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Helping Foreign Nationals Adapt to the U.S

February 1, 1995
Related Topics: Global Business Issues, Diversity, Featured Article
A manager from Thailand leaves his temporary assignment in Boston to visit his homeland for several weeks. It's in the middle of winter. To save money and energy, he completely turns off the heat in his house. When he returns to the East Coast, however, he discovers frozen water in the toilet bowl and the pipes. No one had thought to teach him how to close up a house during the winter season, and it never occurred to him to ask. Damage to the rental property, leased to his employer, was $5,000.

A couple with two children arrives in the United States from Brazil. They describe their housing needs to their relocation representative: a four-bedroom home, with one bedroom separated from the rest of the house, preferably off the kitchen. It turns out that the only house matching this description is more expensive than the manager's package allows. When asked why he needs the fourth bedroom off the kitchen, the employee responds, "Where else would the maid sleep?"

A German woman initially frowned upon her husband's transfer to the United States. But learning English, she reasoned, would be useful to her career when she returned home. Because she encountered American women who seemed either too busy or disinterested in her, she devised a way to still enhance her language skills. Every morning she would write summaries of the stories in the morning newspaper, then show them to a neighbor for review. "If they won't speak to me, at least they'll read what I write."

HR managers must approach these issues with creative and individually tailored solutions. We work hard to address each family's specific concerns.

In most global companies today, managers destined for top management positions often assume temporary assignments in foreign countries. Both domestic and foreign-based firms are therefore in the business of bringing employees from other countries to live in the United States. Very often, these employees bring their families with them. What problems do these families face, and how can companies address them? HR managers—through a combination of in-house policies [compensation and benefits] and contracted relocation services—are placed in the position of assisting the temporary employees' transition. Because of the increasing cultural diversity of foreign employees working in the United States, HR managers must approach these issues with new, creative and individually tailored solutions, says Pat Foley, senior international personnel representative of Boston-based Gillette Corporation. "We work hard to address the specific concerns of each family," she says. Among some of the most prevalent: dual-career couples, children's education, learning English and adjusting to American customs and values at home and at the workplace.

Organizations should try to support dual-career couples.
As women's social status changes worldwide, they increasingly are becoming the managers being transferred to the United States. Moreover, the wives of male managers today also have careers they're reluctant to leave. For many families, the best outcome is for a spouse to continue his or her career while in the United States. In the case of a female spouse, perhaps she may have her own sponsor for a work visa, or have a transportable career. Government regulations about dependents' work visas differ from country to country, and the United States is viewed by many as having particularly tough laws. Solutions might include finding the qualified spouse a job within the same company; paying for his or her education and further training; or supporting two households (one for the employee in the United States, the other for the family remaining in the home country during the overseas assignment.) Still other companies offer a salary adjustment to make up for lost income, or try to make up for the loss in some indirect way, such as paying for a house with studio space so the spouse may pursue a new interest.

Families are concerned how their children will manage at school.
One of the most pressing questions parents have is, "Will the academic work be at an appropriate level for my child?" Families from some countries will be concerned that their children won't be adequately prepared for the American classroom. Others might be concerned that their children won't be challenged. Helping families find a school is one of the most important aspects of relocation support. For some families, this will mean that a school administrator takes the time to examine each child's academic background rather than make an individual placement based simply on age. For others, it will mean a school has support for non-English-speaking children. The careful choice of a school, teacher and grade level—and for older children, an academic track—will be crucial first steps in the child's successful adjustment.

Parents also ask, "Will my child be prepared to step back into school when we return home?" This is where families feel the adjustment pangs associated with cross-cultural differences, according to Peggy Love of McLean, Virginia-based Full Circle International Relocations. "What they'll have learned in an American school will most likely be different from what they would've learned at their home school. Each country has its own philosophy about how and what to teach in the classroom," she says. For example, is math best taught by rote or logic? Is discipline or innovation more important for children? How much free choice should children be given about what they study? How much freedom should be given to teachers in planning curriculum? At what age should children begin reading? How much emphasis should be given to group versus individual projects and achievement? These are the roots of cultural differences in education, and it's unlikely that the American school will match the philosophy of the home school. These differences make up the richness of the cross-cultural experience, but families don't always expect or understand that this is so. "If what you want is an individualist, an independent adult (as Americans do), you have to start teaching children very young to think for themselves, that their own ideas are worthwhile, and that they will be judged by their own work, not by that of their peers. That's what's going on in our schools, from kindergarten on," says Helenann Wright of Savoir Faire, a relocation and cultural-orientation firm based in Lexington, Massachusetts.

But Gillette's Foley, like many global human resources professionals, believes a company should try to accommodate an individual family's needs as much as it can. "If a family from the UK is worried about their child's preparation for the A-level exams, we'll buy the books needed for that preparation. If the children start school at age 4, we'll pay for nursery school here," she says.

Companies also can help the employee family's English-speaking ability.
Employees being transferred to the United States from non-English speaking countries may have some English-speaking background. But their families may not have the same skill level or confidence. And while children seem to pick up English quickly if they're in English-speaking schools, the spouse left at home may face some difficulties. The spouse may have studied English in school, but not feel comfortable with conversational English. Hence, many companies pay for English lessons for family members, either pre-departure or post-arrival, or both—an important benefit that should be offered to the whole family.

However, as crucial as they are, English lessons may not be enough to allow spouses to become as connected to American life as they'd like. Especially in communities where there are many foreign nationals who speak the same language, spouses may not be able to practice enough English in order to combat their isolation. Both employees and children are more likely to be in situations where they only practice the English they know. In this situation, it's understandably easy for spouses to succumb to feelings of uncertainty, shyness and even bitterness. Companies should therefore ensure an ongoing structure for small-group or one-on-one interaction between workers' spouses and English-speakers. Such arrangements might be as important as that initial set of English lessons. For some foreign nationals, these interactions occur spontaneously. But others may need some structure to make them happen. Successful interactions may occur through schools, through programs that match American volunteers with newcomers, through relocation support services or through conversational English courses. Gerald Lucht, senior consultant for expatriate services at Wilmington, Delaware-based DuPont Corporation, says that language and cultural adaptation training go hand in hand. Savoir Faire, for example, conducts monthly meetings for families on their client list. Men and women can share their views, ask questions, listen to lectures and make connections with each other, all in English.

Many foreign nationals express reservations about American culture.
For some, becoming too Americanized can mean involvement with sex and drugs. For others, it means developing habits and attitudinal changes that distance the child from the family and make it hard to return home. Or it can simply mean working a lot of unexpected overtime, having too many choices or accepting different medical, sanitary, dietary and lifestyle standards.

One English mother told a story about her son speaking English with an American accent. The boy explained that he wanted to fit in with the other children at school. The mother felt she had lost him, that he had sacrificed his own identity. To her, an American accent represented an informality she didn't like to see in her son. A Japanese mother worried that her children would not be willing to spend as much time doing homework after experiencing a more relaxed American school system. In order to help balance the old and new cultures, some companies pay for children to attend classes that maintain their connection to their home language and culture. "Living as a foreigner is an experience that prepares children for belonging to a larger, global community," says Marvina Shilling, president of Arlington, Virginia-based Intercultural Management Training and Consulting. The company helps families appreciate the value of exposure to cultural differences through its program called Living and Working in the United States. Some men also have commented that their wives seem to become more liberated after moving to the United States. Of course, countries differ widely in what women's lives are like. But for women from many foreign countries, living in the United States means more freedom and control than they're accustomed to at home. It's often a satisfactory trade-off for the lack of a live-in maid commonplace in many Latin American countries.

Diana Geofroy, international personnel representative at Gillette Corporation, knows what it's like to make such adjustments. A recent resident of the United States herself, she recalls one Mexican woman who initially longed for her lifestyle at home. Later, she had grown accustomed to her husband's shorter working hours in the United States, and the ease of getting from one place to another. Now, she's reluctant to return home. Even when husbands are supportive of their wives' newly found freedom, the wife and family will probably face adjustment problems when they return home. And in marriages where husbands aren't supportive in the first place, the problems will be exacerbated even further.

To help balance the old and new culture, some companies pay for children to attend classes that maintain their ties with their home language and culture.

Families may need professional help in maneuvering through these adjustments before, during and after an assignment. For some, a short-term orientation addressing family adjustment may be enough. Others may require consultation with a professional who understands the effects of cultural transition on family life. HR managers need to remember that asking for this kind of help isn't easy in any culture. Just because an employee isn't requesting it doesn't mean that his family is adjusting smoothly.

Employees' work lives also are likely to be different from the home country. In the United States, wives and children may be invited to company dinners, parties or picnics. Or employees from other cultures may find themselves working longer or different hours, or having shorter or longer vacations. These changes add to the cross-cultural adjustment these families face. Japanese wives, for example, may not be accustomed to having their husbands home for dinner or available to tuck their children in for bedtime. Even in the happiest of families, this marks a major change in how families run, a change requiring a period of adjustment.

Violence on American streets is a news story abroad.
Foreign nationals coming to the United States often hear about children being abducted, German tourists being carjacked and Japanese students being shot. The prevalence of weapons in American schools understandably alarms many families moving here. Most often, this concern for their family's safety and well-being is managed as a housing issue. Human resources managers can help families get accurate information and practical advice about which communities, schools and neighborhoods are the safest. Human resources and relocation firms also can help find appropriate housing and utilize a variety of multimedia programs that describe American demographics. These efforts will no doubt help the family to get around in their new location, as well as ease some anxiety.

Most people can easily imagine the problems of moving to a different country. But it's harder for people anywhere to anticipate the problems foreign nationals will have in moving to their own country. The peculiarities of a nation's values, behavior, attitudes, daily practices and customs become invisible to those who have always lived there. It is the American human resources manager's job to learn to see the United States from the foreign national's eyes. Only then can they provide the information and support needed for making sure each family has a successful assignment in the United States.

Anne P. Copeland is a clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychology at Boston University. She also publishes Newcomer's Almanac, a monthly newsletter for international families who have recently moved to the United States.

Personnel Journal, February 1995, Vol. 74,, No. 2, pp. 83-87.

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