A robust cross-cultural training programme is key for successful international relocations.
By Marta Chmielowicz
Cross-border relocations are becoming more commonplace as companies of all sizes embrace globalisation, battle skills shortages, and compete for top talent. Graebel’s Cross Border Transfers: Analysing Best Practices and Trends study reports that 83 per cent of HR professionals say these types of programmes help their organisations achieve talent and workplace management goals, and 66 per cent say they help meet internal development goals.
But whilst global relocations are becoming a key business differentiator, cross-border transfers come with a number of complications. From language proficiency to changes in food, climate, finances, personal support systems, and culture, transferees can struggle to transition to their new location. That is why cross-cultural training programmes are more important now than ever.
Setting Assignees up for Success
Cultural training can ensure the success of international transfers by helping employees develop realistic expectations of their upcoming experience. In fact, according to American Relocation Connections (ARC Relocation) Director Bill Mulholland, pre-assignment training has been known to reduce attrition rates on international assignments by as much as 75 per cent.
“Cultural training helps to reduce the transferee’s stress by setting expectations, and avoiding mistakes that occur from not ‘understanding,’” he explains. Training programmes educate transferees about the cultural norms of their new location, reveal their own internalised biases, and provide the awareness needed to understand and empathise with the different ways people across cultures live and work.
“By understanding one’s own behaviour and the circumstances around one’s upbringing, attitudes, and values that drive this behaviour, one can then begin to appreciate, accept, and understand the host country’s culture and why people behave the way they do. With this opened mind, one settles in the new location sooner, accepts challenges and differences, and is able to perform better at work,” says Laura Levenson, practice leader of the advisory services group at Weichert Workforce Mobility.
According to Mulholland, intercultural training programmes that provide this depth of knowledge and self-awareness can help employees determine whether the assignment is a good fit, thereby reducing the number of assignments cancelled before the completion date.
For best results, Tammy Molino, vice president of global services at Global Mobility Solutions (GMS), says that these programmes should address a holistic range of topics to provide transferees with the skills and confidence needed to navigate their assignments, including:
- the goals, challenges, motivations, and role changes associated with the move itself;
- ways that cultures differ;
- communication styles in the host country;
- the impact of culture on business functions and relations;
- daily life in the host country; and
- strategies to manage emotions in times of uncertainty and change.
An overview of these topics can reduce culture shock and prepare transferees to hit the ground running immediately upon arrival.
Building a Good Programme
How can organisations develop a cross-cultural training programme that adequately prepares their international assignees for what lies ahead? HR professionals can consider the following best practices:
1. Conduct a pre-programme assessment. “The ideal cultural training programme begins with an assessment of the individual: who they are, where they have lived and worked, their norms and standards, and how they view the world,” says NuCompass Mobility Services Vice President of Knowledge and Experience Cara Skourtis.
A self-assessment can help assignees gain insight into how their norms compare with those of the host country, providing a baseline measure and point of departure for future growth.
2. Take an individualised approach. According to Skourtis, the results of the self-assessment can provide HR professionals with valuable insights that can be used to guide and optimise the intercultural training process. “The most effective cultural training programmes are individualised to leverage any cultural competencies already present through business or personal experiences, and facilitate the individual’s ability to adapt and understand the cultural landscape of the new location,” she explains.
Once organisations understand the mindsets and expectations of their transferees, Skourtis says they can create a training curriculum that balances standardised information about the host country with a personalised approach to teaching. The results can guide intimate, customised conversations about how transferees can relate their experiences to the destination culture and the behavioural adjustments that may be needed.
In order to facilitate these discussions, Levenson suggests appointing executive mentors to each assignee. “Executive coaching and mentoring, either on a formal or informal basis, can be a great way to provide support for lasting behavioural and work style changes. Coaches work one-on-one with expats to explore challenges, identify possible intercultural barriers or obstacles, and develop action plans for success, including milestones to monitor progress.”
3. Talk about culture broadly. Whilst the results of the self-assessment should be leveraged to develop individual learning plans, including information about the general ways that standards and norms can vary across cultures is useful and applicable for a broader audience of employees.
“It’s important to learn areas of similarity and difference, and how to deal with differences that might cause conflict or misunderstanding in a positive way,” says Levenson. She suggests that companies explore the following cultural contrasts in their training programme:
- Hierarchy versus equality—and how they relate to information sharing and decision-making.
- Individualism versus collectivism—and how they can be leveraged to create a high-functioning team.
- Tasks versus relationships—and ways to establish trust and improve collaboration.
- Risk-taking versus conservatism—and how they influence an innovative environment.
This broader cultural knowledge can then be applied to the specific destination for an even deeper understanding of how culture can influence workplace dynamics.
4. Leverage online tools. Organisations should not hesitate to utilise new technologies and online tools when implementing a cross-cultural training programme. “Many learning options can be used, including virtual intercultural coaching sessions as well as direct access to online information about the host country,” says Molino. “Options exist that do not require a full-day commitment. This kind of flexibility helps expatriates with busy schedules, and lets companies choose training options that meet budgetary requirements.”
In fact, Graebel reports that the majority of companies (57 per cent) choose to supplement their instructor-led relocation preparation training with some form of online training, whilst only 24 per cent utilise instructor-led training exclusively and only 19 per cent utilise only online training.
But whilst most organisations choose a combined approach, relying solely on online tools may be the right choice for companies with limited budgets or expatriates who only require a small amount of training. “When face-to-face programmes are too expensive, many online tools are available as stand-alone programmes and can help a person learn a lot about a new location and help set expectations which also ease the adjustment,” Levenson says.
Establishing Programme Prominence
With even the best cross-cultural training programme, organisations can often struggle with employee participation rates. Senior leaders and seasoned travellers may feel overly confident and shrug off additional training as an unnecessary burden—but all professionals would benefit from a deeper exploration into the nuances of their host country. It is up to HR to incentivise participation and cement the organisational importance of pre-relocation training.
1. Gain senior buy-in. Having the support of senior leadership is essential when developing and delivering robust cultural training programmes. According to Brookfield Global Relocation Services’ 2017 Talent Mobility Trends Survey, 63 per cent of companies report mobility as being on their organisation’s senior leadership agenda.
“The best way HR can ensure participation in cross-cultural programme is through support and endorsement of this programme as one that upholds key corporate values,” explains Levenson. “If leadership values the benefits of being more open minded to other cultures and the importance of global understanding, it is more likely that expats will participate in such programmes.”
2. Frame it as a development opportunity. Another effective approach when making the case for cultural training is to align training with learning and development goals and highlight the ways that it can help employees grow.
“Expatriates who see cultural training programmes as development opportunities recommended by their company are highly likely to participate, as they understand the value of their company’s interest and investment in their successful future roles,” says Sam Hoey, senior vice president of business development at Global Mobility Solutions.
3. Incentivise participation. Rather than framing a pre-relocation training programme as a nice-to-have, some companies approach it as a business requirement and relocation pre-requisite. “A key trend is making a minimum hours of cultural training mandatory. This increases the company’s success rate of global assignments and ensures employee efficiencies while on assignment because of the reduction in cultural adjustment once in country,” says American Relocation Connections’ Mulholland.
Skourtis says that these cultural programmes can be tied to assignment objectives or requirements for miscellaneous allowance payments for best results. However, if choosing this approach, it is important that HR professionals provide employees the flexibility and time-off needed to complete the training.
4. Engage previous programme participants. HR professionals should also seek out ambassadors for the cultural training programme by reaching out to prior participants. According to Levenson, these experienced transferees can serve as in-country mentors, guides, and support systems for newly relocated employees. They can also vouch for the value of the training programme and share their experiences with new expatriates.
5. Expand programme limits. “Organisations should consider implementing enterprise-wide cultural training for all employees, not just expatriates,” says Skourtis. “Individuals who work in or manage multi-cultural work teams should participate in cross-cultural training to maximise team performance and business results. Business benefits such as employee retention, improved productivity, and a strong global talent pool are not limited to expatriate assignments. Developing employees’ intercultural skills benefits the employer and encourages employees to practice culturally sensitive and appropriate behaviours on an ongoing basis.”