POSTED: February 17 2020
Why cultural training is important ahead of international assignments

Why cultural training is important ahead of international assignments

We feature an exclusive article by Janette Hiscock, UnitedHealthcare Global’s Europe CEO, who outlines why it is so important when sending staff overseas to take steps to avoid culture shock. Janette outlines what organisations should be aware of, and gives solutions.

Janette Hiscock, CEO Global Solutions, Europe

Embarking on an overseas assignment can be hugely exciting – workers and their families get the chance to live and work in a new country, often experiencing career progression and a new culture at the same time. Given the opportunities afforded by an overseas posting, it is no surprise that moving abroad can be the highlight of one’s career.

While exciting, moving to a new country can also be challenging. It is estimated that around 61%1 of assignments fail due to family or personal issues. To overcome this, employers need to think about what practices can be put in place to support employees and their families as they embark on an overseas assignment.

Cultural training

Overseas assignments are often to countries with very different cultural environments to the employee’s home country. Culture shock can compound the usual feelings of nerves associated with a new job and unfortunately can contribute to a failed assignment.

Currently, only 38% of companies with a globally mobile workforce offer cultural training for employees and their families, with 35% offering no training at all2. This leaves a large number of families potentially unprepared and uneducated about their new country.

To overcome this, employers can support employees and their families by offering cultural training. Cultural training educates and trains individuals on how to navigate cultural challenges (in work and in life) in a new setting. Suitable cultural training will help people minimize the culture shock that can arise upon arrival in a new country helping to avoid a costly failed assignment.

Some examples of suitable cultural training include:

  1. Implementing a Buddy system

‘Buddying up’ a worker set for assignment with another employee who has recent experience of the destination country is a smart way of clarifying any questions ahead of assignment. Often, the best way of getting a feel for a country is by talking to someone who has already been there and allows assignees to glean real insight into the day to day realities of living abroad. Once abroad, modern technology makes it easier than ever for employees to stay connected with each other. For example, UnitedHealthcare Global’s Optum My Wellbeing app allows individuals to engage and stay connected with colleagues as well as friends and family by participating in fitness challenges against each other. Although the app may not seem like an obvious buddy system, for many it acts as a bridge between the destination and the home country. It also links to the Employee Assistance Programme, giving workers easy access to ask for advice relating to any issues they’ve encountered whilst on assignment.

  1. Cultural awareness training courses

A more formal method of cultural training would be to use a cultural trainer. Cultural awareness training courses educate individuals about respecting local laws, customs and cultural nuances that can be hard to immediately understand. Cultural training can enhance cultural sensitivity, competence and most importantly eliminate the risk of major miscommunication. Promoting practical training courses that enhance cultural understanding will encourage positive cross-cultural working relationships as well as positive relationships outside of work.

  1. Language lessons

It goes without saying that if an employee is moving to a different country with an unfamiliar language, some form of language training is essential. Even if the destination office is predominantly English speaking, to help with settling in outside of work, employees would benefit from some language tuition. Being even the slightest bit familiar with the language can boost an employee’s confidence and make the transition considerably smoother. Having the ability to talk to locals and forge friendships at an early stage of the move will help mitigate the chance of homesickness.

  1. Educating the family

Sometimes it is the family, not the worker, who finds it hard to settle in abroad and is the eventual cause of a failed overseas assignment. Ensuring that the whole family receives some form of cultural training, whether that is basic information on cultural practices or even language lessons, may lead to a smoother overseas transition. If families truly understand the challenges and opportunities of life as an expatriate, then this can help to avoid assignments which fail due to family reasons. With suitable preparation, families that are fully prepared will be ready to enjoy a life abroad.


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