The Reality of Culture (International)

Aug 02, 2005

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By Gary M. Wederspahn, Grovewell LLC

Cross-cultural training and coaching should be a component of every international relocation package. It just makes good business sense to do the smart thing for the company and the right thing for expatriates by providing them with the tools they need to deal successfully with the reality of culture in their host countries.

The risks, problems, and obstacles commonly recognized as part of international relocation include loss, theft or damage of property during shipping, delays in obtaining visas and work permits, difficulty locating acceptable housing or schools, finding needed community services, and even transporting pets. Unfortunately, the most daunting challenge, cross-cultural adaptation, is seldom on the list...perhaps because it doesn't seem as real as the other, more tangible factors. Yet, failure to adapt to the culture in the host country has far more impact on the success of the international assignment than do the obvious pitfalls.

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Aware of the stresses of international assignments, many firms employ intercultural training as a means to ensure the well-being of expatriate families.

Consider these facts:

  • The total cost of a typical corporate international assignment is over $1 million. However, a 1999 survey by Cendant International Services found that 63 percent of 300 companies surveyed reported failed international assignments.
  • The 2001 Global Relocation Trends survey conducted by GMAC, The National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC), and the Society for Human Resources Management revealed that 75 percent of overseas assignees had no previous international experience. Another survey by the American Society for Training and Development found that 70 percent of American business people going abroad receive no cross-cultural training and that 59 percent of the companies offered none to their expatriates.
  • International HR researchers Allan Bird and Edward Dunbar estimate that 30 to 50 percent of expatriates function at a very minimal level of effectiveness.
  • Settler International, an international relocation assistance company, reports that the divorce rate among expatriate couples is 40 percent higher than among their domestic counterparts and that the school dropout rate of their children is 50 percent higher than in their home countries.

Knowing these facts, some corporations protect the investment in their expatriates by giving them intercultural training and coaching. The benefits of doing so are clear. A 2002 CIGNA/NFTC/WorldatWork survey found that expatriates who had cross-cultural training were three times as likely to rate their overseas assignments "favorable" compared to those without it. A Prudential Relocation International study of expatriates’ satisfaction and performance twelve months into their assignments reported that 94 percent recommend cross-cultural training to others.

International relocation and moving companies that help their clients see the reality of culture and offer them tools for overcoming cultural differences are doing them a big favor.

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