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Corporate Culture Shock in America [Cont]

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.

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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.