Destination USA

April 1, 1997
Everyone knows the U.S.A. We export our culture everywhere in the world. From blockbuster movies like "Forrest Gump" and "Terminator 2" to music legends like Madonna and Michael Jackson; from the O.J. Simpson trial to Seinfeld; we advertise our personalities—and culture—via satellite to anyone wishing access. The Big Mac (R), fries and Coca-Cola (R) are staples from Australia to Zaire, and Levi’s denim jeans are a virtual uniform across the globe.

So, people know the American culture. With this type of exposure, the United States should be easy to adapt to when coming here on an international assignment. Right? Wrong.

People come to the United States with visions that are partially correct and partially incorrect. Fears, apprehensions and half-truths accompany their impressions that we’re outgoing, friendly, strong, beautiful and happy. Besides that, Americans are familiar with the idea of diversity and have a long history of integrating immigrants. It often makes us all believe that "foreigners"—no matter where they come from and no matter why they’re staying in the United States—will adjust easily.

The reality is, the United States is as foreign and strange to international assignees as other countries are to Americans. Sound simple? Sure, but we forget it all the time. Although the United States may be an easier destination to integrate into than some other countries because of its notoriety, HR professionals are well-advised to remember that assignees feel like travelers to another world. "We, as a country, need to be more outward-looking than we are," says Jill Terry, principal human resources representative from Solar Turbines Inc., who manages a range of people—Germans, Chinese, Indonesians, French. Thinking about our country as a "foreign business destination," however, is a fairly new role for us and requires a new mindset. Unlike the situation when we welcome immigrants and expect them to assimilate, being a host to foreign nationals requires we do just that—be hosts. Doing so means dealing with many of the same issues we must handle for our own expats. The most important issues are preparing the incoming workers for the differences in the cultural and business climate and providing them the support they need to be comfortable enough in our "home" so that they can perform the jobs they were brought here to do.

"I think (Americans) can't understand the vacation policy. It seems to bother them because companies give them only a week after so many years, and maybe after five years they get three weeks. In Europe, and other parts of the world, people get a month of vacation. They get paid for 12 months for 11 months of work."
—Michel Mamoui (from France), General Manager of Food and Beverage at the J. Paul Getty Center, Los Angeles.

Global managers play a central role in helping to demystify the experience. Managing expectations and paying attention to timing in key areas such as immigration and education help expatriates adjust. They depend on HR to help them with an array of new experiences: language acquisition, cultural orientation, securing credit and bank accounts, gaining insurance and access to medical services, and understanding how the medical system works in the United States. Incoming expats must learn about transportation—whether they’ll be driving or using public modes of getting around. They need help anticipating what they’ll find in accommodations; parents require assistance with schooling and day care for their children. Spouses and accompanying partners need special attention, too.

The huge influx requires a new way of thinking.
Nearly 90,000 foreign nationals annually are brought to the United States by their American employers, according to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. American companies are acquiring international businesses or going into joint ventures, making it imperative to bring key individuals to the United States to help transfer corporate cultures. In addition, many U.S. firms, such as those in the high-tech fields, have an insatiable hunger for individuals who possess skills not readily available in the United States.

"We’re definitely experiencing a big change in the volume of people coming to the United States," says Sharon Richards, of the Business Practices Network at Santa Clara, California-based Intel Corp. "We’re not only bringing more people to the United States, but we’re seeing that the people who are coming have a wider variety of backgrounds. For example, we’re seeing people who come for a particular training assignment as well as those who fill the usual high-level, global-manager positions."

American firms aren’t the only ones bringing foreign nationals to the United States to work. The Christian Science Monitor estimates that approximately five million workers in the United States are employed by foreign-owned firms. And these companies have $60 billion in direct investment in the United States, says the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. With this type of foreign investment in the United States, it represents an enormous market for foreign companies to both produce and market products, thus creating a need to send their expatriates.

Fortunately for these incoming expats, the United States is possibly one of the best places for an international assignment. It has one of the highest standards of living in the world and a lifestyle that’s considered unequaled. Yet, the cost of living is affordable by many nations’ standards, making the United States an attractive and cost-effective place to bring—or send—expatriates. Still, that doesn’t mean it’s simple for foreign nationals to come to the United States and integrate into its workplaces. Like our expats going abroad, incoming expats must first weather culture shock.

Prepare for culture shock—U.S. style.
The fact that foreign nationals come with expectations of American culture actually can make their assignments harder, not easier. "The United States is so well-known around the world via movies and television that people tend to have a lot of assumptions," says Richards. "They assume they know us. Some of the information they bring is accurate, but some is inaccurate."

Therefore, setting realistic expectations is one of the most important aspects of preparing an incoming assignee. One of the most difficult adjustments for non-Americans has to do with socializing and community. "Americans appear extremely friendly on the surface," says Terry. "We talk about getting together for lunch or for dinner, yet we don’t follow through. People in other countries frequently form friendships in the workplace that transcend work and cross into other parts of their lives. When [personal bonding] doesn’t happen in the United States, this may shock them and can create hurt feelings."

But, more problematic than simply hurt feelings, this could lead to a sense of isolation which may cause withdrawal and depression. This can have serious implications for business. "Initially they may go to the workplace and believe that they will have real relationships and friendships with Americans," says Sondra Thiederman, president of San Diego-based Cross-Cultural Communications. "When that doesn’t occur, they may begin to cluster: They form groups among themselves and are reluctant to socialize with native-born Americans because they don’t understand them."

"You have so many options for anything you want to do. Anything you want to buy, products or services. You go to the supermarket and find 50 different types of yogurt. There's so much choice; it's almost bewildering."
—Guthakrishnan (G.K.) Kannan, (from India) Regional Director of Therapeutics, Asia-Pacific Region for Allergan, Irvine, CA.

Another false expectation incoming workers may have is the concept of a "typical American," being someone like John Wayne. You can imagine the shock when the reality hits. Not only is John Wayne a dated icon that sets ups incorrect expectations, but he certainly doesn’t illustrate the variety and diversity of the general population. Greater mysteries yet: Americans don’t even speak the same dialect, and sometimes not even the same language. "[Assignees] may have learned English in their home country, but if they’re put in a living environment in which they listen to Asian or Southern accents, it complicates the process further," says Intel’s Richards. The incoming expats need to be prepared for the demographics of the location in the United States they’re going to live in as well. Albuquerque is not Seattle and is different again from New York City.

At Intel, all incoming expats receive pre-departure training in their home country to address these types of issues. Typically those that surface have to do with safety—Is it safe to walk on the streets; where can children play? Oftentimes Intel moves large groups of employees from one country to another. In these instances, Richards and a staff of experts present a "Road Show." They gather the group and talk about all the relocation issues at one time—covering taxes, policy issues, housing, education and all of the relocation questions the expats will be facing.

Country-specific cultural values comprise one large component of the training during which Intel includes the expats’ partners and older children. Richards says: "We’ll ask them, ‘What are the Irish cultural values; what are the Malaysian cultural values?’ And then we’ll compare the similarities and differences with the American cultural values." As Richards points out, it’s important to know both the written rules and the unwritten cultural ones. For example, when interacting with a police officer, it’s critical to know the proper way to conduct oneself. If assignees naively start to get out of the car or reach for something, they could find themselves in a dangerous situation.

Another part of Intel’s training focuses on expected workplace behaviors—behaviors dictated both by culture and by law. People unaware of our laws and expectations surrounding sexual harassment, for example, may find themselves in trouble simply by doing what is culturally correct in their own countries.

Intel addresses these issues head-on in several ways: education, mentoring and training. Richards has created a booklet called, "Things You Need to Know About Working in the U.S.A." that talks about sexual harassment, recognition of gay and lesbian rights, and Intel’s expectations about behavior. All incoming expatriates receive a copy.

In addition to this type of preparation given to the assignees, Intel trains receiving managers to work with groups of people who are coming in from other cultures. The managers learn how to integrate new team members from a work perspective. As one example, the managers may design a buddy system so incoming foreign nationals have partners from whom they can learn the ropes.

"The rewarding thing at Intel," says Richards "is that managers now are requesting cultural training. They know it’s important because people have different communication styles, different values, different behaviors. The question is how we can understand and work with them effectively. It’s learning both ways, what I call closed-loop training."

Support incoming expats.
Recognizing—and more importantly, addressing—cultural differences the way Intel does, is crucial. Successful assignments require careful planning—from the selection process through support systems.

Los Angeles-based California Commerce Bank and parent company, Banamex USA Bancorp, epitomize the way in which U.S. global managers can think creatively to help people succeed in the United States—and be cost effective at the same time.

"We strive for excellence in our expatriate assignments (both incoming and outgoing)—by employing people who will deliver almost from Day One," says Dennis Campos, senior vice president of human resources for California Commerce Bank and instructor for the University of California at Los Angeles Extension Program. The array of incoming expats—corporate bankers, marketing officers, foreign exchange traders—mostly from Mexico, come to the United States because many of the bank’s employees must be bicultural. Customers of the bank are both U.S. corporations and multinationals that have a business relationship with the parent bank, Banamex USA Bancorp, in Mexico City.

The thoughtful nature of the assignment process is apparent from the beginning of selection all the way through the support of expatriates during their stay in the United States. Selection starts with the nomination of a candidate from the parent firm based on the person’s technical quality. It continues with cultural and personal assessments, interviews (with the family as well) and several visits to the United States, during which time Campos and his staff hold a series of meetings with the candidate to decide whether or not he or she will do well in the U.S. company’s corporate culture. One of the major concerns is the ability to thrive in the multicultural environment of the California bank.

Once both sides decide the assignment is a good match, the expatriate makes another visit. Home finding and orientation with the U.S. staff come next. Expats meet with HR, their soon-to-be supervisors, relocation experts and tax consultants. The bank doesn’t follow the pack in many of its approaches and is quite progressive. Compensation is designed so expatriates can live at least the type of lifestyle they did when they were in their home country. The bank recently redesigned the compensation package so that expatriates are treated like U.S. locals. They get a salary that incorporates their special needs as expats, but they pay their own U.S. taxes. For example, although private schooling isn’t usually included in the package, exceptions to this rule are given as part of the salary, not as an education allowance.

"This is very different from what most people are doing," says Campos. "We take advantage of the U.S. tax laws. A few years ago we followed the expatriate standard package of the parent corporation. It didn’t take anyone much time to figure out that we were simply paying a lot of taxes to the U.S. government needlessly because we were paying expats on a net basis and grossing the salaries up, indemnifying the expats for retirement in Mexico and also indemnifying them for fluctuations in currency.

"We redesigned our plans. Now because we treat them as locals, if they’ve had one year of service, they can participate in our retirement plan," says Campos. "When they hit the States, they’re in the 401(k) plan and our pension plan. We’ve found it to be much cheaper than indemnifying them on any lost retirement they would’ve had if they’d remained in Mexico." They return to Mexico with two qualified retirement plans that continue to grow, tax-free, until retirement.

This international approach to compensation, retirement benefits and medical coverage requires planning and coordination with the non-U.S. division or affiliate. It also requires sensitivity to the assignee’s individual needs. For example, when there’s a working spouse, that’s factored into the package so the family doesn’t suffer a decrease in lifestyle because of the lost income. Home travel is frequent when there’s an extensive nuclear family because of the importance of those relationships.

With the great influx of expatriates to the United States, it’s critical to lessen the mystery. We may be a foreign destination, but we don’t have to be as mysterious as the moon. With the right processes in place, adequate planning and time, expats won’t feel like they’re stranded on a strange, foreboding planet.

Global Workforce, April 1997, Vol. 2, No. 2, pp. 18-22.