Relocating overseas can seem like a great adventure, and why wouldn’t it be? New job, new experience, new team and new (if somewhat protective) culture.
It can, however, be quite daunting too: people can often feel like a fish out of water once the honeymoon period is over or they can feel that they are being judged intellectually, based on their ability in English. All unfounded of course, but perception is everything, and it can impact heavily on a co-worker’s confidence. And let’s not forget the spouse and the rest of the family – more about them later…
I once taught English to an MD of a large automotive company. His English level was probably upper-intermediate, but he was a little rusty as he hadn’t used it for some time. He didn’t utter a word of English to his colleagues for the first 5 weeks of his secondment, for fear of what people might think of him if his English wasn’t ‘just so’.
Part of his English training was confidence-building and showing him that he could clearly communicate his message despite the occasional hesitation. To restore this confidence, he delivered mini-presentations (in a structured, ‘safe’ environment) to scaffold his English skills; we looked at the way people really speak rather than text-book English (including some less than obvious idioms and bits of vernacular to surprise his colleagues – Fancy a cuppa? was a favourite). Oh, and plenty of cultural input – living aboard isn’t just about speaking the language, it’s about living it too. It’s all very well learning I disagree, but if your average Brit uses, I’m not sure I agree to be less direct, I disagree can come across as a little aggressive.
Now, if you’re an accountant, the language bubble you reside in has its own set of jargon. Balance-sheet, assets, deficit and GPM may not be a part of everyday parlance, but they get repeated and repeated and repeated if that’s your profession. You see the same vocabulary in the workplace again and again, so you don’t even really need to actively learn the words: they just start to stick. Marketing specialist, SEO expert, HTML coder: as far as language is concerned, it’s the same ol’ same ol’. Quite a comfort, really, until…
I worked with another student of English who said he could do a PowerPoint presentation on last quarter’s sales, could share information on next month’s special offers but dreaded going for a ‘social’ after work, because who knew what topics of conversation would raise their ugly head? And this was for only a few hours of their life.
Pity, then, the spouse, who managing the household on a day-by-day basis, might need to talk about the finer details of an illness, a broken washing machine, tennis results or the government of the day – because that’s what life will throw at him or her. And yet it’s often the spouse that is given a token 20-hour block of English lessons to help facilitate integration into the country.
Pity, then, the spouse who must work out how the education system works compared to the one at home; how to cope with true culture shock because we do things ‘that bit differently’ over here and who is also the last person to be told the recycling is only collected every other week.
And if the spouse ain’t happy, you can be sure that sooner or later, the expat won’t be either.
How can these pitfalls be avoided?
When it comes to relocating employees to the UK, most international companies organise the visa, the bank account, the car and the accommodation; it’s a given.
- Do the employees have the language support for themselves and their spouses? Is it commercial, cultural, and practical – inside and outside the office?
- Is the training as in-depth as it should be? Or is it little more than a ‘pat on the back and off you go’?
- Has everyone been given access to practical cultural training, complete with coping mechanisms, local knowledge and reassurance that it’s normal to miss being ‘back home’?
It’s a statistical truth that failed secondments are often down to the inability of the expat and spouse to adjust to life in the UK. Not the ability to do the job.
And it’s an expensive mistake to make.
Contact Dialogue to see if we can help with the integration of what is often your most valuable resource – personnel.