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Corporate Culture Shock in America – Part 1

Looking south from Top of the Rock, New York City

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In this 4-part series, “Corporate Culture Shock in America,” author Susan Davidson explains the cost of lost productivity incurred by American corporations because of months of isolation, confusion, and frustration experienced by expatriates and foreign nationals who relocate to the United States to live and work.

At the end of this section, Davidson discusses the Stages of Adjustment.


By Susan Davidson

Expatriates and foreign nationals who relocate to the United States to live and work often have mixed perceptions about this young nation. Those feelings are probably best described by the late Irish poet and playwright, Oscar Wilde, who referred to America as “a land of unmatched vitality and vulgarity.”

While most Americans rarely think of their country as “foreign,” the fact is that non-Americans who relocate to the United States to do business and “do lunch” are often surprised to find they experience a severe case of “corporate culture shock.”

According to recently conducted research with dozens of foreign business professionals working in Atlanta and other southeastern U.S. cities, the human resource departments of multinational corporations are woefully inadequate in preparing foreigners for the American workplace. The purpose of the study was to learn about foreign managers’ experiences and attitudes regarding the American business culture. More than half of this diverse group of CEOs, CFOs, vice presidents, directors, managers, engineers, and analysts were European. In total, 26 different countries were represented.

Equally disturbing is the finding that American employees lack cross-cultural awareness and skills that would enable them to draw on the diverse, global talents and business experiences of their non-American counterparts.

Once the physical relocation to the United States is complete, most foreigners and their families say employers provide little, if any, assistance to help them integrate into the American community and business environment. They often struggle up to a year or longer to adapt.

The financial cost of cross-border relocations is steep; often two to four times the transferee’s salary. But the cost of lost productivity because of months of isolation, confusion, and frustration is incalculable. The adaptation period could be reduced by 50 percent with adequate cultural orientation and training, professional coaching, and mentoring. If corporations would simply invest an additional 5 to 10 percent of their relocation cost into cross-cultural orientation, training, and coaching, they would be buying an insurance policy that protects their substantial investment in their expatriate and foreign nationals, realizing a greater productivity return on their investment much sooner.

Stages of Adjustment

Left on their own, foreign professionals frequently go through three stages of acculturation:

  1. Discovery. First, they encounter the barriers and differences that create discomfort and frustration for them and their families.
  2. Search. Second, they begin to look for the people and resources that can help them overcome the cultural barriers.
  3. Adaptation. Finally, they make the necessary adjustments to their communication style, work style, and business practices to build relationships with their American colleagues.

Some foreigners never make it through the adaptation stage and continue to remain isolated from their American colleagues and are less-than-effective in their jobs.


Susan Davidson is founder and president of Beyond Borders, Inc., an Atlanta-based coaching, training and consulting firm that specializes in improving the business performance of global managers and teams. Susan has worked with Fortune 500 and global corporations for more than 25 years to improve the sales, leadership skills, communications and business effectiveness of leaders, employees and salespeople.

Ms. Davidson has published several articles on her groundbreaking research with foreign business professionals who experience “corporate culture shock” in the U.S. workplace. She is also a featured speaker for human resource, international and training organizations. She can be reached at 770.451.997 or by visiting

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3 Responses to “Corporate Culture Shock in America – Part 1”

  1. Jill Kirnt Says:

    Great Post!

  2. Anne Egros Says:

    Many people think that language is the biggest barrier to adaptation in a foreign country. WRONG ! Even British people can have a culture shock in America.

    I worked for corporate America and also in Japan. My Japanese level was “survival” but it was relatively easy to adapt. Japanese people assume first that as a foreigner you don’t understand Japanese and that it is difficult for you to understand the system, so you get a lot of help from your colleagues at work or even from strangers in the street. With the relocation companies, they really take care of everything for you.

    In the US you are considered as another US citizen and so local relocation companies do not understand that you cannot connect your utilities online because you don’t have a permanent address while in transit. Dealing with the paperwork is also very difficult. If you arrive with a working visa for example and you want to get a green card you really need the assistance of an immigration lawyer. Filing taxes by your own is extremely complicated as a foreigner because you need tax equalization. Most multinational companies take care of everything for you but in other companies, especially if you are hired locally you are on your own and need to pay a certified accountant to file you taxes.

    In Japan most expats have their homes paid by the company and in big cities like Tokyo the relocation companies help you with the rentals, very few expats will buy a house unless they find a Japanese spouse and become permanent immigrant.

    In the US you need to do your homework and search information about neighborhoods and schools on the internet before you move even for a rental house. I had a friend in Atlanta who had to move 3 times in 5 years because their house was in fact for sale sometimes even before they move in. You can get such information for free by looking on real estate websites.

    Working with American people can be very easy or a nightmare it is very personal it depends on your status there. Personally I love working and living in the United States but I was fortunate to live in Manhattan and Atlanta both towns having International Schools and many expats.

  3. admin Says:

    You are so right, Anne. When we do not speak a common language, most expectations of having common understandings are eliminated.

    I help found the India branch of the Society of Technical Communicators and used to write white papers for their meetings explaining the differences between American and British English. The Indian technical communicators are of a high level of expertise, but the differences between American and British English cause them difficulties when writing for American companies.

    Thanks for your input!