Why cultural training is vital for overseas assignments


Overseas projects often fail when employees and their families are not prepared for life abroad. Janette Hiscock looks at why cultural training and education can set staff up for success.

Embarking on an overseas assignment can be hugely exciting for employees – workers and their families get the chance to live and work in a new country, 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.

But moving to a new country can also be challenging. Around 61% of failed assignments were unsuccessful because of family or personal issues, according to relocation service Cartus. 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.

To overcome this, employers need to think about preparing and supporting employees and their families before they move abroad.

Employers can support employees and their families by offering cultural training. Cultural training educates individuals on how to navigate cultural challenges (in work and in life) in a new setting and can help avoid a costly failed assignment.

According to KPMG only 38% of companies with a globally mobile workforce offer cultural training for employees and their families, with 35% offering no training at all. This leaves a large number of people potentially unprepared and uneducated about where they will be living and working.

The following are some examples of how employers can prepare staff for success overseas.

  1. Implement a buddy system

‘Buddying up’ a worker with another employee who has recent experience of the destination country can help answer any questions ahead of an 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, 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, 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 advice relating to any issues they’ve encountered while abroad.

  1. Cultural awareness training courses

A more formal method of cultural training would be to use a trainer to deliver a cultural awareness training course, which educates 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 worker’s family, not the worker, who find 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.

Janette Hiscock

About Janette Hiscock

Janette Hiscock is CEO of global solutions, Europe, at UnitedHealthcare Global, a company that offers health, wellbeing, security and assistance for employers with staff overseas.

2 Responses to Why cultural training is vital for overseas assignments

  1. Avatar
    Stephen Cryne 15 Jan 2020 at 6:24 pm #

    Good article.
    In a recent survey of Canadian based firms we learned that 68% of firms provide cross cultural training for long term assignments

  2. Avatar
    David Ogami 26 Jan 2020 at 12:48 pm #

    Statistics also show support and training is even more needed for accompanying partners as they are more likely not to settle in. Depending on where they are moving the company should also consider their duty of care. There are many expats who end up in prison due to not knowing locals laws (ex: https://tinyurl.com/u6g69lm)

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