by Matthew Hill

The thought of foreign workers coming amongst us in the UK can be a daunting one. It can bring up emotive issues, practical considerations and a moment of contemplation about who we are and who are they?

Fear is part of the reaction – “Will they take my job?” “Will I be able to manage them?” “Will my life ever be the same again?”  One company was experiencing difficulty hiring experts in the UK…

Their large scale advertising campaign was failing and the recruitment agencies where not delivering. They needed to take a radical step forward – they scoured the English-speaking world for foreign qualified staff to take up short and long term assignments in London and cities around the UK.

Their UK staff reacted strongly, negatively and defensively. “This isn’t necessary.” “This will never work – we do things differently around here.”

“Our clients will not stand for it”

These statements said more about the UK staff than the inbound workers who, at the beginning, were an unknown quantity.

So, what is it about otherness that can be so frightening? And how can we adjust to make this process work?

Our culture is largely invisible to us and insights only comes after clashes and crashes with people who are culturally different. When workers from abroad come into our space we have no choice but to reflect on who we are. – It affects our sense of self, our security and our level of comfort. It exposes our values and our tolerance of change.

What can be done?

We can help staff tackle their fear of the unknown by making it known. We can involve staff in the processes – recruitment and logistics etc. and consult them on practical matters such as accommodation, workspace and social induction for the inbound workers.

Education about the countries the workers come from will dispel the most myths, irrational thoughts and fears.

The average British manager is not up to speed on the newly expanded EU let alone anywhere further afield. An overview of the history, geography, politics and economics of the donor countries can calm the nerves, fill in the gaps in knowledge and replace fear with curiosity.

For the UK staff themselves this is the time to look in the cultural mirror. Who are we? And what exactly is threatening about the new intake of workers?

The emotional cycle of worker relocation is a rollercoaster of highs, lows and step changes. The UK hosts need to be aware of how difficult it is to come to a new, mature and complex country with confusing language, references to last night’s TV, tabloid fear mongering and post-empire confusion and to try to quickly get into effective work mode. All this whilst feeling jet lagged, home sick, lonely and disoriented.

How can we help?

We can cut through the assumption that the English language is the same around the world and begin to adjust by taking some simple steps:

Glossary of terms – Clarifying what company business phrases mean to form a standard and usable common language for day-to-day work.

Rules of engagement – Clearly defining what is expected of the new employees in the UK work environment – dress code, punctuality, prayer arrangements, personal calls and internet use, start and finishing times, productivity and policy around alcohol, food, social life and other ambiguous areas.

HR briefings on life in the UK – The NHS, getting a bank accounts, communicating with the police, council tax, transport, places of worship, personal safety etc.

Country overviews – providing a context to the background of the inbound workers for UK staff.

Cultural sensitivity – Not offering a bacon sandwich breakfast to fasting Muslims (it has happened.)

Critically it is about cultural awareness and manners. Being sensitive to the needs and fears of the inbound workers whilst appreciating the UK worker’s position and objectively seeing what accommodations can be made to increase the comfort and dignity of the new staff whilst dispelling the fear and discomfort of the new for UK workers.

Time spent working on cultural differences can pay back in real terms.

Reduced assignment failure rates, reduced management time spent dealing with office tension, fewer employment tribunals and a reduction in client complaints about quality of service will save the company time, money and embarrassing publicity.

Investment in preparation for taking in foreign workers cannot begin soon enough. Knowledge can be the antidote to fear.

Posted via email from The World At Work

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This entry was posted on Friday, May 21st, 2010 at 4:07 pm and is filed under expat advice, General, international business, social practices . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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