy for them. They leave behind friends and relatives—and possibly favorites like french fries. They face new grading systems. And although they may acquire the local language with a flawless accent, they may be embarrassed about their parents who sound like foreigners in front of their classmates.

It’s unlikely an employee is going to be successful on the job with an unhappy family. Worst case, this results in an early return home. Structuring your orientation program to include the partner and children may prevent this.

Conduct the orientation one to two months out.
On average, predeparture cultural orientation programs run one to three days in length, depending on a variety of factors:

  • The family’s level of prior international experience
  • Whether the focus is country-specific or regional
  • The time and money the company is willing to invest.

When asked when is the ideal time to conduct the training, service providers respond unanimously: Don’t wait until the last minute. In the final weeks before the transfer, international assignees are preoccupied with a mound of tasks that absolutely have to happen before the move: selling the house, selling the cars, packing, arranging for elder care and saying good-byes. Sitting quietly in a two-day training session is the last thing they’ll be in the mood for.

So if two weeks out is too late, when is the best time? "As soon as you know they’re headed to another country. You can’t start too soon," says Chris Roosevelt, director of distance language training for Alta Language Services in Atlanta. Several experts explained that the day the family learns of the transfer, the adjustment phase begins. And any point from that time forward is appropriate because families will be eager to learn more about their destinations.

Karen Hamady, director of client services with Prudential Relocation International in Houston, recommends waiting a bit later. "If it’s too close, they’re harried. If it’s too early, they’ll forget everything." She adds, "So the ideal time I would say would be anywhere from a month to three weeks before the move."

But many companies don’t allow enough lead-time to do so. Last-minute decisions result in frantic training schedules, including post-arrival culture programs. Although not ideal, this arrangement is more effective than trying to squeeze in the training during the final days before the transfer.

Language training is an entirely different story. It’s certainly possible to cram in two weeks of immersion training in the month before the transfer, but families would feel better prepared if they had time for a 10- to 12-week program, allowing more opportunity for the material to sink in. Progressive companies recognize this and offer language training to potential expatriates so they can begin preparing far ahead of time.

On the flip side, the shorter immersion schedule can be followed by a continuation program in-country. Service providers offer a range of options for long-distance learning or instruction from local consultants or training centers.

Include key elements during the culture segment.
A family leaving on its first international living experience is going to require more in-depth information than one accepting a second or third assignment. So an important first step is a thorough assessment of the family’s experience. Often conducted via a written survey or a telephone interview, the assessment will help the trainer custom design an appropriate program. Programs usually include key components such as these offered by Boston-based Eaton Consulting Group:

Culture profiles. This element explains the differences and similarities of the home- and host-country cultures.

Cultural adaptation. This section communicates the theory of the culture shock curve, alerting families to the typical time frame during which culture shock hits, describing the symptoms and providing tools to counteract it.

Logistical information. When this piece isn’t already handled by global relocation companies, culture trainers share these types of details: the etiquette of gift giving, whom to call in an emergency and how to write a check.

Application. This section applies the cultural background to the roles employees and partners will assume in the new location. The trainer will pick apart the expat’s job description, for example, identifying the adjustments he or she may need to make to be successful performing a familiar function in the context of the host country.

Joerg Schmitz, director of global management development and training for Princeton, New Jersey-based Training Management Corp., shares an interesting example of the impact of culture on an employee’s job performance. "The U.S. [culture] is extraordinarily task-oriented. Northern Europe is perhaps the closest to the type of task orientation you’ll find in the United States." He adds, "But about every other country in the world is relationship-oriented." Clearly it’s important your expats understand this as they struggle to build rapport and gain credibility with business colleagues.

Expect the expat and partner to attend training sessions together. It’s important they experience the same training because they will be each other’s primary support system abroad. Children often attend separate age-appropriate programs focused to their needs.

You’ll see a lot of variety in terms of the backgrounds of those who conduct the training. Generally, a facilitator skilled in training leads the discussion. Then country experts, often natives of the subject country with business backgrounds similar to the expat employee, come in on a consultant basis to contribute their perspectives in a short segment or two. You may also see panels of returned expatriates offering the inside scoop from an American viewpoint. In one case, a vendor even offers a panel of returned children to answer questions from the expat children.

Follow these guidelines for the language segment.
On the language side, you should expect most of the instruction to focus on building conversation skills. There may or may not be some emphasis on grammar, but the service providers agree that in a short time frame, it’s more important to concentrate on speaking.

"Our goal at Berlitz is to train people with enough vocabulary—with the use of about 40 verbs in present, past and future tenses—so they have the basics to be able to ask for a taxi, make their way out of an airport, go shopping, give compliments to their colleagues, and so on," explains Michael McCallum, national director of business development for Berlitz International Inc. in Princeton, New Jersey. Then families can build on this base in the host country.

One way to get the basics is through an immersion program. If you go this route, keep in mind that experts suggest participants’ ability to absorb the material wanes after four hours of study. Half-day sessions for two or three weeks running works well for most students.

If your employees will begin language training a few months before departure, frequency is still important. Consider sending them in for two or three, two-hour sessions each week.

Ideally, you’ll provide your expat families with 100 to 150 hours of language training. Since it’s unlikely they’ll have enough time to complete this many hours before the transfer, your goal should be to give them a solid start before they relocate. Then you’ll need to make arrangements for ongoing education in-country.

Be prepared for families to opt out of training.
So you’ve designed the perfect orientation program, but families are choosing not to participate. How can this be? A couple of things might be happening. The obvious answer is that families don’t understand the value of the culture information. Maybe they haven’t made the connection between knowing the basics of the host country language and forming relationships with co-workers and customers. So the first thing you need to do is to publicize these benefits. Take a "what’s in it for me?" approach: Market the career-development value of the program to expats and potential expats.

Second, your line managers may not understand the value of the program, and as a result, they may be discouraging assignees from participating in the face of all the work they’re hoping these employees will wrap up before leaving. If you suspect this may be the case, you might want to consider a radical idea: Make the training mandatory. Remove pressure from the expats entirely.

And third, if your organization selects expats and gives them short notice, these employees may feel too rushed to take the time for predeparture training. If this sounds familiar, make yourself aware of the long-distance and in-country training options so you have a back-up plan ready to go.

Make employees aware that language training is always an option, so they can start ahead of the rush when they have "potential expat" status. Pete Simmonds, director of corporate sales for Syracuse Language, based in Syracuse, New York, says: "Several of our clients have asked us: ‘Can you provide us with tools we can use to tell our employees these kinds of language training programs are available?’" In response, Syracuse offers a variety of solutions—e-mails, Web pages and newsletter articles to name a few.

And that’s all there is to it. Your expat families are counting on you to give them the tools and skills they need to adjust successfully. Not only are you saving them from unnecessary frustration and anxiety, but you’re also protecting your company’s $1 million investment. Just think how much better you’ll sleep.

Global Workforce, March 1999, Vol. 4, No. 2, pp. 6-8.

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