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Ready to work abroad?

Giant cockroaches are just one of the hazards of a foreign assignment that people aren't prepared for, WALLACE IMMEN finds

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

As legions of cockroaches defiantly scurried out of boxes stored in the kitchen of his new apartment, Michael Twohey began to think he'd made a big mistake leaving Canada for a posting in China.

"I had never seen bugs that large. I spent the whole night killing cockroaches," recalls Mr. Twohey, who is now manager for professional programs for York University's English Language Institute in Toronto. A few sleepless nights later, he thought he had the roach problem under control, when the invasion of the monster rats began.

At that point, he was ready to drop out of what would eventually be a two-year assignment teaching English and grab the first available transportation out of Chongqing, a sprawling city on the upper end of China's Yangtze River. "I had to ask the basic question: 'Why am I here?' The first couple of days you find yourself excited by everything. Then the realization hits you in the face. You're not here on a holiday; you're here to work. That's always unsettling." The increasing globalization of business means more Canadians than ever will face the daunting adjustments required to work in a foreign country, according to a new survey of Canadian corporations.

Despite economic uncertainty and corporate cost-cutting, more than 46 per cent of multinational Canadian firms surveyed said they expect to expand their expatriate work forces over the next five years.

Most of the 72 companies surveyed believed they were doing an adequate job preparing employees for their foreign positions, but nearly 40 per cent of respondents admitted they saw room for improvement.

The survey was done in September by Cigna International Expatriate Benefits, Mercer Human Resource Consulting and International SOS of Canada.

About half of people being sent abroad have never worked outside of Canada before, the study found. Most are sent to manage foreign operations or sales forces, to expand into a new market or to do jobs the local work force lacks the skills to perform.

While most companies provide training and counselling to prepare employees, those who saw room for improvement often cited the urgency to get a position filled as a reason that employees didn't get enough preparation before starting their assignment.

And that can be a recipe for failure, said Virginia Hollis, who helped analyze the survey.

"Just because you are going to the U.K. or U.S. where they speak the same language, there are still significant cultural and business differences you have to cope with," said Ms. Hollis, vice-president of global markets for Cigna, which arranges overseas employee benefit programs.

According to a handbook for U.S. foreign service employees compiled by John Adams of the University of West Virginia College of Business, 20 to 25 per cent of all foreign postings are rated failures because the employee either comes home early or fails to live up to expectations in their work abroad.

There are no comprehensive numbers on failure rates of employees of Canadian companies, Ms. Hollis said. The survey she analyzed found only 35 per cent of Canadian multinationals have a system to measure the success or failure of overseas postings.

It is often not the job, but the complexities of daily life abroad that can create stresses that affect performance, said Lorna Wright, who recalls the first time she went to a store to buy groceries on her first posting in Tokyo. "Everything was in Kanji, the Japanese pictograms, no English. I was holding a package of white crystals in my hand and wondering whether it was salt or sugar and there was no one in the store who could help me." Such communications barriers turned simple decisions into challenges.

"You should opt in and not be co-opted into a foreign assignment," advises Ms. Wright, who after 15 years of postings with governments and private companies in Japan, Spain and the United States is now director of the International MBA program in the Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto. In her course in cross-cultural management, she advises students preparing for overseas work assignments to think long and hard before accepting a posting.

Ms. Wright said her overseas experiences were made simpler because her husband was able to relocate with her and they did not have children. Children tend to make things quite a bit more complicated, Ms. Wright advises.

When foreign assignments fail, it is usually a result of family issues, said Tim Witchell, principal of Mercer Human Resource Consulting, who helped analyze the survey results. The individual going on the assignment is very much preoccupied by the assignment, while the family members have to carry on their daily activities, he said. Adapting to the cultural changes becomes their preoccupation and there is often not enough support in the adopted country.

Nancy Altilia, who was sent to Paris by a computer company, learned that the hard way. When she got the assignment, she had a two-year-old son and her husband decided to leave his job to stay home in Paris to become the main caregiver.

A relocation service hired by Ms. Altilia's employer offered good advice on choosing an apartment and even helped them with the daunting bureaucratic task of getting a phone and electricity installed reasonably quickly.

But for day-to-day living, they were left to fend for themselves. Even though they spoke Quebec French, they were often looked at with bafflement by Parisians, Ms. Altilia said. At first, none of the neighbours was forthcoming when asked for suggestions on where to shop.

In the midst of the adjustment to domestic life and work, a mini-crisis hit. "One day, our son fell and had a great gash on his head. We rushed to an emergency room in St-Germain and found all the doors were locked. I'm sure it was all perfectly reasonable, but we didn't know what to do next." After much frantic searching, they did find a doctor who stitched the wound.

"Gradually we learned who and how to ask and to be more forceful and formal in communicating than you would be in Canada. No one told us, we just had to learn." It is the type of advice that would have been handy to have had in advance, said Ms. Altilia, who now works for Mercer in Toronto.

After getting adjusted, the two-year assignment went relatively smoothly, Ms. Altilia said. But she and her family experienced a reverse culture shock when she returned to Canada.

That's when people meet what can be even a bigger challenge than living abroad -- fitting in on their return, Mr. Witchell said. Only half of employers surveyed by Cigna and Mercer said they believe they adequately meet the challenges faced by employees making the transition back to work in Canada after their assignments.

All too often there is an "out of sight, out of mind" syndrome, Mr. Witchell said. Companies should ensure there is constant communication with their employees, but the survey found only 54 per cent of executives feel their company does a good job of communicating with ex-pats. Half of the companies surveyed reported they communicated differently with foreign workers than with employees in Canada, often relying on e-mail and dedicated Web sites.

On their return to the Canadian office, many employees who go overseas feel out of place, as though they no longer fit into the organization, Ms. Wright said. That's partly because employers don't capitalize on the valuable experience the employee has gained working independently in the foreign posting.

"What often happens is a year or so after an employee comes back they will jump ship and go to another company. You lose a valuable resource if you haven't ensured that they see there is a career path," Ms. Wright said.

Her advice to employees is to consider where a foreign posting fits in with their career goals. "These days the rhetoric is you are going to have to have international experience if you are going to rise to the top. In a globalized world, you may be limiting your changes of advancement if you turn down a foreign posting. But you have to think about how you are going to parlay the experience in the next step of your career plan," Ms. Wright said.

It may be that going abroad makes sense, but not immediately. The survey found a trend toward more assignments to employees who are single, or whose children are grown.

Problems have increased with the trend toward dual-career couples, Ms. Wright said. If you have children, it often depends on what stage they are at. Children have to find schools, which can be expensive overseas. Especially in the teenage years, children become reluctant to move. However, if you have young children and are going to Bangkok or Beijing where hiring help is inexpensive, it could make domestic arrangements easier.

If you were used to living in a suburban house with a back yard in Canada, you'll find similar housing doesn't exist outside North America. In many places an apartment will be significantly smaller than what you are used to in Canada. And in some parts of the world you might have to live behind a high fence and have a security guard.

You have to do a self-assessment and ask: Can I cope with this? Can my family cope?, Ms. Wright said.

Candidate selection should involve the entire family unit and Canadian companies have not tended to do that in the past, she added.

"I have noticed a big difference in the preparation Canadian companies provide to candidates and their families for foreign postings. Fifteen years ago it was zip," Ms. Wright said. "But it's still very hit and miss in most cases."

Candidates really should be given a chance to go to the country and have a look around to see whether this is something they want to do and can feel comfortable and perform in the new location, Ms. Wright said. Unfortunately, this is expensive and is generally only an option for large companies.

But it is a good investment in terms of the survey's findings that a Canadian firm typically makes an investment in excess of $1-million to keep an employee overseas for three years.

A growing trend is for companies to send candidates to outside consultants who specialize in preparing employees to work abroad. They can provide a complete package, including advice on housing, schools, and tax implications.

In response to recent concerns about terrorism and safety issues overseas, the majority of companies reported they have updated their emergency response programs for employees.

"I'm surprised this study finds an expectation for an increase in overseas postings," she said. "There has actually been a recent trend toward shorter-term in-and-out business travel because it is so expensive to keep employees overseas."

Companies have been bemoaning the fact that they can't get senior executives to go overseas, Ms. Wright said. She said the problem comes down to a mismatch with senior executives who have worked in Canada throughout their careers and are focused domestically and not interested in going overseas.

She advises firms to put people on the track to senior management who are interested in overseas postings so that when they reach the senior levels they are going to want to volunteer to work outside Canada.

"My gut reaction is 'Go for it,' " Ms. Wright advises candidates who want to work outside Canada. "But there really is a lot to think about and you need to get advice from several sources."


A to-do list for corporations

Before sending anyone to a foreign posting, a company should:

  • Standardize procedures and not make exceptions.
  • Understand the full costs associated with foreign assignments.
  • Get the right candidate and prepare them well. Give them training, including cultural orientation well in advance.
  • Make sure the worker understands the compensation, benefits and health care and educational facilities for children.
  • Be mindful of the dual-career couple. Provide support to help a spouse find employment in the host culture.
  • Consider the family in the selection and support their day-to-day needs in the transition.
  • If possible, allow a reconnaissance trip before the assignment.
  • Have medical and security evacuation plans.
  • Don't let first-timers stay away too long. It becomes difficult to reintegrate them within the company.
  • Develop a program to use the worker's skills and experience on return to Canada

-- From Cigna International Expatriate Benefits and York University's Lorna Wright

How to succeed

Lorna Wright's recipe for a successful expatriate assignment:

  • Find out as much as you can about your host country before you go. Knowledge is your best weapon against culture shock.
  • Don't rely on only one source of information. Check with several to counteract biases and account for regional differences.
  • If your company doesn't offer you or your family any predeparture training, ask for it.
  • Be flexible. Realize that not everything is going to be done the same way in the host country as in your home country.
  • Consciously look for logical reasons behind everything in the host culture that seems strange, difficult, confusing or threatening.
  • Learn as much of the language as you can. Even a few words can go a long way to increasing your comfort level in the host country.
  • Maintain communication with your home office. You don't want to be "out of sight, out of mind."
  • Maintain your sense of humour.

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