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International Employees Plead for Education and Assistance
in Adjusting to Living in Foreign Cultures

Jean R. McFarland

G. P. Morgan & Associates, Inc., MN, USA

Paper Presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, Lahti, Finland 22 - 25 September 1999

Introduction

This report makes obvious the need for intercultural communication competence for three types of international employees, and the common thread that links them. It summarizes three sequential studies by the author of international employees and their adjustment to living in unfamiliar cultures. The informants of the studies were (1) United States’ expatriates living in Europe, (2) repatriates to the United States from Europe, and (3) impatriates to the United States from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In each study, an ethnographic interview technique was used to collect data for hermeneutic phenomenological analyses. Results indicate that whether employees are leaving their home country, returning, or entering a host country, they experience loneliness, loss, and desperation for assistance in making the cultural adjustment. They report that their emotional status diminishes their performance, and they offer suggestions to enhance the competence of international sojourners and those who work with them.

Education in terms of intercultural communication competence has not kept pace with the need as generated by globalization. Whether employees travel internationally or communicate across cultures without leaving home, intercultural communication competence is critical to ensure communication that is not distorted by misinterpretation, misperception, or misevaluation. Employees lacking this competence often fail to adjust to other cultures, experience psychological and physical distress, create misunderstandings, and alienate members of other cultures, costing their companies untold sums of money, and loss of goodwill and future opportunities. Expatriate, repatriate, and impatriate informants cried out for assistance in adjusting to foreign cultures and to being understood.

Problem Statement

A small, but growing, body of literature addresses the failure rates of expatriate, repatriate, and impatriate employees and relates failure to the difficulties and stress of adjusting to a different culture. The implications of these failures for the sponsoring organizations are serious and result in unnecessary cost, both obvious and hidden.

Purpose Statement

Reports of research of expatriation and repatriation are scarce, particularly, from an interpretive perspective; reports of research of impatriation are even scarcer. The purpose of these studies was to arrive at an understanding of the lived experience for each group and to learn their personal perspectives of their needs for culturally adjusting and the actions that could be taken to enhance cultural adjustment. With this information, human resource development professionals can develop educational programs that will serve to enhance cultural adjustment, increase success rates, and increase retention of employees with international experience and skills, all of which are beneficial to the employing organizations.

Research Question

Using an ethnographic perspective as described in The Ethnographic Interview by James Spradley (1979), only one primary question was asked of the informants in individual, face-to-face interviews, and only one term in the question varied per study: That was the identifying term of the group; hence, the primary question was, "What is it like to be (1) an expatriate, (2) a repatriate, or (3) an international employee [impatriate] in the United States?" Secondary questions evolved through the ensuing dialogue.

Literature Review

The literature reveals that organizations are not fully appreciative of the psychological impact of working and living in a culture other than one’s own (McFarland, 1995, 1996) or of the cultural adaptation required to return to one’s own culture after having lived in a foreign culture. The psychological impact is evidenced by the astoundingly high failure rate of expatriates (Copeland, 1985, 1990; McFarland, 1995) and low retention rate of repatriates (McFarland, 1997). However, perusal of the literature suggests that high failure rates should not be a surprise if the lack of cultural preparation and organizational support are considered (McFarland, 1995).

If pre-departure cultural preparation is provided in the form of intercultural communication training, it often is inadequate and insufficient. Brislin (1981) believes that intercultural communication training should attempt to improve cognitive, affective, and behavioral performance. However, what organizations offer under the guise of intercultural communication training may provide little more than the do's and don'ts of the target culture. Rarely, does it deliver underlying theories that allow the principles of intercultural communication to be applied to the variety of personalities and behaviors that are in any culture and to be transferred to other cultures. Cultural preparation and adjustment are issues of human resource development, business outcomes, and ethical consideration.

Human Resource Development Perspective

Adaptation to a culture becomes synonymous with successful communication within that culture (Gudykunst & Kim, 1992) because culture is communication (Hall, 1981). With this in mind, some people may say that if one knows the language, ones knows the culture, but knowing the culture is more than being able to speak the language fluently. Jawaharlal Nehru emphasized that communication is not in the narrow sense of the word, but is language of the mind, that it is not the appeal to logic and reason, but is an emotional awareness of other people (cited in Adler, 1991). This is demonstrated by the culture shock repatriates experience although they are returning home to their native language.

Expatriates and impatriates, on the other hand, expect cultural differences, but still they are often overwhelmed by their host cultures. They describe the experience as being like a three-year-old child again, unable to communicate effectively and unaware of the technicalities of setting up a household in the host culture and becoming socially independent and viable (McFarland, 1996, 1998).

Repatriates find that the culture of their organizations and the social systems they left behind have changed or are not the same as remembered. They return to a foreign culture where they feel misunderstood and do not experience emotional awareness from others in terms of their international experiences and the changes they have undergone. The effect of finding that their home culture is now a foreign culture can produce culture shock far more severe than the culture shock of living abroad where differences and lack of understanding of the culture were expected.

Even worse, repatriates who have been recalled due to poor performance suffer the double jeopardy of culture shock and the stigma of failure. These people, who generally fail due to cultural incompatibility, return to their organizations labeled as failures and suffer professionally as they lose prestige in the eyes of their superiors. They frequently take positions for which they are over qualified due to their decreased self-confidence and self-esteem (McFarland, 1997).

Business Perspective

Failed expatriates cost U.S. corporations over $2 billion per year in terms of funds spent on the recalled employees and funds spent to replace them. Nearly half of those who do not adjust well to the culture, but complete their assignments report that they function below their normal level of productivity (Copeland, 1985). In addition, both recalls and low productivity are responsible for inestimable costs in terms of missed business opportunities.

Successful repatriates often find that their international experience and expertise are undervalued and underutilized. They are frustrated that their organizations shoehorn them into domestic-related positions just to provide them a job. As a result, almost one-quarter of repatriated employees leave their companies within one year of coming home (McFarland, 1995). They take with them valuable knowledge as they leave to work for competitors. If one in four repatriates leaves the firm each year, there can be no long-term return on the investment and there will be significant cost incurred to replace these employees.

Due to lack of cultural sensitivity and awareness, employers do not realize that repatriate employees are not the same people that they were when they left; that repatriates have experienced self-growth and have acquired international expertise and professional skills; and that they are experiencing culture shock. Repatriates need psychological and technical support, and they and their employers need intercultural communication training. A 1991 Dartmouth College study estimates, however, that 90% of U.S. companies offer less than three hours of training for the return home (Engen, 1995). Given that American multinational corporations spend approximately $1,000,000 on each expatriate over the duration of a three-to-four year foreign assignment (cited in Black, 1992), the cost of a training program to aid repatriates in adjusting to their home culture and reintegrating into the organization is minimal. Culture shock is costly whether looking at expatriates, repatriates, or impatriates. Global organizations should remember that "Culture is not peripheral to business—it’s central to business. It permeates every aspect of business" (Guptara, 1990, p. 13).

Ethical Perspective

The question of ethics arises for organizations that relocate people with no or inadequate cultural preparedness training for the purpose of working in an unfamiliar culture. The ethical question is especially poignant considering the growing body of research indicating that intercultural communication training significantly improves psychological well being, communication, and productivity. Numerous research reports have been compared and evaluated in two major studies (Black & Mendenhall, 1990; Deshpande & Viswesvaran, 1992). Deshpande and Viswesvaran concluding a meta-analysis of 21 research studies that included 1,611 subjects state that intercultural communication training clearly is effective for all five criteria they surveyed: self-development, perception, relationship, adaptation, and performance. The trend is clear: Intercultural communication training improves and accelerates cultural adaptation. To send employees to live and work in a foreign environment without cultural preparation is to set them up for failure. If they fail, they are blamed rather than the organization that did not prepare them. This scenario is neither lucrative nor ethical.

Theoretical Framework

By definition, expatriation means a sojourn in a culture other than one’s own; repatriates are people who return to their home country after a sojourn in a foreign country; and impatriates are people from a foreign country who come into one’s culture to reside. Each culture represents a different system in which the individual must learn to communicate; therefore, the theoretical framework for these studies is built of Hofstede’s theory of cultural dimensions (1984, 1991), communication theory, and, of course, systems theory (McLagan, 1989).

Hofstede’s Theory of Cultural Dimensions

Hofstede’s (1984) theory of cultural dimensions assists in characterizing, predicting, identifying, and interpreting general behavior within and among cultures. His four cultural dimensions follow:

Individualism versus Collectivism. This dimension pertains to the ties that bind people together. Individualists are loosely bound to each other; collectivists, on the opposing pole, are integrated into cohesive in-groups, which protect them in exchange for loyalty.

Power Distance. Power distance refers to the degree of inequality that is expected and accepted among members of a culture.

Uncertainty Avoidance.. Uncertainty avoidance is the extent to which a culture will go to avoid uncertainty and, thus, anxiety.

Masculinity versus Femininity. This dimension refers to qualities that are associated with the male and the female genders and represent the predominant values of life; for example, achievement and acquisitions (masculinity) or nurturing and relationships (femininity).

Knowledge of these dimensions provides opportunity for individuals to predict and understand culture-based behavior, so the observed behaviors are not perceived as personal affronts.

Communication Theory

A basic communication model indicates that the message sent is never the same as the message received, because the messages received by listeners/observers are decoded and filtered through their personal perspectives, which are determined by their experiences: All interpretations are made through the lens of one’s experiences. When the lenses are different, as between members of different cultures, interpretations are different; however, when awareness and sensitivity are heightened, the lenses of the message sender and the message recipient are more nearly aligned, and communication competence is heightened.

General Systems Theory

Cultural preparedness training is based on systems theory assumptions and focuses on the intercultural communication processes that take place when individuals from one culture interact with those of another culture (Gudykunst & Kim, 1992).

Procedures and Methods

Each of the three studies reported herein represents a phenomenological hermeneutic method that attempts to describe and to understand (hermeneutics) a particular phenomenon (phenomenology), in this case, expatriation, repatriation, and impatriation.

Informants

Names of United States expatriates and repatriates were acquired from top-level international human resource development professionals. They were connected directly as employees or indirectly as employees’ spouses to multinational organizations. All impatriate informants were associated with a large Roman Catholic Archdiocese in the Midwest United States. Ages of informants ranged from the early thirties to the early fifties. Expatriates and impatriates had been in their current assignments at least one year, and repatriates had been home at least one year. Although it was unknown until the interviews were completed, none had had intercultural communication training.

Data Collection

As recommended by Spradley (1979), Dobbert (1989), and van Manen (1990), unstructured, audiotaped, face-to-face interviews were used to gather data and to provide detailed, expanded accounts in verbatim records. In addition, notes were taken throughout the interviews by the interviewer.

Data Analysis

The following strategies for discovering themes by using linguistic symbols have been suggested by Spradley, Tesch, Dobbert, and van Manen (1979, 1987, 1989, 1990, respectively) (sometimes using different terms for the same processes) and were used for thematic analysis in this study: transcription, highlighting, summarization, tree diagramming, domain analysis, taxonomic analysis, and componential analysis.

Findings and Conclusions

Interestingly, the data from the three studies yielded similar themes that depicted similar personal needs and recommendations for action. The common denominator among the three groups is the challenge (sometimes despair) of cultural adjustment (even when returning home) and their plea for both physical and psychological support. Following are some of the quotations that suggest their feelings, observations, and concerns:

United States Expatriates in Belgium, France, and the Netherlands

You can see just by walking through the neighborhood--everybody has a huge fence around their house. They close it off as much as they can, and as soon as it gets dark, those big heavy blinds go down. Very, very private people.--Belgium

There is no interaction between the communities.—Belgium

Nobody here makes a mistake. It's always the other guy.--France

The Dutch are more like Americans, more open and friendly.—Netherlands

I expected within the first week I was here to have someone ring the doorbell and introduce themselves to me. A year went by and I still haven't met the people next door.—Belgium

United States Repatriates from Africa, Japan, and Western Europe

Culturally the company has changed. There’s a lot of anxiety about security and wellness of the business that wasn’t there when we left.--Employee

Companies are losing [repatriate] employees because they are not making the effort to help them adjust.—Spouse

The relationships you had with friends before you left are pretty much gone. --Spouse

I don’t know why companies think they can send someone someplace for five years, give them that degree of responsibility and excitement in their life, give them that broad experience, and then expect to bring them back to corporate headquarters and throw them in a cubicle.--Spouse

For preparation to go abroad, we were handed a notebook and told, "Have fun."--Spouse

Corporate headquarters doesn’t have a clue what real life is all about.--Spouse

When you come back, you’re overhead. Human Resources just wants to get rid of the overhead. They aren’t there for you!—Employee

Anybody who goes over on a foreign assignment and thinks somebody in the company is going to keep track of you, that’s the biggest farce there is.--Employee

Impatriates to the United States

I was frightened about coming to America. -- Africa

I feel very uncomfortable. I don’t feel at home.--Mexico

In Africa, I would be more interested in you, in making you feel at home, talking with you.—Africa

Everybody here seems to be kind of isolated, individual. He is responsible for himself and he has no community to fall back on.—India

It’s difficult coming from a society where the family matters so much to a society where the individual matters most.—Africa

If the informants had had intercultural communication training that included a theoretical foundation for application and transfer of learning, they would have been able to predict and understand many of the behaviors they witnessed in their organizations and social interactions. If members of the organizations had had intercultural communication training, they could have been aware of and sensitive to the needs of their expatriates, repatriates, and impatriates.

Following are some of the suggestions from the three groups for aiding international employees and their companions with cultural adjustment, whether they are abroad or returning to their home culture:

Use more discerning measures for selection of international employees and their companions.

Educate native and foreign employees in intercultural communication competence.

Provide opportunity for language lessons.

Provide a technical assistant to help with the details of starting life in a different culture.

Provide all information and equipment pertinent to the role/work of the employee.

Create open, frequent communication with the home organization to dispel feelings of abandonment and to ensure a favorable position upon returning.

Create opportunities for positive social interactions in order to communicate and become better acquainted with host country members and with other people in the same situation.

Mostly, listen to them.

Implications and Recommendations

These studies suggest that the multinational organizations represented herein do not view cultural sensitivity and awareness as critically important to working in the global arena and do not recognize their role in preventing failure of their employees. The metathemes that emerged from the data analyses imply several avenues for future research in the areas of selection; communication between employees and their employers; designing and developing intercultural communication competence-building programs for expatriates, repatriates, impatriates, and other employees of the organizations; and cultural preparedness.

References

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This document was added to the Education-line database 24 September 1999