Cultural Awareness & Overseas Assignments

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Cultural awareness is a critical success factor when working across borders and cultures.

While international assignments can offer organisations the potential to achieve commercial objectives, such as leadership development or enhancing global presence for competitive advantage, the success of any assignment will ultimately be determined by the performance of the individual assignee and their ability to adjust to a new culture and settle quickly.

Employees on international assignment are exposed to significant emotional and work-related issues that have the potential to disrupt an assignment.

A lack of cultural awareness can lead to miscommunication, embarrassment and offence within the host-culture, and potentially a failed assignment. For the employer, this can result in workplace disputes, financial loss and reputational damage.

Employers have a duty of care to their assignees to help them deal with the pressures of working and living overseas. Beyond managing the logistics of an assignment, employers should assist with developing employees’ intercultural competence, to facilitate the outcome and return on investment on the overseas assignment.

By developing their cultural awareness, assignees can learn how to navigate these issues and succeed in their role and in their new country.


Critical intercultural competencies for assignees 

Understanding how cultural differences impact integration, interactions and performance can help employers succeed in international business, and avoid costly failures of communication and in reputation.

Intercultural competence means being equipped to respect cultural differences and to embrace them. Assignees need a degree of self-awareness and an ability to adjust how they act and react within the new culture.

It is a constant demand on assignees to identify and react to cultural differences. To do this on a daily basis in all interactions requires resilience and coping strategies to avoid issues and misunderstandings and to perform in the role.

Assignees must develop an agile approach to behaviour, language and decision-making, all while driving forward with their assignment.

Critical to building relationships in the new environment will be for assignees to have an understanding of how others perceive them and their style of communication and management.

In many cases, this can mean being open and welcoming of new ways, and showing an interest in how things are done and accepted within the new environment. It also means looking beyond words – body language and non-verbal communication will be just as important in reading situations effectively.

While these are all intuitive and subconscious within the home environment, effective handling requires adjusted ways of thinking and coping mechanisms to decipher and read situations consciously. This helps to build resilience and minimise the risk of suffering culture shock, feeling isolated because of misunderstandings or lack of familiar routines.

An important mental shift for assignees will be to avoid comparing the new environment to the home country. Acceptance and tolerance of differences will underpin a more positive and rewarding experience.

Fundamentally, assignees must be open-minded and positive about the challenge- it will be a conscious effort, but it will be personally and professionally rewarding and critical to being able to do their job well.


Cultural awareness training 

Through cultural awareness training, employees and their families should be supported with practical and relevant guidance on how to behave and communicate successfully when working internationally. Personal and professional competences should be developed that enable the assignee to adjust, adapt and represent the organisation within the new environment.

Cultural awareness training should form part of a pre-assignment development programme that equips the employee for the challenges ahead and ensures cultural skills match technical capabilities.

Effective training should deliver information about the host country, its culture, behavioural styles and provide advice on cross-cultural communication skills.

This could be delivered through bespoke, onsite training on a face to face basis, ongoing coaching, or using online platforms such as e-learning or webinars. Scenario-based content can be particularly effective in providing practical guidance.


Cultural awareness support for families 

Undertaking an international assignment is a life-changing event that has implications not just for the employee, but for their family members as well.

A common reason for failed overseas assignments is family – where the assignee’s partner or children have not been able to integrate.

While for the employee, the challenge of adapting to the new work environment and their new role can provide much-needed focus, for family members who may be without a work routine or support network, adjusting can be a more difficult and protracted process.

Where the employee’s family are struggling to acclimatise, this will inevitably place unwanted pressure on the employee, potentially impacting performance as their focus and attention are directed towards supporting their loved ones through the transition or even resulting in assignment failure and early repatriation.

In addition to supporting with the logistics of relocating family life, (finding a home and school, local orientation), extending pre-assignment cultural training to family members is an effective measure in providing families, in particular spouses and partners, with the knowledge and skills to approach the experience confidently and competently. It also helps to build a rapport and loyalty toward the organisation, and allow for a more positive life experience for the family.

While this may seem a difficult expense to justify, the return will be seen in improved assignee performance through a holistic approach to assignment preparation.


Assignee selection

Assignee selection will also play an important part in the assignment impact. International assignments require a level of tolerance, positivity and resilience, which may not be suitable for all employees.

While some may initially be enthusiastic about the adventure, the long term, or permanent, nature of the change will need to be emphasised. After the novelty has faded, do they have the appetite and ability to embrace the new norm?

Many employees experience culture shock after relocating, but it will be critical to the overall success of the assignment that they are able to adapt and overcome those early, challenging reactions and feelings and transition into their new environment quickly.

Selection should also consider the employee’s wider circumstances. Where they have a partner, spouse or children, what will be the impact? Are they likely to be supported in the decision to relocate, or could this veto the move?

A selection process can help to assess the ability, or the potential, for employees to take on the challenge, with all of its professional and personal pressures, and looking specifically at employees’ intercultural competences.



A final consideration of cultural awareness relates to returning employees.

While the employee may have been prepared through cultural awareness training in advance of the assignment and supported while overseas, the transition back into the home country can also present challenges for the assignee.

Reverse culture shock is a common issue for returning employees, where they have built a sense of belonging or connection to the host country and where they may find they now feel a lack of tolerance and positivity about their old home environment.

Supporting employees to resettle can help to avoid deterioration in performance or the risk of losing the employee and their valuable skills and knowledge. This means being open and proactive in discussing concerns about their repatriation, having a clear plan in place about the employee’s role on their return and making adjustments where possible to accommodate their resettlement.


Need assistance?

DavidsonMorris can help with all aspects of global mobility. We assist employers in developing provisions that manage the logistical demands of relocating, support assignee wellbeing before, during and after international assignment and improve overall assignment impact.


Cultural awareness FAQs

Why is cultural awareness important?

Cultrual awarensss enables organisations to benefit from positive working environments and stronger workforce performance and relations through enhanced understanding, connection and appreciation of those from different cultural backgrounds and ethnicity to ourselves.

What are some examples of cultural awareness?

Steps you can take to support cutlureal awareness in the workplace include training on global citizenship and communication skills, and encouraging staff to express interest in eachother's cultural backgrounds and identities.

Last updated: 8 August 2021


Founder and Managing Director Anne Morris is a fully qualified solicitor and trusted adviser to large corporates through to SMEs, providing strategic immigration and global mobility advice to support employers with UK operations to meet their workforce needs through corporate immigration.

She is a recognised by Legal 500and Chambers as a legal expert and delivers Board-level advice on business migration and compliance risk management as well as overseeing the firm’s development of new client propositions and delivery of cost and time efficient processing of applications.

Anne is an active public speaker, immigration commentator, and immigration policy contributor and regularly hosts training sessions for employers and HR professionals

About DavidsonMorris

As employer solutions lawyers, DavidsonMorris offers a complete and cost-effective capability to meet employers’ needs across UK immigration and employment law, HR and global mobility.

Led by Anne Morris, one of the UK’s preeminent immigration lawyers, and with rankings in The Legal 500 and Chambers & Partners, we’re a multi-disciplinary team helping organisations to meet their people objectives, while reducing legal risk and nurturing workforce relations.

Legal Disclaimer

The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct at the time of writing, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.

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