Some Eastside companies must do more to help foreign workers adjust to new life

Many immigrants enter the United States to pursue the American Dream. But once here, transplants are frequently met with some unexpected facets of life that topple their understanding of “life as usual.”

A recent immigrant myself, I have experienced the cultural nuances and glaring work-life differences between the U.S. and Asia Pacific. In my job as a human resources professional, I see a big gap between an organization’s expectations for expat employees and the personal and professional experience of transferees.

The American Dream isn’t the only dream anymore. Growth in several other countries has chipped away at America’s perch atop the global economy. Corporate America needs to invest in the concept of global talent to ensure it remains attractive to mid- and late-career employees, not just fresh graduates. An employee who is more aware of the cultural, socio-economic, and corporate practices in the new country will be less stressed and better able to deliver value to a company. While it is important to house diverse and exceptional talent, it is more important to engage and retain those professionals by ensuring that the employees feel settled in the U.S.

Many organizations have a structured orientation program for employees moving from the U.S. to other nations. There are classes and coaching sessions to help employees understand cultural nuances, language, and traditions of the country they’ll be moving to. This is seldom the case for employees moving to the U.S. Exceptions do exist, and many companies assign a relocation consultant to help employees navigate neighborhoods and get a Social Security number, but there are several aspects of daily life — segregating trash, deciphering utility bills, even comprehending American English — that immigrants struggle with in the initial few months. They are expected by corporations to “Americanize” with little to no guidance or assistance on how to do so.

Consider the following case: A former colleague and I were to tally our headcount numbers before a workforce planning exercise with the leadership team. She had her numbers from the payroll report, and I had mine from the HR information system. She asked me to meet with her in the hallway a few minutes before the meeting to make sure our data matched. To me, hallway meant “hall,” the biggest room in the office — the reception area, in this case. I did not think to wait in the “corridor.” Sure enough, we waited at two different locations and missed each other.

At the meeting, we could only hope our numbers matched. Thankfully, they did. If they hadn’t, the simple word “hallway” could have cost us a lot more than a lesson in British and American English. It could have cost us our credibility with the leadership team.

20150304_Padmaja_110Language also was a big barrier for the Fomenko family, who moved to the Pacific Northwest from the Netherlands a couple years ago. Gregory Fomenko was an established health care practitioner in the Netherlands, but there are numerous tests he needs to take here in the U.S. to start a practice and continue working in his field. He says his biggest problem has been clearing the Test of English as a Foreign Language. “Everyone can understand him,” Elena, Gregory’s wife, says, “but the speech portion of the test does not. That’s why he hasn’t been able to clear the test in two attempts. He has to take the test again.”

Passing the test is important; Gregory is the family’s lone source of income. Elena was much more independent and had a support system to rely on in the Netherlands. Here, she relies heavily on Gregory for driving, making financial decisions, and communicating with neighbors.

Another woman who currently works on the Eastside found herself in a similar predicament. She moved to the U.S. 13 years ago from India as a trailing spouse. In her case, she was not legally allowed to work because she held an H-4 visa as the dependent of an H-1B visa holder, thus rendering her computer science education — she has a master’s degree — useless. [Editor’s note: In late February, the Department of Homeland Security announced that beginning May 26, certain H-4 visa holders will be eligible for employment authorization.]

“There was a period when I questioned my self-worth,” Fatima says. Her husband’s employer provided little financial support for the move. Coming from a country with a low cost of living, everything in the U.S. seemed expensive. With a baby on the way, Fatima soon felt her family might not be able to manage living in America. But she and her spouse stuck it out. Her visa status eventually changed, and she is now working for a company in Bellevue.

The familial aspect of a worker’s move is often overlooked. A spouse’s state of being has an impact on an employee’s productivity. Spouses who’ve sacrificed their careers for the move have been known to develop depression and other adverse health conditions. Trailing spouse syndrome is real, and organizations need to recognize the impact it can have on an employee and support the spousal adjustment, at least in the initial months, by way of training, finding expat communities, and cultural coaching.

Global exposure and money can no longer be the only carrots companies use to lure international employees. There needs to be a conscious effort from companies to help expat employees learn and understand their new environment before expecting them to reach their full professional potential. This initial investment will go a long way in keeping employees motivated and engaged with their employer. After all, a happy employee is often the most productive employee.

Padmaja Ganeshan-Singh is a writer and human resources consultant who two years ago moved to the U.S. from India, where she worked for companies such as Deloitte, Google, and GE.