Working Abroad May Not Be All That It's Cracked Up to Be: Adapting to the Culture is Key to Success

2011-10-20

Birmingham, Ala.,  --   A recent study published in the Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management co-authored by a professor at Samford’s Brock School of Business, claims that employees should rethink working overseas.  Dr. Darin W. White, associate professor of marketing at the Brock School of Business, conducted the study among 544 employees who had recently worked in a foreign setting. The expatriates were part of 27 different industries and from 62 countries.  The study explores the idea that “psychological hardiness” is vital in deciding whether a person should work outside the US. The research is the first known scholarly study of its kind.  According to the study, a major obstacle to the success of employee performance involves the adjustment to the new country. Expatriates often times will leave their assignment unfinished and move back home due to culture shock. “Around 40% of all expatriate assignments are consider failures because of early return” White said. White explained that the study was compiled after examining some of the issues large international corporations are faced with today.
 
“Many companies waste millions of dollars by selecting the wrong people to work globally,” White said. “There are now 30 to 40 million expatriates working globally. Companies are increasingly dealing with a very high percentage of these employees coming back home prior to the completion of their assignment.”
 
Leaving their jobs is a result of the workers’ psychological hardiness, which is a personality trait.  The study explains that psychological hardiness is the individual’s ability to thrive under stressful situations.  Individuals with strong psychological hardiness have the ability to thrive in stressful and adverse situations.  

According to White, “Hardy individuals cope better with stressful circumstances because of their ability to put stressful life events in perspective and they tend to take decisive, rather than avoidant, actions to resolve problems.”
 
The study found that expatriates with weak psychological hardiness produced lower than expected performance, were less productive, and often times failed to meet corporate objectives.  “Expatriates with a low hardiness disposition lack the strength and resiliency necessary for the rigors of sociocultural adaptation” White said.  Besides taking tests to decide their hardiness, White said there are some other key factors when deciding to accept the job.
 
“It is very important that the employees not only consider themselves,” said White,  “but also consider their family members. If the spouse or kids are not happy and are not adapting culturally, then it will create all sorts of stress for the family. Therefore, they should consider everyone in the process.”
           
The second tip White offered is to study the country and its culture. A person must read books and do his or her own research or find people from that country to interview.
 
“The more you can develop a cultural understanding of that country,” said White, ”the more you may be able to predict your own ability to adapt. Also, acclimating yourself will decrease the overall culture shock.”
 
Lastly, White explained that language development is crucial. A person must have some knowledge of the language and be able to make conversation.
 
“There is nothing that will make you feel more culturally helpless,” White added, “than not being able to communicate in a basic sort of way.”
 
According to the study’s research, the cost of failed expatriate assignments to U.S.-based companies is estimated to be between $2 and $2.5 billion. Ultimately, companies stand to save hundreds of millions of dollars if they consider their employees’ psychological hardiness disposition when making international assignment decisions.
 
About the Brock School of Business: The renaming of the Samford School of Business to the Brock School of Business in December 2007 was a milestone achievement for business education at Samford, which has offered degrees inbusiness and commerce since 1922.  In 1965, the School of Business wasestablished to offer both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business.  Alabama’s first part-time master of business administration degree program was established at Samford, and the first MBA degrees were awarded in 1967.  The master of accountancy degree was approved in 1995.  The business school was fully accredited by AACSB International in 1999 and reaffirmed in 2010, a recognition earned by less than five percent of business schools worldwide.   In 2010, the School was chosen as the Best New Entrepreneurship Program in the U.S. by the U.S. Association of Small Business and Entrepreneurship.