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Top Tips on How to Keep Safe When Working Abroad

Declan Mulkeen

19 Jun 2017

Many organisations sending employees on an international assignment consider the merits of a wide range of global mobility training options. Very few, however, provide training on how to keep their employees safe when working abroad.

Why Invest in Training? 

The benefits of language training are generally evident to both the employee, accompanying family and the organisation.  However, many organisations may be less clear about the benefits of intercultural training, especially if they do not understand the wide range of topics a comprehensive training course can cover and how these can help to keep their employees safe.

Intercultural training is much more than describing the best way to greet a businesswoman or to avoid using your left hand in certain situations.  It also explains core values of the destination country – not only what they are but also why they are so important to that culture.

What is Intercultural Training?

Intercultural training is designed to ease the transition of an employee into their new destination, both from a business and a daily living perspective.  Robust programmes also address issues that are relevant to the employee’s family.

A robust course will also equip the assignee to learn effective ways of working as well as very concrete information about how things work in everyday life in their new location.  For organisations who are still unclear of the benefits of intercultural training, or that believe this information can be gained from casual research, they may be missing an additional and very important benefit.  Intercultural training can keep employees safe.

We urge you to watch this video on how intercultural training can keep your employees safe

Keeping your Employees Safe

Intercultural training is much more than describing the best way to greet a businesswoman or to avoid using your left hand in certain situations.  It also explains core values of the destination country – not only what they are but also why they are so important to that culture.  Training programmes also explain what the likely consequences are if a culture value is ignored or dismissed.

Intercultural training often uses an iceberg model when describing the importance of understanding cultural values.  This model teaches that most values important to a culture are hidden.  Whilst an employee may be aware of some of these values, they may also be inaccurately or incompletely understood.  Other values may be completely transparent to another culture and thus may be completely unaware of each other’s values.

Iceberg model

©iStockphoto.com/Mark Evans

 

Communication Challenges Faced by International Assignees

Many difficulties arise through communication challenges.  These challenges are not even necessarily due to a language barrier.  Host country nationals may be able to speak your language fluently; however, they may not speak it in the same way.

For example, many Europeans will describe a situation as they see it, whether it is good or bad.  However, many people from the Middle East or much of Asia may prefer to put a positive spin on most things, including the state of their immediate environment.

Hearing ‘don’t worry, my friend’ or ‘everything is ok’ or interpreting silence correctly is much more difficult without intercultural training, where the true meaning of this communication style is described for the employee’s specific situation.

For example, in some cultures, bad news attracts bad karma or causes a loss of face.  In other cultures, information is withheld simply out of respect for hierarchy and status.  Better to let the potentially bad event play out than to specifically warn an unsuspecting cultural outsider that they are about to enter an unsafe neighbourhood about to hold a political rally.

How to Interpret Non-verbal Communication?

In other cases, misinterpretation of a behaviour can be potentially dangerous.  Non verbal communication is a good characteristic to explore.  In most of the West, a smile signifies an open and welcome greeting.

However, in some other cultures, a smile can mean nervousness, embarrassment or can even be used to pretend something is safe when in fact it is not safe at all.  Intercultural training can educate the employee of how non-verbal communication differs in their destination.

Avoid Cultural Faux Pas

Whereas some cultures might be tolerant of culturally ignorant behaviour of a minor nature, the same behaviour may be deemed completely unacceptable by other cultures

An example of this is the case of Michael McFeat, who works for Canadian mining company Centerra Gold. He was recently detained by police after he posted a comment on Facebook that reportedly offended staff at the mine and led to a temporary strike. Watch the video below for more information and comment on this cultural faux pas case that landed this Scottish expat in jail.

Cultural faux pas can also put some people in a position of danger by missing the importance of a significant date.  This can be a holiday, an anniversary of a tragedy, or something of religious significance.

Common examples of difficulties encountered by employees who are unaware of culturally significant events include ignoring or dismissing the significance of patriotic holidays, disrespecting mourning periods for the dead/martyrs/military heroes, or through inappropriate behaviour/dress code/offensive comments about a faith-based practice.

Whereas many cultures might be generally tolerant of culturally ignorant behaviour of a minor nature, the same culturally ignorant behaviour may be deemed completely unacceptable during these significant dates, especially if acted out publicly where it cannot be ignored.

Intercultural training can also teach the employee where to obtain additional information and advice in their destination country that may not be easily obtained back home. Language training would be of additional value if the source of this information is in the host country’s local language.

Intercultural training can start the employee on a journey of developing and trusting their instincts

In today’s instant information age, not everything is on the internet (or perhaps accessible), nor does the internet necessarily tell you what local residents would do when facing a dangerous situation.

Finally, intercultural training can start the employee on a journey of developing and trusting their instincts when arriving in their new destination.  Improving cultural awareness, empathy and flexibility are all keys to understanding a new environment – and making sense of any warning signs.