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Going Global

A question of sacrifice

Valerie Berset-Price

Dear Valérie,

The multinational for which I work offered me a three-year contract as an expat manager in India. The job description interests me very much and would without a doubt advance my career in the long-run, but sacrifices are also in the mix as I would have to uproot my two children (eight and 10 years old) and my husband would have to quit his job to follow me to India. It is a very big decision and I am wondering if you could highlight some hidden elements related to such a move that I may not be able to appreciate from my current position.

Thank you very much in advance!
Coleen

Dear Coleen,

Congratulations on having received such an offer! It is indeed very exciting! Assuming that your employer offers you a standard expat package, I will not spend any time detailing such an offer. What I will spend time discussing are the challenges and opportunities of a female expat manager – and of a mother – in an emerging market. As you certainly realize, there will be some gender-specific cultural barriers that may lead to a certain level of resistance from some of your peers and subordinates, depending on the industry you are in and the region of India you to which you will be moved.

On the other hand, women in general tend to be less linear and more connected to their emotions, which is a true positive in the Indian professional setting. A softer approach that takes into consideration employees as a whole (and not just their job performance) will be a plus there. A creative approach to time management and an appreciation for hierarchy will also prepare you for the differences you will encounter on the job and in your personal life.

Speaking of your personal life, make sure that your children and husband have access to a support system that includes expat coaching before, during and after the relocation. For you, having access to a global coach during your contract will also be instrumental in stepping back from and reflecting on situations that are often destabilizing at first due to the invisible cultural component that is hidden to the foreign eye. As a mother, it is important to accept that most expat assignments require a full dedication to the position, leaving little time for family and private life. Having a partner who accepts the role of primary caregiver to the children as well as long hours on your end will greatly ease your success in your new setting.

I hope this helps!

Valérie Berset-Price

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Investing in cultural education

Valerie Berset-Price

Dear Valérie,

My name is Sandra and I am the mother of two elementary school children. While I understand the importance of learning a foreign language and knowing geography, my children are not receiving that type of education at our local public school. I would like to take care of this for them at home on the weekend and I am wondering if you would have any idea on where to start.

My daughter is in 2nd grade and my son in 4th grade.

Thank you!

Sandra

Dear Sandra,

It is true and highly regrettable that our current education system is failing at preparing our children for the 21st century. As a result, we deprive them of the competitive edge they will need to compete globally by the time they will graduate from high school.

I commend you for your awareness in that regard (too many parents in our country still believe that speaking English is enough and that the United States is the world) and your willingness to bridge the gap for your children. For your daughter, I would start by registering her with LittlePassport.com. It’s a company that mails monthly packages to children, educating them one country at a time. They receive a map, stickers and pictures as they follow the adventure of two young characters throughout the world. I did it for my daughter for the two full years of the program and she loved it. As to your son, I would register him with TimeforKids.com, which is Time Magazine for kids. It is full of world news presented to them in a format they can understand and that can get them engaged. I also would register him with Kid World Citizen so he can correspond with a child his age located in the country of his choice. I did that for many years growing up, exchanging weekly letters with a girl from Greece. It was a wonderful experience that got me interested in foreign countries and cultures.

As to foreign languages, there are many opportunities with Saturday schools offering classes in a variety of languages. For example, Vancouver has a great Chinese school I know of. Portland has an Italian school open to kids of all ages. Classes are affordable and taught by native speakers. The same can be found for Spanish, French, German, etc.

Please inquire and get your children immersed in a foreign language. In my opinion, and as someone who circles the globe for a living, I feel that being fluent in at least one foreign language is by far the best investment you can make in the future of a child.

I hope this helps!

Valérie

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Business over breakfast?

Going Global header

Dear Valérie,

I am a German national who works as an executive assistant at an U.S. firm in charge of arranging my boss' travel schedule as well as the ones of the employees of his department. My boss and employees insist on having me set up breakfast meetings with clients while in Europe, something that I honestly can't do, as I feel that breakfast to Europeans is a private meal where business is never discussed. My co-workers tell me that I am old school and don't understand business efficiency. What do you think? Old school or just good etiquette?

Thank you!

Frauke

Dear Frauke,

You nailed it! Business over breakfast in Europe is considered tacky and improper. Breakfast is the time one spends at home with family, catching up with world news, mentally preparing oneself for the day. Asking people out to breakfast is not part of the cultural norm in most European countries and should be avoided at all cost.

Additionally, meal time in Europe is spent talking about social matters and learning about one another as human beings (not business partners). It is thus important to realize that there are some clear boundaries to respect. However, meal time is a time where the visitor will be carefully observed, assessing one's level of polish (table manners, world views, current events, etc.). It is hence not the time to be too loose and consider that time as “off the record.” It isn't. It is, in fact, during those social occasions that Europeans will often decide if the person in front of them is worth doing business with. My recommendation is to always mind your Ps and Qs while respecting the local customs.

Hope this helps!

Valérie

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Living in a multicultural world

Valerie Berset-Price

Dear Valérie,

This has little to do with business, but it has to do with living in a multicultural world, so hopefully it applies to your column.

My husband and I have a multitude of friends from around the world. I come from Serbia originally. As such, we often extend dinner party invitations at our house to people we like and who may not be American. Having lived here for a number of years, I had to adjust to the American punctuality style and the fact that communication must remain constant. My pet peeve is when people refuse to RSVP or answer my specific email to them about our invitation. It makes me upset and makes me want to get rid of those friends in the future. I know it’s wrong, but I am unable to tell myself anything that makes me feel good about the lack of respect I feel coming from those so-called friends. Could you please help me? I don’t want to be bitter, and I don’t want to judge people I love on their social manners only.

Thanks!

Adrijana

Dear Adrijana,

Thanks for your question. I can relate to your frustration, and I understand how easy it is to associate someone’s behavior with lack of respect. You see, around the world, people are taught to show respect very differently. For example, the other day I was in an Iraqi restaurant in Palo Alto, CA with a male colleague. The waiter avoided all eye contact with me and asked my male colleague what my order would be. While being invisible to the waiter bothered me, I had to remind myself that not making eye contact with a woman, especially when she is in the company of a man who could be her husband, is a sign of respect in many parts of the Muslim world.

Your international friends might have been taught growing up in India, Persia or Morocco, for example, that saying “no” to an invitation is extremely disrespectful. They were taught that ignoring the invitation is a form of communication that tells the person that indeed, they would not be able to attend. It allows people to not have to deliver bad news.

What makes it complex to live in a multicultural world is that each culture teaches to communicate in its own fashion. As a result, when people do not meet our cultural expectations, like answering an RSVP, we feel that we are being disrespected. When this happen to you, Adrijana, I suggest that you instead think of why your friends would try to disrespect you. I am pretty sure there are no reasons. Then I would think about their country of origin and wonder if their country’s mode of communication is more indirect than in the United States or Serbia. Only in other North American countries and Europe (including Russia) is communication as direct as we are in the U.S. The rest of the world shows respect by communicating indirectly. Your friends are not answering your invitation not because you don’t matter to them but because you matter too much to decline your invitation.

Hope this helps!

Valérie

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Protecting international assignees

Valerie Berset Price

Dear Valérie,

I am the HR director of a fast growing company located in Longview, Washington. Our industry is engineering related and attracts a lot of men. In the past three years, I have been successful at recruiting women, and, having just finished reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book, “Lean In,” our company is determined to bring more women in. Being a woman myself and not having traveled much, I wonder, however, if it is a safe move to send women on international business assignments in a world in full ebullition. I also would like to know what type of program we should have in place to protect our employees when traveling internationally for our company. Thank you!

MaryLinn B.

Dear MaryLinn,

I just finished reading “Lean In” myself and have found it to be a gem. So glad it inspired you to keep on finding relevant roles for women within your companies.

Regardless of the gender, sending employees on international assignments involves a certain level of risk that requires a certain level of protection. Dr. Lisbeth Claus published a thorough white paper called “Duty of care of employers for protecting international assignees, their dependents and international business travelers.” The paper goes over the different programs companies must have in place to ensure that traveling employees are well-informed and well-taken care of when operating outside of their own country. Here is a summary of those key elements to consider:

  • Carefully groom your employees to make sure they have the right attitude to succeed in the host country (physically fit for the job, don’t take unnecessary risks, respectful of people’s culture and religion, curious and willing to learn the language, etc.);
  • Communicate, educate and train your employees to increase their awareness of the type of environment in which they will be operating once in the foreign country; make sure they are aware of the protocols, risk and dangers associated with certain behaviors that might be considered offensive in the host country;
  • Assess employee risk prior to any international travel (is the area safe for travel or is there some political unrest going on) and keep on assessing the possibly changing risks when employees are on the road;
  • Provide access to adequate and safe air and ground transportation (private driver instead of rental car or cab, business class or extra night in a hotel to properly rest, proper escort for female employees in certain regions, etc.);
  • Track and monitor your employees; have a system in place wherein you know at all times where your employees are when traveling internationally or operating abroad;
  • Have a crisis management plan and exit strategy in place in case of rioting, earthquake, tsunami, volcanic eruption, war, coup d’état, etc.;
  • Provide comprehensive travel and medical insurance to your entire international workforce;
  • Understand the medical and environmental risks and provide the necessary vaccinations and preventive medications.

It is important to remember that an employer has a moral, social and legal responsibility toward its employees and that a company is ultimately responsible for what is happening to them while abroad under foreign laws.

Hope this helps!

Valérie

Do you have a question for Going Global? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Please note that the Vancouver Business Journal and Valerie Berset-Price reserve the right to publish your letter or an edited version in all print and electronic media.