Corporate Culture Shock in America

by Davidson, Susan Thursday, November 09, 2006
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Expatriates and foreign nationals who relocate to the United States to live and work often have mixed perceptions about this young nation. Those feelings are probably best described by the late Irish poet and playwright, Oscar Wilde, who referred to America as “a land of unmatched vitality and vulgarity.”

While most Americans rarely think of their country as “foreign,” the fact is that non-Americans who relocate to the United States to do business and “do lunch” are often surprised to find they experience a severe case of “corporate culture shock.”

According to recently conducted research with dozens of foreign business professionals working in Atlanta and other southeastern U.S. cities, the human resource departments of multinational corporations are woefully inadequate in preparing foreigners for the American workplace. The purpose of the study was to learn about foreign managers’ experiences and attitudes regarding the American business culture. More than half of this diverse group of CEOs, CFOs, vice presidents, directors, managers, engineers, and analysts were European. In total, 26 different countries were represented.

Equally disturbing is the finding that American employees lack cross-cultural awareness and skills that would enable them to draw on the diverse, global talents and business experiences of their non-American counterparts.

Once the physical relocation to the United States is complete, most foreigners and their families say employers provide little, if any, assistance to help them integrate into the American community and business environment. They often struggle up to a year or longer to adapt.

The financial cost of cross-border relocations is steep; often two to four times the transferee’s salary. But the cost of lost productivity because of months of isolation, confusion, and frustration is incalculable. The adaptation period could be reduced by 50 percent with adequate cultural orientation and training, professional coaching, and mentoring. If corporations would simply invest an additional 5 to 10 percent of their relocation cost into cross-cultural orientation, training, and coaching, they would be buying an insurance policy that protects their substantial investment in their expatriate and foreign nationals, realizing a greater productivity return on their investment much sooner.

Stages of Adjustment

Left on their own, foreign professionals frequently go through three stages of acculturation:

  1. Discovery. First, they encounter the barriers and differences that create discomfort and frustration for them and their families.

  2. Search. Second, they begin to look for the people and resources that can help them overcome the cultural barriers.

  3. Adaptation. Finally, they make the necessary adjustments to their communication style, work style, and business practices to build relationships with their American colleagues.
Some foreigners never make it through the adaptation stage and continue to remain isolated from their American colleagues and are less-than-effective in their jobs.

Bottom of the Pyramid

In their home countries, most international professionals enjoy a certain degree of accomplishment and self-esteem. On arriving in the United States, however, they are pulled down to the bottom rung of Maslow’s pyramid of needs. Physical needs become top priorities again.

Even the most basic everyday needs become major obstacles for foreign transferees. Obtaining credit is often a major hurdle, even for affluent non-Americans. A general manager of a French company’s North American division moved from Paris, France, to Atlanta, GA, three years ago. He described his family’s effort to establish credit as a “nightmare.”

“We had no credit history here and felt like thieves,” said the transferee.

Another vice president also complained of credit problems when he moved his family from Paris to Atlanta with a global Dutch company. An Atlanta car dealer refused to sell him an automobile without a U.S. credit history, even though he had used an American Express credit card in Europe for four years. The executive and his wife said they felt like “criminals.” They were forced to pay cash for their first used car.

Other foreigners recalled the many frustrations they encountered in taking care of basic living needs--opening a bank account, connecting utilities, choosing a long-distance company, haggling over the price of a car, or buying home and auto insurance. The marketing manager of a British-based international hotel chain moved from London, England, to the American headquarters in Atlanta, GA, only to discover that she did not know how to dial long distance within the United States. Neither did she know the meaning of dialing “911.” Americans often take for granted the daily survival skills that foreigners must relearn when they arrive in the United States.

American English “Sports-speak”

Understanding American English is one of the first challenges foreigners--even native English speakers--encounter in the U.S. corporate culture. American business conversation is riddled with clichés, slang, regionalisms, and sports expressions that are not understood by non-Americans. “Sports-speak” is woven into business conversations constantly in the United States with references to American football, baseball, and basketball. Expressions such as “slam dunk,” “homerun,” “Monday morning quarterback,” “end run,” “curveball,” “full court press,” and “stepping up to the plate” only serve to confuse foreigners. Many Americans are oblivious to the fact that baseball and American football are not played in Europe and other parts of the world.

Acronym Soup

The language of U.S. human resource departments is equally foreign. Most international professionals come to the United States with no knowledge of managed health care or U.S. tax and discrimination law--complex issues that Americans barely understand. It is no wonder then that non-Americans consider these employee policies and plans a “nightmare” and glaze over when they read their HR manual of acronyms and alphabet soup: PPO, HMO, ADA, EEOC, FLMA, and 401K. Translation please?

Said one foreign executive, “You are screened by a nurse, and then you spend 30 seconds to two minutes with a doctor. You are reimbursed and talk to computers. All these plans, long-term and short-term disability, are extremely complex.”

Rather than proactively taking the time to explain these bureaucratic plans and policies to foreigners, most HR managers simply react and respond to questions. What HR managers do not understand is that non-Americans have no knowledge base on which they can even begin to formulate intelligent questions. Human resources must instead begin at the beginning.

The American Spirit at Work

Most foreigners first come to know America through its media--movies, music, magazines, TV sitcoms, and theme parks. Americans are projected as fun loving, risk-taking rugged individuals who “get to the point” and “tell it like it is.” Pick up most any book about American culture and you will read about the legendary open, honest, and direct communication style of Americans. And so it seems that the bold and brazen American is, indeed, alive and well when socializing or selling. But foreigners paint a different picture of the American at work. It is not John Wayne or Indiana Jones who they encounter behind the corporate cubicle--it is Dilbert.

According to the research, foreigners observe that there is little evidence of those cherished American values of equality and freedom of speech in the workplace, especially in big corporations. The single, greatest discomfort that foreigners report in the U.S. workplace is reconciling the perception of business informality (“I’m your CEO but just call me Bob;” “business casual is what we wear here”) and the reality of corporate hierarchy and extreme deference to rank and titles.

“People worry about political correctness all the time to the point where they won’t say anything in a meeting because their boss is in there,” said a British manager who has worked in the United States for seven years. A Dutch marketing manager agreed, “In Europe, if you have a good idea, you bring it to the table. In the United States, until the boss puts it on the radar screen, it’s not as important.”

A German manager says, “Here, I have to package my opinions very nicely.”

Foreigners also are surprised at how Americans avoid face-to-face conflict at work. Said one German who has worked in the United States for five years, “Everyone is hiding behind policy and not getting out from behind their walls.”

A Finnish distributorship president speculated that Americans avoid direct conflict because of the litigious society they live in. “This is a big difference between America and the rest of the world. People put things in writing here if there is some conflict or misunderstanding. Frivolous lawsuits don’t exist in the rest of the world.”

The lack of job security and an adequate “safety net” for unemployment is another reason given.

Conquering Corporate Culture Shock

If global companies would take the following four actions, they would help to ease the transition of foreigners into the U.S. workplace and greatly enhance their productivity.

  1. Provide community orientation and logistical support beyond finding housing and schools. Help the transferees acquire basic survival skills and social ties with their community.
  2. Take the time to explain employee benefits, policies, and laws. Do not assume foreigners understand the policies and plans or the words associated with them. They are unique to America. Give them an easy way to get their HR questions answered. Be proactive versus reactive.
  3. Assign a trained American mentor or external coach to foreign transferees during the first few months of the transition process to hasten acculturation. Foreigners in the study strongly favored this idea. “Having a coach or mentor is absolutely essential for getting direct first-hand feedback, asking questions, learning how Americans see the situation, culture, work practices, even for subtle differences. The fact is, the U.S. is different!” said a Swedish program manager.
  4. Build American cultural awareness and competence by offering cross-cultural training, multicultural team coaching, and cultural events. Many foreigners in the study referred to their American colleagues as culturally “insensitive,” “ignorant,” “egocentric,” or “isolated.” As a result, the foreigners believe that Americans do not fully appreciate and use their unique backgrounds, talents, global perspectives, and connections.
As global mergers and acquisitions continue and as America’s multicultural workforce expands, it is vital that both Americans and non-Americans understand each other and learn to work together to prevent cultural differences from getting in the way of good business. As Sheila (could this be Sheida?) Hodge states in her book, Global Smarts, “The trick is to capitalize on similarities without being ambushed by differences.”

If both Americans and non-Americans will adopt the mantra: “Think globally, act locally,” then their employers stand a much greater chance of bringing better ideas and approaches to the workplace and better products and services to the marketplace.

American businesses can help foreign professionals overcome “Corporate culture shock” by supporting their need to acquire the “Three C’s.”

Communication. The ability to speak and understand the American version of business English. This is essential to survival in the U.S. workplace where Americans are not expected to speak a second language.

Connections. A support network of colleagues and friends who can offer help and friendship to give the foreigner a sense of belonging and well-being.

Coaching and mentoring. A go-to person who can provide confidential support, answers, and resources to ensure and accelerate the acculturation process. The cost of failure is high, both to the company and to the transferee. An internal or external coach or mentor can greatly speed up the foreigner’s adaptation to American business practices, protocol, values, motivations, attitudes, social codes, and communication styles.