Cross cultural training – one for the birds?

Patti McCarthy

Remember the old song “Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it…”?  In that case they were talking about falling in love, but when it comes to cross cultural training it’s a case of ‘Diplomats do it, aid workers do it…’ but many people in the corporate sector feel that it doesn’t apply to them.

Nobody in their right mind would send a netball player out onto the basketball court without first advising them of the key differences in the rules, yet this is exactly what happens when an employer plucks an executive out of an office in New York or Paris and sets them down in Australia. Things may look very similar at first glance, but closer study will reveal multiple differences in everything from attitudes to time and planning, negotiation style, conflict resolution and office etiquette.

Despite Australia being the most culturally diverse nation on earth, with 1:4 residents having been born overseas and 1:2 having an overseas born parent (2007 ABS Census), few Australian companies offer any kind of cultural integration to their employees and many outgoing and in-coming expatriates have to learn the hard way – often through causing offence or making mistakes.

Successful integration of international employees is not just about making people happier and more productive, it’s also about saving money. The typical cost of an expatriate assignment is 3 x salary and the current failure rate of expatriate assignments stands at about 35%, equivalent to a failure rate of 1:3.

The implications of this negative ROI are, at a minimum;

  • Huge costs in terms of salary, recruitment, training and relocation
  • Failure of intended business objective and potential damage to client relationships
  • ‘Costs’ to the employee in terms of loss of self esteem, career derailment and relationship/ family issues

The two main causes of assignment failure are recognised as being a) a lack of cultural skills and competencies and b) personal unhappiness of the individual, their partner and/or the family.  Both of these issues can be minimised by providing the right support and training from the outset and both should be considered an essential part of the on-boarding and employee engagement process, not an optional ‘extra’.

Creating the right ‘chemistry’ across cultural differences and language barriers can be an enormous challenge, for even the most competent of managers. Struggling to get established at work and at the same time support the partner/ family with their issues can, for many people, simply be too much to cope with, so it makes good business sense to engage the support of a professional expatriate coach or cross-cultural consultant to give your intercultural hires the best possible chance of success.

– Patti McCarthy is from Cultural Chemistry, and calls herself a ‘cultural translator, someone who helps people from different cultures to communicate and connect more effectively’.