Corporate Culture Shock in America

by Susan Davidson

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.

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.

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About the Author: Susan Davidson is founder and president of Beyond Borders, Inc., an Atlanta-based coaching, training and consulting firm that specializes in improving the business performance of global managers and teams.