© Copyright 2006 Rogers Publishing Ltd. The following article first appeared in the January 2006 edition of BENEFITS CANADA magazine.
Culture shock
Cultural adaptation training is critical in ensuring foreign assignments are a positive experience—for the expatriate and the employer.
By Jean McFarland

Expatriates express a variety of sentiments when describing their expatriation. Some love it. Some hate it. But the questions employers should be asking are: Why do some hate it? How does that affect their assignments? What could make expatriation better?

On average, 40% of expatriates fail—that is, return home—before completing their assignments. And the replacement of employees domestically costs at least three times their salary. One can add to that the obvious costs of psychological counseling for the failed expatriate and another two-way set of relocations and additional hostcountry assistance for the replacement expatriate. In addition, covert costs can include the loss of face for the company with foreign business associates and damage to the failed employee’s reputation and career.

Looking at expatriates’ own words from interviews conducted face-toface in their host culture offers a glimpse into the dynamics of foreign assignments. All had been living in their host cultures 15 to 40 months.

Many expatriates find they hate a foreign assignment—the result of poor preparation. If expatriates are not culturally prepared to live internationally, they do not understand culture-based behaviors and take them personally. “You walk six inches from someone, and they will not look at you,” reports one expatriate. “It gets on your nerves. You wonder, ‘What’s wrong with me?’”

Lack of in-depth cross-cultural preparation makes adapting to foreign cultures extremely difficult, yet many cross-cultural preparation programs barely scratch the surface. Many expatriates report that they received only minimal face time with the relocation manager before departure. “I got two hours. She told me this and that, and showed me a movie,” says one former expatriate. “That was it.”

Many expatriates were irritated that their companies provided little psychological support. Both expatriate employees and their accompanying spouses expressed a heart-felt need to be connected to headquarters and to be appreciated for their efforts. Sadly, phrases commonly used to describe their relationship with headquarters include “abandoned,” “forgotten,” and “out of sight, out of mind.” “Anybody on a foreign assignment who thinks somebody in the company is going to keep track of you, that’s the biggest farce there is,” said one respondent.

Trying to cope in a foreign culture while feeling singled out, unprepared and disconnected produces intolerably high stress levels for expatriates. The major stressor for the 40% of expatriates who fail during their assignments is the inability to adjust to the host culture. And they admit their productivity suffers as a result. Half of “successful” expatriates acknowledge their productivity is low: this corresponds to research showing stress reduces productivity by 30%, overall.

Research shows that 83% of reporting companies experience expatriate failure, and 86% attribute failure to candidate selection and the inability to adapt to host cultures. Yet only 26% of expatriate candidates are provided cross-cultural communication preparation.

These numbers are telling: selection and training must be re-evaluated within the context of a better model. Says one respondent: “If you have the opportunity to be culturally prepared, you’re given a real head start. It’s quite a difference.”

The SPECIAL model can be an effective tool in preparing expatriates for a foreign assignment:
• Select expatriates assessed for a high probability of cultural adaptation.
• Prepare expatriates with indepth cross-cultural communication training.
• Enhance their transition with additional support and host-country assistants.
• Connect expatriates to the company. Correspond regularly.
• Integrate expatriates into the host culture.
• Align expatriates’ work and goals with headquarters’ goals, during expatriation and repatriation.
• Lead Time. Plan ahead for cultural transitions: going and returning.

Organizations can decrease costs, help expatriates succeed, and increase productivity with much less investment than is required to replace failed expatriates or to withdraw from failed international alliances. When neglected, culture costs: when leveraged, culture pays.

Jean McFarland is a speaker, author, and cultural issues advisor with G.P. Morgan and Associates in Scottsdale, Arizona. jeanrmcfarland@cox.net