Working Overseas: Foreign affairs

If someone offered you their business card in Singapore, carefully held by two corners, would you know what to do? Or would you know what colour shirt is a no-no in Denmark? There’s no reason why you should – but if you were due to work on a project in one of those countries, you should certainly make it your business to find out.

With increasing globalisation, cross-cultural contact is on the increase.

Research undertaken at Cranfield Management School two years ago, for example, looked at four categories of international workers – ex-patriates, short-term assignees, international commuters and frequent fliers. It found that the numbers involved in all four categories are rising. Says Cranfield’s Dr Christine Communal: “The number of ex-pats is very gently growing but the fastest growing category by far is the short-term assignee, followed by the other two categories, which show similar growth.”

She says the research also focused on the problems associated with the different types. For the ex-pats questioned, for example, the issues often concerned the partner’s career. “Short-term assignees found it difficult to keep a healthy work/life balance and international commuters experienced burn out from the travelling.”

So how do people prepare for overseas work? Obviously, there are dedicated courses like that in cross-cultural communication run by Communal at Cranfield but what of the employers themselves? Approaches vary. IBM employees going on an assignment of more than three months get a formal briefing with a dedicated mobility representative, a “look see” trip linked with a third-party relocation agent, to look at housing, schools, doctors and so on and provide a cultural briefing, and access to a number of cultural diversity websites where they can get more information. Typical assignment length is two to three years, says EMEA international assignments service centre manager Anne Conroy, but there is also a short term foreign service plan for periods of between two and 18 months. “The majority of the cultural stuff is outsourced. Everyone going on a formal international assignment is allocated a work location manager, responsible for ensuring that business practices and so on are understood.”

For CSC much depends on the individual and the length of project or role undertaken. CSC’s head of employee relations, Chris Jennings, says: “We assess culturally where an employee is going – some countries are more extreme culturally and from a safety aspect. For example, when you go to Asia Pacific, the cultural issues are very different to those in Germany.

“There are some cases where we deliver input about a destination – it depends on the individual and how worldly they are, in terms of travel and so on. Some people say ‘what are you going to do about it’, while others find out for themselves. I tend to point people in the direction they need to go rather than spell it out for them.”

When he went to Singapore for a period, he says, he talked to a number of colleagues who had worked there before he went. “The protocols about how you greet people and deal with them, and the way business is done are very different from Europe. And as a representative of the company you want the people you are dealing with to think that you understand their culture.”

For CSC the practice of sending people abroad to work both supplies a capability required for a contract, and a way to develop people with potential, says Jennings.

One such is Casper Malig, CSC’s account director for BAE Systems, Avionics.

Malig moved to the UK from his native Denmark two years ago. “One of the drivers was the opportunity to develop myself personally. The UK IT marketplace is much more mature around outsourcing than in Scandinavia so I came here to learn to understand large scale outsourcing contracts,” he says. The move was not a difficult one, he adds. “CSC HR helped with relocation, work permits, tax numbers and so on. That was a huge help – dealing with all that yourself would be very frustrating. Having the backing of the company you work for is very important.” Malig thinks the biggest problem in moving to another country is the language barrier. “But for many Scandinavians moving to the UK is pretty easy as we learn English from an early age.

Italy, Spain or Germany would be more difficult.” However, he says, it takes some time to get up to speed in the social setting where you are not talking about work: “You need to know what is going on in British society but that comes with time.”

His girlfriend, who gave up her job to accompany him, has found employment here too. “That is extremely important,” says Malig. “The other partner has to be settled too.”

Jennings agrees. “On long term contracts, in my experience, it is not the employee who is the issue but the family. The employee comes to work in the CSC office every day, with a sense of belonging. But the spouse may have had to give up work, may want a job or not and needs support.”

Sue Sursham, resource manager for the consultancy practice of Schlumberger Sema, says the firm puts effort into getting good spouse networks going to make sure that employees’ families settle in well on overseas postings.

Since the Schlumberger takeover, overseas work has become a growing trend for staff. “Projects can be anything from four weeks to two years, although the average is probably six months.” Assignees normally work with a team of local people and would be briefed on cultural issues by local managers, she adds. “Language can be an issue and if they haven’t got those skills we help with that.”

Cap Gemini Ernst & Young’s Bob Scott has just returned to the UK after a series of global roles (most recently as relationship manager for Siebel Systems). He says proficiency in a second language is going to become increasingly important. “Learning French was a target for me,” he says.

Scott thinks both project and client related overseas work and role specific secondment-based work is on the increase. “Consultancies are becoming more global and clients are demanding more global solutions as opposed to locally implemented ones. That is the key driver.”

The standardised methods, tools and profiles of a global practice like CGE&Y facilitates movement between countries. “Mobility is positively encouraged,” says Scott. A group mobility site on the firm’s global intranet advertises international opportunities while a site called International Assignment offers help and advice both to people going to work overseas, covering legal, tax and other issues, and to those arriving to take up a post. But it is not just about self-help through the intranet. Says Scott: “Third party firms provide advice before the posting and day-to-day help on location, and training programmes like the Onboarding Process helps acclimatise people to the local entity they are joining.” One way to find out about the cultural working practices of a country, says Scott, is to contact colleagues who are already there. “The names of people already on secondment are posted on the intranet so that you can call them before you go,” he adds.

Scott himself attended a course at the firm’s International Business School, west of Paris, which was launched in 1997 to develop future global managers. With multi-cultural training specialist Canning, the school developed a programme to help its managers understand how people from other cultures behaved. Says Scott: “An eclectic mix of different cultures came together for four weeks during a nine month period. In between we worked in international teams on a project, alongside our day to day work.” This taught him much about different cultures and ways of working, he says. Content specific elements of the course, such as international law, and language training also played their part in equipping him for the global roles he undertook over the next four years.

But, in the excitement of new places, he warns, don’t forget to plan for your return. Having a mentor at home with whom you can have regular dialogue, and who can help you identify a suitable role for your comeback, is essential. “Coming back to a very different firm from the one I had left (it had doubled in size with the merger) would have been very difficult without that point of contact.”


While language is often the most obvious difference between nationalities, there are many other cultural differences which may only become clear if you live in a country. Cap Gemini Ernst & Young’s Bob Scott stresses the importance of being careful with idioms when abroad: He recalls a client workshop in France, where a French colleague was asked whether he would like to take responsibility for a piece of work. “He said: ‘Oui, pourquoi pas?’, he says. “And to the UK and Dutch guys present that ‘yes, why not’ smacked somewhat of reluctance. But to the French, that meant ‘absolutely, I’d love to do it’.” And while some nationalities are closer in terms of culture and go well together, like Denmark and the UK, others, like the Far East and Europe or America, have very different cultural environments. Says CSC’s Chris Jennings: “In Asia Pacific, Chinese business people will offer you their business cards, holding a corner in each hand so that you can read the text. You are supposed to take them by the other two corners and read them, then lay the cards out on the table in front of you, in the order that the people are facing you. It is both practical and respectful – you don’t forget anyone’s name that way.” He has seen some Americans who can’t handle this type of ceremony, he says. “They come in and deal the cards across the table. They don’t tend to think about the ‘when in Rome’ thing.”

Jennings has worked with a number of Americans over the years. He recalls a small faction who worked at CSC and banded together socially. “I remember when they presented us with a long list of phrases that Brits use and they didn’t understand – things like ‘donkey’s years’ and ‘fortnight’. We really are separated by a common language,” he says.

Some feel that the American view of Europe as a homogenous whole stems from their tendency not to travel outside the US. “You very often hear about a US person running “Europe”, says CGE&Y’s Scott, “but it is surprising, really. I have worked in America and New York is very different from Detroit or San Francisco. You would have thought that given the cultural diversity they have there, they would recognise that there are different cultures not only in Europe but even in the UK.”

Some, however, have a hazy idea. Says CSC’s Casper Malig: “When I worked in California, I found the Americans very opinionated – they had a very clear perception of Denmark as a small communist country.” He has found working in the UK less of a culture shock, although he was surprised by the long hours worked in the UK. “In Denmark there is a better balance between work and life,” he says. He also finds our penchant for red or pink shirts odd: “You simply don’t see that colour in Scandinavia – shirts are white, blue, green but you cannot buy pink or red.”

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