The case of the aggrieved expatriate
I: The case of the aggrieved expatriate (1)
Marie Moore, human resource manager for international operations of Food Products Incorporated (FPI), sighed as she reread the resignation letter from Sadie Wagner. Sadie was one of the latest in a series of expatriates to resign from international appointments. Although high turnover in international positions is well known in the industry, the executives at FPI International Operations were very concerned about the high expatriate turnover. Recruitment, placement, and relocation costs were staggering, and with every replacement there was a productivity decline while the new person "learned the ropes." Moore thought Sadie had a better than average chance of succeeding. Sadie was single, spoke the language, and actively sought an international position.
Moore was responsible for presenting a strategy and implementation plan that would decrease turnover and increase tenure in international appointments. Moore reflected on Sadie's tenure at FPI at its domestic and international operations. If she could understand why Sadie's placement did not work out, then she could begin action planning on a strategy for more successful international appointments. Moore pulled up Sadie's personnel file on her computer and read the file notes.
SADIE'S DOMESTIC POSITION
Sadie Wagner came to FPI-Corporate as manager of food product procurement and economics. Although she had a "title" of manager, the position was better defined as an executive adviser specializing in regulatory issues pertaining to food procurement. In this position, her abilities to gather, analyze, and interpret forecast data and then report industry trends to upper management were well known internationally. Even though this was an unusually high appointment for a 30-year-old female with very limited management or organizational experience, she already was known throughout the industry for her expertise in accurately anticipating future industry directions. FPI had made an attractive offer to recruit her from her previous employer. Although FPI was an industry leader, her placement with them did not dissuade other organizations from trying to recruit her away. She was at FPI for approximately 18 months when she was offered an overseas position from an international food conglomerate. Sadie discussed the opportunity with her supervisor, who suggested that they look for an international placement within FPI. Sadie seemed excited about an expatriate position and agreed to remain at FPI. Her resume was forwarded to Moore at International Operations.
Within 8 weeks, a midlevel management position became available in Germany. FPI was in the process of merging two companies it had acquired in the early 1990s. They wanted someone who knew their strategic planning process, could implement it in their international subsidiaries, and would provide monthly financial reports to headquarters. Sadie was an exceptional fit for a position in Germany. She was fluent in the German language and knowledgeable about the culture. She had been an exchange student to Germany while in high school, studied the German language during college, and did a year of graduate school there as well. Sadie knew how the strategic planning process related to economic and procurement issues, although her current position did not have her actively involved in the decision-making aspects of FPI's strategic planning. From her perspective, this position would give experience in the duties and responsibilities of a junior executive.
Moore spoke with Sadie and then forwarded her resume to Germany. The vice president of human resources, Mr. Becker, and Sadie's prospective boss, Mr. Reil, conducted telephone interviews immediately after receiving her resume and, within 2 weeks, Sadie was on a flight to Germany for her official interview. The face-toface interview process began with Becker, then Reil, and concluded with Mr. Carstensen, the general manager and highest-ranking executive. These interviews were more for determining a personality fit than position qualifications-those had been assessed during the telephone interviews. After meeting with Carstensen, Sadie was offered the position, which she accepted. The entire interview process lasted less than 3 hours. She remained in Germany for a few days to find an apartment and then returned to the United States for approximately 6 weeks to finish her domestic projects and prepare for the move.
SADIE'S INTERNATIONAL POSITION
On her first official day, Becker introduced Sadie to the vice presidents who composed the senior management team that reported to Carstensen. Becker also introduced her to two other expatriates who reported to senior mangers. Charles, a married American male, was in finance. William, a single English male, was in marketing. Charles had been in Germany 6 months, and William arrived only a few days before Sadie. The key supporter of the expatriate program was Carstensen. Other members of the senior management team were not as supportive. In some cases, they feared the merger would result in a head-count reduction. And, because the expatriates came from the parent company, German senior managers perceived that the expatriates' positions were secure, but the positions of German senior managers were not.
Sadie spent the first week learning everything she could about the financial reporting system because her boss was about to leave for a 4-week vacation. Sadie wondered why there was such a rush to get her to Germany when her boss would be gone for the first month. While he was gone, Sadie handled the weekly financial postings to FPI. Additionally, she learned about the German subsidiaries and their competitors by analyzing company performance by divisions and reading trade publications.
Sadie used Reil's 4-week absence to meet many colleagues and form alliances. At first, some of the Germans were taken aback by Sadie's outgoing nature and suspicious about how someone at her age had obtained such a high position-a female no less. Because of the German educational system and mandatory military service for males, most Germans are in their late 20s before they enter the workforce, so her contemporaries were in entry and lower level management positions. Because of her familiarity with the culture and language, she was able to socialize with the German workforce. The German managers who were interested in obtaining an international placement wanted to know how she had received one. She found these people to be a good source of information while her supervisor was on vacation.
Besides FPI, several other large U.S. multinational corporations had operations in the area. Sadie noticed that the expatriates and spouses with limited language skills tended to socialize exclusively within this small community. Some expatriates tended to be a bit arrogant-"I must be great, if the company is going to send me to Europe"-and were disappointed when the red carpet was not laid out for them. Expatriates within FPI tended to be upper-middle and senior-level management and staff, accustomed to making decisions with the best data and analytical resources. Because extensive resources were not always available overseas, they were frustrated with what they felt were inadequate conditions for doing their jobs.
After Reil returned, he expressed disapproval about Sadie's work schedule. During his absence, Sadie worked the typical U.S. schedule: 8:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. She knew this deviated slightly from the traditional German white-collar work hours of 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. and the senior management schedule of 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. But because shops closed by 6:00 p.m. (except on Thursdays) and only opened until noon on Saturdays, she needed to leave work a little early to take care of routine shopping and errands. Of course, this was not a problem for married personnel because very few spouses worked out of the home.
Among the senior managers, Reil was known for being there the earliest and staying the latest, and none of his direct reports dared leave earlier. It was very apparent that he was annoyed by Sadie's 8:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. hours. He spoke to her about "how it looked." Sadie did not agree with his attendance expectations, especially during periods of light workloads. He assured her that her workload would increase, but she was always able to complete her assigned duties quite quickly because she was a native English speaker. She started to wonder if her workload was lighter because she was not being assigned all the managerial duties and responsibilities associated with the strategic planning process. She decided not to ask explicitly about the lack of management duties, primarily because she was not sure of whom she could ask such a sensitive question. Instead, she quietly noted the types of duties and responsibilities that Charles and William were given.
STRATEGIC PLANNING AT FPI-GERMANY
The strategic planning process began in August, was to be finished by December 1, and included 1- and 5-year plans. Plan presentations were made by Carstensen to various levels of FPI in September, October, and finally to the CEO of FPI in November. Each of these levels was headed by a native English speaker. Carstensen had an insatiable desire for the most current business buzzwords, and Sadie's native tongue helped fill his void. Each of the expatriates played a key role in writing the plan presentation. Although Carstensen claimed he wanted the expatriates to bring more flexibility to the German organizational/business culture, it seemed to the expatriates that what he really wanted was their language skills.
Also during this time, Sadie asked Reil if she could take a refresher German language course. He refused. Reil stated that Sadie did not need a language course because all formal communications to the parent company were in English. Sadie replied that dialogue within staff meetings was in German, internal documents were written in German, and all lunchroom conversations were in German as well. After a discussion with human resources, Sadie began a 1-hour language course twice a week to refresh her writing and speaking skills despite her supervisor's objections.
As the weeks passed, Sadie still wondered if she was in Germany only because of her language skills. She could not see how FPI was grooming her for an eventual executive-level position or when she would have an opportunity to demonstrate her expertise in food procurement regulations. She finally decided to ask Charles and William about their expectations. Unlike Sadie, Charles and William had been on international assignments previously. Although the men expressed some disappointment, their feelings stemmed from a different source than Sadie's. Both Charles and William accept international positions when they sensed an opportunity to do interesting and challenging work; neither man aspired to uppermanagement positions. Their frustration at FPI-Germany was that they were not using their technical expertise.
Sadie remained in Germany through the strategic planning process, but left immediately after that. And because domestic operations were in a "downsizing" mode, she was placed on leave status. Within a matter of weeks after returning to the United States, a competitor hired Sadie.
IMPROVING THE CURRENT EXPATRIATE SITUATION
Moore leaned back in her chair while reflecting
on Sadie's personnel file. Sadie had not explained her decision to leave
FPIGermany, despite the scheduled exit interview. And Moore recently learned
that the other expatriates, Charles and William, had left FPI-Germany soon
after Sadie. At this point, she did not know the source of the problem.
Was it a lack of communication as to the types of knowledge, skills, and
abilities expected of the expatriates? Or, were the receiving departments
not integrating the expatriates into the local workforce? Or, maybe it
was that the expatriates were not properly prepared for the unique relational
demands-both personally and professionally-that accompany an international
appointment. Moore was provided with a budget to address this problem but
did not know exactly where she would get the greatest return on investment.
Moore leaned forward at her desk and started to place some phone calls.
Maybe some of her professional colleagues could advise her about the problem
with the expatriates.
1. - AUTHOR'S NOTE: The author would like to rha thank the real-life Sadie Wagner, who prefers to remain anonymous, for sharing her story.
II: "The case of the aggrieved expatriate" case analyses (1)
Source: Management Communication Quarterly : MCQ; Thousand Oaks; Feb 1998; Beverly Davenport Sypher (2); Barbara Shwom (3); David M Boje (4); Grace Ann Rosile(5); Vernon D Miller (6); Vol 11 (3): 460-485. Please consult MCQ for original. This is a draft copy.
The questions raised at the end of the expatriate case suggest that Moore does indeed understand, at least on one level, the sources of her expatriate problem. In the case of Sadie, was it a lack of communication about expectations? Yes. Was it a problem with the receiving department not integrating her into the local workforce? Yes. Was it a problem of the expatriate being poorly prepared? Yes. Moore is wise to seek help in understanding and remedying the all-too-common problem of expatriate failures. Each case, no doubt, has its own set of circumstances that contributes to successes or failures, and this case is no exception. It does, however, have a number of very familiar problems that Moore needs to address.
LACK OF COMMUNICATION
Sadie's lack of experience coupled with the international assignment exacerbated apparent communication problems regarding expectations. This is a classic role-conflict scenario. She was unclear about what they expected and apparently never asked. They were not sure of her qualifications and apparently never probed. Remember, her on-site interview lasted only 3 hours, and it specifically did not focus on "position qualifications." They felt those had been assessed during the telephone interviews. So, here we have an inexperienced, young, female expatriate given the assignment to work with foreign, experienced, older male managers to implement some major changes. Those details alone suggest the potential for problems. Add to this relational setup a missing manager for the first 4 weeks of Sadie's assignment, and one can rest assured that there are going to be problems with role clarity. She was met by a senior management team that was largely "not supportive," who feared that her presence might jeopardize their jobs and who questioned her experience from the start. A vacationing boss and a failure on her part to seek out expatriates or locals from whom she might learn led her to adopt attitudes and work behaviors that set her on a course of collision with the German senior managers.
Sadie's unwillingness to approach management and clarify expectations suggests she neither anticipated the potential for problems nor responded to the problems once she became aware of them. It is not clear that there was ever any communication regarding her own or their understanding of the job assignment. Only through communication can such expectations be negotiated. Communication with her home office before, during, and after her departure, communication with other expatriates as well as local managers, and integration into the social fabric of the culture outside the workplace are key to expatriate success. Given the lack of communication between and among all the participating parties, it is no small wonder that this venture failed.
LACK OF INTEGRATION INTO THE WORKFORCE
Because she had limited managerial experience and apparently little or no cultural training relevant to the business environment, Sadie entered a workforce unprepared to understand organizational and cultural expectations about just how integrated she should expect to be. Her job was ill defined, and she had gotten off to a bad start. She did not really know what was expected and did not ask, and she ignored expectations when they were made explicit. To ignore senior management (even about something as seemingly negotiable as work hours) in a European culture where hierarchy is one of the dominant modes of organization hardly paves the way for work group involvement.
Nonetheless, one has to ask, "What kind of opportunities were there for becoming a part of the management team and assuming a full range of responsibilities?" For expatriates to be successful, management must assume the responsibility for providing performance opportunities, that is, opportunities in which the expatriate can contribute and feel rewarded and included. Yet, in this case, the receiving department did little to integrate her. In fact, her direct manager discouraged her from seeking language instruction that might help her acclimate.
Perhaps with more and better communication, Sadie would have come to understand the insecurity and, perhaps, resentment her German counterparts may have felt. It appears her manager-the key supporter of the expatriate program-did or said little to help her or to help reduce fears among German managers that her presence could jeopardize their job security. Also, the other two expatriates most similar to her in position had not been there long enough to help much. More pointedly, they admitted that their goals for being there were very different from hers. She saw an international assignment as an opportunity for advancement; they said they liked the challenge and adventure. Sadie's goals may have distinguished her as too ambitious and overly assertive, characteristics that research has shown to be among those most disliked in coworkers and those most problematic for females especially. Young, inexperienced expatriates who have managed such an impression are not likely to be integrated into the work group unless senior management makes a concerted effort to do so. With the lack of effort shown by the receiving department and each party's unwillingness to clarify expectations, it is not surprising that Sadie felt frustrated and left.
The lack of a well-developed cultural training program may be the most important factor in understanding Moore's expatriate problem. The intercultural communication literature is filled with examples of how cultural awareness and intercultural competence play a central role in expatriate success. Moreover, the literature tells us that such training needs to focus on the expatriate's prearrival, present circumstances, and life after the assignment. There is little indication that Moore had given careful consideration to this essential element of expatriate success.
What she did consider seems poorly thought out. For example, Moore thought Sadie would succeed because she knew the language. She took college language proficiency as a sign that Sadie would be capable of performing at the necessary business level. Sadie arrived and found her language skills inadequate for understanding the nuance and detail necessary for full integration into a highly technical, international work group. Moore also thought being single was an asset. This very well could have been a liability, because one of Sadie's complaints about working hours was not having time to shop for necessities. A partner may have been able to help and may have been the sounding board and support system she was missing at work. There was no mention of any social connections outside of work. All in all, it appears that Sadie lacked much of a support system at all, either inside or outside of work. Of course, it is altogether possible that a partner may have had his or her own adjustment problems-which is another key reason expatriates can fail-but assuming that being single is an asset is a sure way to avoid setting up adjustment programs that may be needed to survive the stress and strain of a new culture.
Moore also assumed that Sadie was a good choice because she "actively sought an international position." Simply wanting the assignment does not mean one is qualified or prepared for it. Sadie had limited work experience and even less management experience. She referred to her previous job as an "executive adviser." In many ways, Moore's assumptions set Sadie up to fail. They apparently helped her rationalize away or dismiss the degree of help Sadie or anyone else would undoubtedly need. No one should give such an assignment and then not prepare the person for it. It is bad practice and shortsighted at best. Assignments may be full of opportunity and employees may be filled with enthusiasm, but this does not guarantee success. A mismatch between person and position is problematic from the outset. Complicate a mismatch with an overseas assignment and one is doomed to fail.
Conflicts with her role, her supervisor, her personality, and her work habits all may have been preventable had Sadie been made more culturally aware through organized prearrival training and ongoing adjustment practices once on site. Not only is there no mention of advance preparations in which Sadie could have learned more about the attitudes and values of the culture, there was no mention of contacts with the American office while she was in Germany, little or no effort by the German managers to help acclimate her, and not enough similar expatriate presence that could manage all of the support and education not received from either the organization at home or abroad.
CULTURAL TRAINING PROGRAMS
Cultural training could have alerted Sadie to the suspicions the Germans had because of her age, gender, and personality. Success demands an awareness on her part of potential conflicts and a willingness to negotiate work-related and cultural expectations. In this case, she ignored hierarchy, a dominant mode of organization in European cultures. She disagreed about working hours, and was younger, less experienced, and gender disadvantaged in this group. She took what was likely to have been a command in that culture as a suggestion, or she blatantly disregarded authority on the language course request. She appeared to resist and dismiss both overt and covert power in an environment laden with social controls. Advance training could have helped her anticipate these potential problems and armed her with an array of possible strategies for overcoming them. Among these strategies could have been training in how to negotiate expectations and how to manage appropriate impressions. Both she and the German managers may have had good intentions and clear ideas about the work, but those seemingly never were communicated.
Cultural training also could have included a language refresher incorporating business protocols of the receiving culture. Finding out after arrival that her language needed improvement and that management was not likely to support such activities could be cause enough for one to quit and go home. Moore, as the human resource manager, should have known about the possibilities for such development on site (or the lack thereof) and should have included adequate language preparation as a standard part of prearrival cultural training. The literature is full of cases in which language problems create frustrations at the very basic level that can lead to deeper misunderstanding of the work and culture.
Moore also should build into her training program an on-site component that guarantees a commitment on the part of the receiving organization to systematically integrate expatriates into the work culture. At the very least, they should commit to introducing expatriates into the social fabric of the organization. Even in the most rational of organizations, and perhaps even more so in such organizations, human resource managers should communicate their expectations that new expatriates be set up for informal lunches and other get-togethers, and human resource personnel should follow up to see how the expatriate is faring. Remember, the training program begins before the expatriates arrive, continues through their assignment, and lasts through the processing of the experience once the expatriates come home.
The literature tells us that most expatriates
fail because they cannot adjust. Cultural training can go a long way in
aiding the adjustment process. In seeking help from experts, I urge Moore
to consider how the following questions can help guide the development
of a training program for FPI:
1. What has a potential expatriate done to qualify him or her for the assignment?
Without a successful training program,
companies run the risk of continual mismatches that could result in increased
costs, reduced enthusiasm for an overseas assignment, questionable judgment
and commitment on all sides and, at worst, more failures. On the other
hand, with each success, companies build up a reservoir of experiences
to integrate into their ongoing cultural training programs.
It is not surprising that Sadie Wagner and the other FPI expatriates in Germany left the company for greener pastures-that is, more fulfilling work environments. Sadie and her colleagues, Charles and William, each accepted their German assignments with an apparently clear expectation of what their jobs would entail-and all three found themselves disappointed and frustrated. Charles and William believed their jobs would offer a challenging opportunity to use their technical skills in finance and marketing. Sadie, who had an international reputation forecasting trends in the food industry, had every reason to believe that FPI-Germany would make good use of her talents. Sadie also believed that the international assignment, with its focus on strategic planning, would be a steppingstone to the executive career she planned for herself.
What a disappointment, then, for all three to find that their German managers valued them less for their business and technical expertise than for their facility as native English speakers, able to help the managers communicate more effectively with the U.S. corporate headquarters. In Sadie's case, the disappointment was compounded as she found herself being given less managerial responsibility rather than more and as she found her attempts to integrate herself into the German culture and workforce being blocked by her boss, Mr. Reil.
Clearly, at FPI, there is a disconnection between how the home office conceives of the expatriate role and how the German subsidiaries conceive of it. The home office wants Sadie, and presumably the other expatriates, to implement elements of the FPI culture and business practice in the new subsidiaries. The managers at the subsidiaries, by contrast, seem to want the expatriates primarily to help them make a good impression on the home office. And, unfortunately, nothing seems to have been put in writing-in a job description or an assignment letter-about what the expatriates' jobs really are to be. The result of this conflict is wasted talent and high expatriate turnover.
But if the source of FPI's expatriate problem-at least the problem in Germany-is relatively easy to identify, the solution is not. Marie Moore, as human resource manager for International Operations, is responsible for implementing a plan to decrease turnover in international appointments. Should she, she wonders, be using different criteria to recruit expatriates? Should she be helping the international departments better integrate the expatriates into the local workforce? Or should she develop programs to prepare the expatriates for the demands of their international assignments?
None of these solutions, however, addresses the problem of the disparity in expectations about expatriate roles. Even more important, none of them gets to the reason behind this disparity, the real heart of the problem: The senior managers at FPI-Germany essentially distrust the home office and the English-speaking expatriates. As long as the German senior managers fear that their positions are at risk while the expatriates' positions are assured, then they will continue to protect their jobs by underusing the expatriates and segregating them from the German workforce.
That is what we see happening to Sadie. Sadie suspects that Reil is withholding managerial responsibilities from her and minimizing her role in the strategic planning process. Even more telling is Reil's objection to Sadie's plan to improve her German language skills. When Sadie asked his permission to take a refresher course, Reil responded that Sadie does not need better German because communication with the home office is in English. Reil does not believe it is important for Sadie to become comfortable with the German workers; in fact, he may see a risk in Sadie communicating with German workforce, because it will allow her to do her job more effectively. The more capable Sadie becomes, the more dispensable Reil becomes. So, he forces her either to comply against her wishes or to circumvent him and get permission for the lessons from a higher managerial authority, further degrading the level of trust between the two and further fueling Sadie's discontent. Whether intentionally or inadvertently, the German managers have helped to create an atmosphere in which their jobs remain secure and the expatriates come and go.
How can Moore best deal with this basic distrust and help build a positive, long-term working relationship between the German managers and their expatriate employees? Most important, Moore needs to initiate a discussion between headquarters' executives and German executives about the future of the subsidiaries and the role of expatriates in that future. It might be productive to bring German managers to the United States for this discussion, to integrate them more fully into the FPI community and increase their sense of trust. Ultimately, Moore and the U.S. executives need to convince their German colleagues that the subsidiaries will benefit from the expatriates' presence, and that the integration of the companies will increase stability and lead to growth rather than downsizing. They need to make their German colleagues feel like real participants in the planning process. Only when this kind of two-way communication is established will German managers feel comfortable making the best use of expatriates and integrating the expatriates into the German workforce.
Once that process has begun, then Moore can look to implement other programs that will support expatriates in their positions. It is curious that FPI, with such a strong international presence, seems to offer no intercultural training or orientation to its expatriate recruits. After Sadie accepted her German assignment, she spent 6 weeks back in the home office clearing up current projects and preparing for the move. At no time during these 6 weeks did she receive any formal or informal training in intercultural communication. When she moved to Germany, she had 4 weeks to settle into the job before her boss returned from his vacation, but she seemed largely to have been left in charge of her own orientation. Becker in human resources offered her no guidance to smooth her way.
Perhaps FPI believes that simply by selecting the right people for expatriate positions-people who have some knowledge of the country's language and culture-they will avoid the need for expensive and time-consuming orientation. However, as Sadie's experience shows, being a high school exchange student or even a graduate student in a foreign country can in no way prepare someone for the subtleties of becoming part of that country's workforce. Sadie's knowledge of the German language certainly helped her get to know her German colleagues and socialize with them. Nonetheless, Sadie was naive about the realities of working in a predominantly male German business environment.
Consider, for example, Sadie's approach toward setting her work schedule. As a single woman running her own household, Sadie made what she thought was a reasonable choice: to adopt a typical U.S. work schedule, coming in to work early at 8:00 a.m. and leaving early at 5:30 p.m. This allowed her a to shop for food and other necessities while the stores remained open. Sadie envisioned no problem with this because she was easily able to get her assigned work done within those hours. Reil's insistence that she conform to a 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. work schedule because of "how it looks" seemed to Sadie merely irrational, and thus she dismissed his criticisms.
If Sadie had received even a little intercultural training or guidance, she might have realized that she was working in a culture that holds a different set of values from her own typically American, female ones. As an American manager, Sadie seems to value the kind of independence and autonomy that often accompanies increased status and excellent performance in a company. In addition, like many women in the American workforce, she believes it is unnecessary to sacrifice quality of life for the demands of a job. She clearly puts her focus on getting the job done well rather than being driven by a rigid and inflexible schedule. And she believes it is quite possible to juggle multiple tasks-and a personal lifewithout compromising the quality of her work.
But these values do not mesh seamlessly with the values exemplified in the male-dominated German workforce. Reil works under the assumption that managers, far from having earned autonomy, have a responsibility to set an example for the workforce, and so must adhere to a rigorous, conventional work schedule, even if the day's work is completed. Appearance is as important as the quality of work-and more important than quality of life. And, like many married men in the workforce, Reil probably has never even considered the problems faced by single women who run their own households. The German business culture has made little accommodation for such people.
With a better understanding of these small but important cultural differences before beginning her job, Sadie might have approached the work schedule problem differently. She may still have needed to modify her work schedule occasionally to run errands. However, rather than simply believing her boss to be irrational and losing respect for him, she may have decided to speak with him about how to meet her own needs and, at the same time, achieve his managerial goals, thus working out a mutually acceptable solution.
As Sadie's case illustrates, FPI needs
to put an intercultural training and orientation program in place if it
wants to decrease turnover and increase tenure in international appointments.
Moore would do well to plan such a program in the United States. She also
would do well to enlist the help of Becker, her German counterpart, to
pilot an orientation and mentoring program in Germany. I would propose
a program that works with both the expatriates and the departments receiving
the expatriates. Both groups would benefit from being sensitized to intercultural
differences. And recruits like Sadie, Charles, and William are likely to
stay longer on the joband perform better- if they receive some guidance
and feel they have someone to talk to when their jobs and their job expectations
are at odds.
I received a call from Marie Moore, human resource manager for international operations of Food Products Incorporated (FPI). Moore has a budget to address the problem of expatriates leaving FPI after their overseas assignment. She told me the story of Sadie Wagner, a 30-year-old female who, after 18 months at FPI, was offered a midlevel management position in Germany and, after she returned to the United States, left FPI for another company. As I listened to Moore tell me Wagner's story, I wondered why she had called me, a professional storyteller. I told Moore,
Look, I can only give you a storyteller's take on all this. I am not sure it will give you a strategy to decrease expatriate turnover and increase tenure in international appointments. What I am willing to do is invite an analysis by a professional in human resource management. I can then follow up with a storyteller's analysis.
She told me getting two analyses for the price of one would be fantastic. I immediately called Professor Grace Ann Rosile and asked her to analyze the case.
From a traditional human resource perspective, I suggest that several problem areas be examined, including hiring practices, orientation and training, ongoing career planning, and exit interviews. First, regarding hiring, the case suggests that the midlevel management position that became available in Germany was ideally suited to Sadie Wagner's background and skills. Her competence was quickly acknowledged after only telephone interviews with the German managers involved. The three German managers making the hiring decision required only a total of 3 hours of face-to-face interviews, averaging 1 hour per manager. How much time would they normally take to hire a junior-level executive? Is this process really a cooperative one, or do the Germans feel they have no choice but to approve of any reasonable candidate sent from the U.S. parent company? The entire expatriate hiring process might be reexamined to determine how it might best suit the goals of both the German and the American companies.
Once a person is hired, orientation and training are critical to success in any position and even more critical in the expatriate situation. Research suggests that more extensive orientations in the home country, before relocation, contribute to job success. These programs typically involve family members as well as the employee. It has been found that expatriates with supportive families survive longer than single expatriates. Although Wagner may not have problems of spousal or family adjustment, being single carries its own social adjustment issues. Also, being female in male-dominated work environments typically is even more difficult in most non-U.S. corporate environments. I believe a good expatriate orientation program would address these issues.
After arrival in a nondomestic assignment, the expatriate should be supported with additional on-site programs to ease her or his adjustment. Here again, in the absence of any orientation program, Wagner was left to discover for herself the availability of German language courses, and even then her boss, Reil, opposed her taking these classes. This example highlights the fact that possession of extensive language skills still may not be sufficient for expatriates. I would generalize this observation to suggest that Moore and FPI may be underestimating the levels of skills and amounts of training required to support adequately their expatriates. It also is apparent that the expatriate's immediate supervisor needs to be more closely involved in the orientation process. Even domestically, supervisory support for orientation and training activities is essential. To enlist such support requires endorsement at the highest corporate levels, usually above human resources.
Wagner's familiarity with the language and culture, even her year of graduate work in Germany, do not necessarily make her familiar with the business customs of her new organization. The case does not indicate that anyone was formally assigned to Wagner's orientation. Furthermore, after 1 week on the job, Wagner's immediate superior left for 1 month's vacation, leaving Wagner to fend for herself. This began a string of occurrences in which Wagner and her boss, Reil, ended up at odds with each other. Work hours, language classes, and job assignments relating to strategic planning were areas of conflict between them. Because there was no formal orientation program, there also was not the usual follow-up to such a program, which would have monitored and aided a new incumbent. Without these programs, when Wagner had sensitive questions regarding her lack of management-level assignments, she felt there was no one she could ask. With such lack of communication and support, I am not surprised that, when she did leave FPIGermany, Wagner did not explain her decision.
The case indicates a general sense of disappointed expectations from expatriates in general, not just FPI employees. Although some expectations may be unrealistic (i.e., the expectation of "red carpet" treatment), most seem to involve simply the expectation that people would use the skills for which they were hired. It has long been accepted that realistic job expectations contribute to increased tenure. A strategy as simple as allowing informal discussions with potential coworkers before hiring might serve this purpose. The continuing management of expectations, or career planning, also appears to be missing from FPI. From the beginning of the case, apparently no one knew of Wagner's ability or desire for an international assignment until she notified her superior about her other job offer. A career planning process would have involved the organization in identifying and addressing such issues proactively.
By viewing this case within the traditional
"frame" of the human resource functions of selection, orientation, supervision,
and career planning, the situation at FPI could be greatly improved. However,
all efforts directed at the above-described issues will have limited success
at best, unless the political and power issues between FPI and its German
subsidiary can be resolved. These issues go beyond the human resources
"frame." If the dynamics occurring with Carstensen and Reil are typical,
I would conclude that the Germans believe that they only need the proper
American buzzwords to protect themselves from unwanted and unnecessary
interference from their parent company. They viewed Wagner as one who could
provide the words they needed, while not posing much of a threat to their
control, because she was young, inexperienced, and female. I believe the
larger problems of power struggles so typical in cases of mergers and acquisitions
far outweigh the human resources/expatriate issues that color this case.
Both human resources and even business policy/strategy approaches often
lump such issues under the vague heading of "politics." The subsequent
solutions serve the interests of corporate control, with little concern
for questions of ethics. This is why I have begun to look at cases as stories
and to deconstruct those stories with the methods I learned from Dr. Boje.
I find that deconstruction more directly reveals the deeper, root issues
of power and control.
As a storyteller, my deconstruction analysis looks for the dualities in the story, suggests reinterpreted story lines, seeks rebel voices excluded or marginalized from the account I was provided, and reads between the lines of Moore's story of Sadie Wagner to look at more macro power and social issues for FPI.
Table 1 is a list of bipolar terms and dichotomies used in the story. I include both sides of the duality even if only one side was mentioned in the story. Half of the dualities have something to do with language. Language differentiates American and German personnel, parent company and Germany company, expatriates and nationals, and English and German speakers. The dualities point to the hierarchies in the story: the hierarchical relation of parent to German company, and the privileging of English as the international language and German as the language used in the German workplace. My storyteller's analysis suggests that there is a language struggle between the parent company and the German company. The parent company reinforces its dominance by enforcing its language preferences. Sadie is fluent in German, but her boss, Mr. Reil, does not want her to take German language refresher courses. He also uses the English-speaking expatriates to write the German strategic plan in ways that will influence the parent organization.
Reinterpretation of the Story
The story, as told by Moore, is only one
possible interpretation of the events. I want to take the same events and
give a different story. I want to tell the other sides of this story to
get at the marginalized and underrepresented story lines.
Table One: Dualities in the FPI Story
Moore's events. First, there are the events of the case that present Moore's side of the story. Moore is from and is concerned about recruitment, placement, and relocation costs that are "staggering." Moore is responsible for presenting a strategy and implementation plan to decrease expatriate turnover. She tells us Sadie's story. The events include Sadie's job offer from a competing international food conglomerate, the FPI international placement counterproposal, the interview in Germany with three senior German executives, the meeting of two male expatriates, the way Sadie spent her first week on the job, the return of Reil from vacation and his insistence that Sadie keep his schedule and not take more German language courses, the strategic planning events with focus on her native English-speaking skills, Sadie's leaving FPI after the conclusion of the strategic planning process, and Moore's reflections on Sadie's personnel file, as well as the departures of Charles and William from FPI-Germany.
My reinterpretation of the events. I would like to tell the story of the events from the FPI-Germany point of view, rather than the human resource management point of view of the parent company. The parent company wants an American junior executive, with FPI strategic planning experience, to work with the senior management of FPI-Germany. While her boss, Reil, is on vacation, Sadie starts snooping around. She interviews members of the workforce, helps herself to the files, and sends weekly financial reports back to the parent company. Reil may well believe that Sadie is a spy sent by the parent company to propose a list of names of executives and staff members who can be downsized. Reil probably is aware that the parent FPI concern is going through its own downsizing and will be more likely to keep its own executives than to retain the newly acquired German executives. The German executives selected Sadie because she is a young, inexperienced, female and, therefore, less of a threat than an older, internally experienced, male executive from the parent company. They thought she would join the expatriate community and leave well enough alone. However, Sadie does not respect the chain of command, poked about on her own, and defied even routine requests from authority (such as keeping a normal work schedule and not taking more language courses). The only safe route for Reil is to pump Sadie to find out the proper American jargon to put into the strategic plan that would save the jobs of German executives.
Aware or not, Sadie set off all the alarms she could. There is also a very curious end to this story. At the beginning of this story, when Sadie first left for her assignment in Germany, FPI thought enough of her to come up with a choice international assignment to keep her from jumping ship to a competitor. But, when she returned from Germany, she was put on the sidelines. This suggests another reinterpretation. FPI sees overseas assignments as a way to keep young talent out of the hands of its competitors, but does not seem to have a plan in place to nurture its young talent. Finally, FPIGermany is not being integrated into the FPI parent company. From the FPI-Germany point of view, it is only being spied on, and after the spy returns home, she no longer is useful to the parent firm.
My recommendation is to transfer German executives to the FPI parent headquarters and give whoever assigned Sadie overseas at least a 3-year assignment in FPI-Germany. Why continue to privilege the English-speaking executives from the parent firm who are making such wasteful decisions? Moore, you should also spend some time overseas instead of readings abstracts and data points in personnel files.
Rebel voices is my term for the voices that are not being expressed in Moore's story. There also are voices that are subordinate or hierarchically marginal to other voices in the story. Look at Charles and William. They also are expatriates, sent by FPI to the FPI-Germany operation. They are not very fluent in German and probably stayed in the non-German expatriate community. We know that Charles and William, whom I will assume are technical stars, also left the company. They apparently are treated as Englishspeaking "window dressing" and are not even permitted to use their technical expertise in service to FPI-Germany. FPI is losing many of its talented expatriate employees after their assignments. They both have more international experience than Sadie and, though inconvenient, apparently kept to the German work schedule and did not venture too far into German organizational territory without first getting some walking around papers.
Deny the Plot
Stories have plots, scripts, scenarios, recipes, and morals. I want to turn these around. The plot we are seduced into believing is that FPI cares about its new hires and its overseas acquisitions. Stories are intertextual. The story of Sadie points to the larger story of FPI parent relations to FPI-Germany, which points to FPI relations to all its international companies, and this points to FPI as a global corporation caught up in the downsizing fad and fashion. It could be that, despite Moore's budget to study the problem of expatriate turnover, FPI is caught up in the global downsizing plot. The global downsizing plot is to find cheap labor in whatever country one can so that more expensive labor can be brought under control or terminated. Downsizing is management-by-the-bottom-line as evidenced by those weekly financials that Sadie, the "executive adviser" (thinking she is a "junior executive"), keeps sending home. Sadie is behaving just like a junior-level reengineering consultant. She traces out the workforce talents, audits the files, and reports the goods to the parent company so the parent can save money from the downsized personnel. In short, FPI cares very little for its human resources, manages for the bottom line, and retains a short-term fire-fighting mentality. Between the Lines
There is much that is assumed but not said. Sadie saw some writing on the wall and decided to leave FPI. I want to fill in the blanks in the story to see the writing on that wall. I also want to be aware of what blanks I am filling in, as I read the story, and look at some alternative ways to fill in those blanks. Sadie was willing to leave FPI before she went to Germany. Sadie had been through the FPI strategic planning process before she went to Germany. After going through this process one more time in Germany, Sadie left. Between these lines, it is plausible that Sadie did not think too much of the strategic planning process. For example, there is no indication in Moore's account that FPI allowed FPI-Germany to participate in the strategic planning of the parent company. It appears to be a top-down, low-involvement plan. FPI-Germany is planning for its own local market but not for the international scene. FPI appears to be shortsighted and colonial in its orientation. FPI is not a truly international company. Because all men, except for Charles and William, are referred to as Mr. and all the women in the original story are referred to by their first names, there appears to be a fair amount of sexism in the FPI discourse.
As a storyteller, I am taught to look for dualities, other sides of the story, and rebel voices, and to read between the lines. From this process, I derive the untold stories that may explain some previously puzzling events. Such events may appear to be inexplicable outcomes when those outcomes are viewed only from the perspective of the one, dominant, story line. My final recommendation is to shake up the executive suite. FPI needs to be more international, fire its downsizing consultants, change the "male-speak" of FPI, and develop a long-term plan for nurturing talent from around the world.
The case study of Sadie Wagner illustrates some of the challenges in hiring or transferring employees, in general, and of multinational assignments, in particular. As with many turnover incidents, Sadie and the management of FPI share the responsibility for an expatriate assignment gone awry. This analysis focuses on events surrounding Sadie's anticipatory socialization, organizational encounter, and role development.
Anticipatory socialization refers to the process of selecting a position at an organization and preparing to enter that position (Jablin, 1987). A critical element in this process is the development of expectations about the new job. When individuals develop relatively realistic ideas about the position and organization, they have an easier adjustment and, in some cases, greater career advancement than those who do not develop realistic job previews (Wanous, 1980). A realistic job preview also can decrease the likelihood of new hires voluntarily leaving the organization (Meglino, Denisi, & Ravlin, 1993; Wanous, 1980).
In Sadie's case, her high school and college educational experiences in Germany prepared her for living in the German culture. However, she appeared ill prepared to enter this organization. Prior to joining FPI-Germany, she obtained information about the position from telephone and/or face-to-face interviews with Mr. Becker (vice president of human resources), Mr. Reil (her subsequent boss), and Mr. Carstensen (the general manager). It is worth noting that Sadie's face-to-face interviews lasted less than 3 hours. It is possible that this brief time was inadequate for her to gather in-depth information about her future position and the organization. For example, more inquiry by Sadie might have revealed that maintaining a 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. work schedule was a pivotal expectation of her immediate supervisor and might have enabled her to avoid a dispute about her work schedule. Sadie also expected her new position to groom her "for an eventual executive-level position" or provide "an opportunity to demonstrate her expertise in food procurement regulations." In contrast, her colleagues with expatriate experience knew instead to anticipate "interesting and challenging work."
It also is worth noting that Sadie's face-to-face interview primarily sought to determine her personality fit to the organization. Kristoff (1996) points out that the appropriateness of a personorganization fit depends on whose side is privileged. In this case study, the fit of the position to Sadie's career aspirations appears to be secondary to the organization's needs. How could this have happened? It is possible that Sadie was overly excited about the position and was not as discerning as she should have been. It is also possible that her former American FPI supervisor "sold" her on the expatriate position as a step to an executive-level position either out of ignorance or in an attempt to prevent her from joining a competitor. Unfortunately, it appears that Becker, Reil, and Carstensen focused on what she could do for their organization, and then they did not solicit-or ignored-her expectations of the position being a springboard for advancement. However, it was ultimately Sadie's responsibility to obtain a more realistic job preview.
At the very least, newcomers' first few weeks are a defining experience as they learn the organization's values, history, politics, and so on (Chao, O'Leary-Kelly, Wolf, Klein, & Gardner, 1994) from supervisors and coworkers. Although organizations vary in their efforts to socialize new employees (Van Maanen & Schein, 1979), FPI neglected Sadie's socialization. There was not a formal program to convey the organization's values and norms, and her immediate supervisor, Reil, was absent for a month. Instead, she "learned the ropes" from her German coworkers and fellow expatriates. While Sadie shared information about how they could obtain an international assignment, they provided insight into the organization.
Although new employees often obtain "inside" and helpful information from their coworkers, in this case the coworkers' information and Sadie's socialization experience contributed to Reil's disapproval of Sadie's activities. Sadie had an individual (i.e., without a cohort) variable (i.e., her entry experiences lacked a clear pattern or schedule) and disjunctive (i.e., her predecessor or similar others were not available for observation) socialization experience (Van Maanen & Schein, 1979). At least one study (Black, 1992) indicates that variable and disjunctive socialization experiences are predictive of new expatriate managers' innovations to their roles. Although expatriates may be more inclined to make more role innovations than nonexpatriate employees (Black,1992), Sadie's socialization experiences may have encouraged her to establish a different work schedule from her German FPI peers. As noted earlier, this role innovation was not appreciated by her supervisor.
Sadie's role development was fraught with problems. First, Sadie appears to have an "out-group" relationship with her supervisor. Based on perceptions of employee competence, dependability, and interpersonal compatibility, supervisors informally vary their relationships with employees as well as employees' access to resources, thus creating statuses ranging from in-group to out-group membership (Fairhurst, in press; Graen & Scandura, 1987). In-group members have high-quality (i.e., trust, mutual influence, and support) exchanges with their supervisors. In contrast, out-group members have low-quality exchanges characterized by low trust and the use of formal authority. Sadie suspected that she was continually receiving a lighter workload than her peers, as she had little input into the strategic management process and had few managerial duties. Other evidences of her out-group membership include being unable to ask Reil or the other expatriates about her workload and not being able to diffuse conflicts (Fairhurst, in press) with Reil over her work schedule and the German language course.
Second, Sadie was unable to arrange mutually acceptable role modifications with Reil or Carstensen. All newcomers seek to modify their roles to better suit their needs and abilities. It is expected that employees who negotiate changes to their roles will have greater job satisfaction and achieve higher positions than those who are unable to negotiate their roles or who modify their roles without supervisory approval (Miller, Jablin, Casey, LamphearVan Horn, & Ethington, 1996). Although it is unclear to what extent Sadie attempted to negotiate her role with Reil, the case shows that Sadie acted against Reil's wishes regarding her work schedule and the language course. We can only speculate as to why Reil resisted Sadie's request or why Sadie did not accommodate his preferences, but Sadie also was unable to negotiate her role with Carstensen. Although Carstensen chiefly used her language skills (and most likely minimized her status in the organization), there is no evidence that she sought to discuss her role with Carstensen and seek an enlargement of her responsibilities. Being unwilling or unable to negotiate the parameters of her role with Reil and Carstensen, Sadie essentially was without constructive recourse to improve her situation.
Third, Sadie lacked adequate sources of emotional support. Sadie's expatriate coworkers had different work experiences and did not appear to socialize with her. She found expatriates with other organizations to be arrogant and socially incompatible. Although Sadie's language and social skills enabled her to overcome social barriers and socialize with her German coworkers in her first month of work, there is no mention of her socializing with them afterwards. In fact, her German coworkers of similar age held lower positions in the organization. Finally, there is no evidence that a network of female managers existed at FPI. The presence of supportive colleagues could have bolstered her problem-solving efforts and commitment to the organization (Albrecht & Adelman, 1987).
The reasons why Sadie's expatriate assignment "did not work out" are complex. It is possible that Sadie would have left FPI even if the management had provided her with a realistic job preview, taken a more active role in her socialization, or enabled her to develop a role that was meaningful to her. Although it is unlikely that FPI's management intended to encourage her turnover, their actions certainly contributed to her job dissatisfaction. If FPI wishes to decrease the turnover rate of their expatriates, greater emphasis must be placed on the assimilation of expatriates into their positions. Yet, Sadie could have been more active in obtaining realistic job expectations, been more attentive to organizational norms and her supervisor's expectations, and exerted greater effort at negotiating her role with Reil and Carstensen. Consequently, after several months, these problems cumulated in an intolerable level of job dissatisfaction that led to her exiting FPI for a competitor.
Albrecht, T. L., & Adelman, M. B. (1987). Communicating social support. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.