Spotlight on… working in the US

It’s American Independence Day. The US may be the land of opportunity, but can it provide you with a way to develop your career?

Relocating to the US could give you the chance to learn new skills and get a global perspective on HR. But it also brings the challenges of getting to grips with the work ethics of an entirely different culture.

Kirsten Zapotok, head of learning and development at pharmaceuticals company AstraZeneca, came from its US division last year to work in the UK office as an HR business partner. She found one of the big differences in HR practice was employment contracts. “In the US, employees and employers can terminate their contract without giving notice, so I was shocked to see people were on six-month contracts. US workers don’t get the same security,” she says.

Political correctness can also reach extraordinary levels in the US. “People are very careful about what they say to avoid offending. This is a result of the litigious society. People seem much more real in the UK,” she says.

But there is also a stronger focus on diversity issues Stateside. “Employers in the US try to mirror the community in terms of ethnicity and gender – much more so than in the UK,” says Zapotok.

You say tomato

Rick Woodward, learning and development director for toiletries maker Kimberly-Clark, has been working in the US since January this year.

He found subtle language differences created communication problems at work. For example, ‘fortnight’ is not used and ‘let’s table it’ means ‘put to one side’, instead of ‘talk about it’, he says. And when people discuss ‘seniority’, it refers to length of service, rather than position in the company.

Comparing candidates’ qualifications was another hurdle. “I couldn’t understand CVs when interviewing people – the college system is completely different in the US,” says Zapotok.

Woodward says that one of the main cultural differences is that Americans tend to be more thorough.

“They are very keen to follow processes, whereas in the UK we tend to seek short cuts. This made my American colleagues suspicious of me at first,” he says.

It also helps to be an early riser. “Americans tend to start work at 6.30am and finish at 4.30pm. Socially, this is amusing, as dinner parties tend to start at 6.30pm and you are home by 9pm,” says Woodward.

Friends and family

Zapotok found it difficult to make long-lasting friendships in the UK.

“Americans are like peaches – they are easy to get into, but when you try and forge a long-term relationship, you hit the stone. Whereas in the UK, people are like coconuts – it’s hard to get to know them, but once you are through the shell you can develop a sustaining relationship,” she says.

Finally, it’s important to consider how the long-haul across the Atlantic might affect your family. Zapotok says it was hard on her husband making the move.

“He had never been to Europe and had to find a job, so it was a big undertaking. However, sharing the experience of working overseas has actually been great for our relationship,” she adds.

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