International employees are among the most underutilized and untapped resources in today’s global and multicultural organizations. By ignoring their potential, an organization is missing out on the creativity, innovation, cultural, and linguistic skills they could contribute to the organization’s global success. My September/October column (https://trainingmag.com/trgmag-article/international-assignments-best-or-worst-times/) focused on steps organizations can take to develop and retain employees who are sent overseas for an international assignment. This column focuses on the other great missing piece of the global talent and development puzzle: the international employees who are “hiding in plain sight.” Talent and development leaders can play a significant role in maximizing the full potential of these important human resources.
Today’s organizations are competing for workers’ talent, loyalty, and retention. Salaries alone will not drive the recruitment and retention of the best employees. Strategies and methodologies are needed to sustain a global and multicultural advantage that will differentiate an organization from its competitors.
International employees come from all over the world. When fully engaged, they are “dedicated and highly motivated employees who drive innovation and can serve as professional cultural resources,” according to Anila Nicklos, Global Dynamics’ International Employee Engagement expert. Unfortunately, many organizations do not know how to engage and retain their international employees and lose the benefit of their insights and the competitive advantage they bring.
International employees face many challenges, which affect their ability to fully contribute their talents. These include experiencing culture shock and coming with a set of values and beliefs that may be in conflict with the societal and workplace norms of their new culture, such as male/female interactions. Many international employees are afraid to speak up because they don’t want to be judged by their accents or their inappropriate use of the language. They may come from cultures where micro-management is the norm, so speaking up and asking questions or seeking help would be seen as insubordinate or a sign of weakness. Nicklos came from a communist country where “speaking your mind could result in your disappearance.” She reveals, “It took me a long time to realize that speaking your mind in a constructive manner is a good thing.”
The added stresses caused by everyday differences in parenting, parent-teacher interactions, shopping, insurance, health care, and other daily interactions are brought to work with little or no resources to turn to. There are actions Talent and Development leaders can take to dramatically improve the engagement of these employees and their contribution to the organization. Here are best practices that will enhance international employee engagement, success, and profitability.
1. Create an International Employee Resource Group. Employee resource groups—which are usually under the umbrella of the Diversity office—represent specific interests such as People of Color, Parents, Veterans, Women, LGBTQ, and others, including allies. Talent and Development leaders and Learning and Development professionals can partner with the Office of Diversity to help address the issues international employees usually face, including the numerous cultural and social diversity circumstances they may not understand, and that inhibit their professional development and performance of their roles. In many cases, they have unrecognized skills and abilities, which are unseen because no one is looking for them and they are not accustomed to bringing attention to themselves.
The International Employee Resource Group (IERG) can add value to the organization’s strategic goals. Areas where the IERG can make a difference include:
- Policy improvement
- Professional development
- Networking opportunities
- Cultural competency training
- Social and cultural bonding
- Organizational inclusion
- Social responsibility
- Increased volunteerism
- Community support
The IERG also will connect new international hires with external resources in the community. In one major health-care organization, Nicklos created an IERG that, she says, became “a tremendous resource to the new international hires, increased employee engagement, and supported talent retention and development.” The IERG may act as a catalyst for open dialogue between all employees coming from different cultures. It will increase employee engagement and become a workforce pipeline for the organization.
The IERG should have an executive sponsor who has experience moving to a new culture. It will provide a network that supports professional development, increased retention, and talent acquisition while working with senior leaders to address concerns and provide feedback and guidance that promotes professional growth. The IERG should record all new ideas and best practices it has created that contributed to the organization’s success. These contributions then can be presented to senior leaders in person or in a written report. Having the IERG meet with other Employee Resource Groups can be a catalyst for relationship building.
2. Develop an International Employee Onboarding Program. The program should focus specifically on the challenges faced by international employees. This should include a workshop on living and working in their new culture and workplace. Presentations by successful international employees are great motivators. Community representatives and resources should be present. International employees may not be accustomed to joining volunteer organizations or taking advantage of community colleges or adult education and using networking for their professional and personal growth.
3. Create an International Employee Buddy or Mentorship Program. Pair new international employees with a buddy or mentor who is from the same culture or has had similar experiences. Expats who have returned home from an international assignment make great candidates since they want to connect with people from other cultures as part of their continuing interest and education in things international. Since international employees may not take the initiative to ask for help, mentors should call or meet their mentees on a regular basis. One-on-one assistance can significantly improve worker confidence and result in the recognition of hidden talents.
4. Create Opportunities for Socializing and Networking. These interpersonal opportunities can focus on a particular topic of interest where each employee shares insights and experiences from his or her home culture such as education, religion, food, etc. Social networking groups, including the mentors, can result in unanticipated opportunities for growth. A dedicated Website with FAQs and resources can make a big difference for those who have linguistic challenges or are otherwise inhibited to seek help in person. IERGs also can sponsor Lunch & Learn meetings where they can share insights about their home culture.
5. Create Opportunities for Socializing and Networking. These interpersonal opportunities can focus on a particular topic of interest where each employee shares insights and experiences from his or her home culture such as education, religion, food, etc. Social networking groups, including the mentors, can result in unanticipated opportunities for growth. A dedicated Website with FAQs and resources can make a big difference for those who have linguistic challenges or are otherwise inhibited to seek help in person. IERGs also can sponsor Lunch & Learn meetings where they can share insights about their home culture.
6. Provide Cultural Competency Training for All Managers. Managers can play a vital role in the success of international employees. A cultural competency program focusing on managing international employees can be powerful, especially if employees can describe cases or incidents where there was a culture clash or where they felt inhibited at work. I have led many sessions where employees described how they were held back by their accents or their discomfort with taking credit for their work or speaking up at meetings. These training programs should examine the core cultural tendencies that impact manager/ employee relationships. These include hierarchy (micro-management vs. empowerment), direct vs. indirect communication styles, processes of evaluation, performance reviews and feedback, and socializing during and after work.
Provide Learning and Development Opportunities for International Employees. International employees are eager learners. They welcome programs on presentation skills, sponsoring Toastmasters at work, financial planning, English language lessons, accent reduction classes, health, and nutrition. Not only will they benefit and make a greater contribution to the organization, they will spread the word to their friends and relatives that your company is a welcoming employer of choice.
Your international employees want to succeed and contribute to the organization. Enlightened Learning and Development leadership can open the door for their full participation and inclusion, which will result in engaged and dedicated employees.
Please share your experiences and best practices providing training and development support to your international employees with me for future columns: at email@example.com
Neal Goodman, Ph.D., is president of Global Dynamics, Inc., a training and development firm specializing in globalization, cultural intelligence, effective virtual workplaces, and diversity and inclusion. He can be reached at 305.682.7883 and at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, visit http://www.globaldynamics.com.