Overseas Assignments: What To Expect And How To Prepare

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Accepting an overseas business assignment, especially in a management capacity, involves a lot more than simply obtaining a visa, a passport, and an itinerary. Traveling from the United States to foreign lands means leaving the familiar behind.

Culture, laws, social customs, languages, exposure to foreign diseases, religious practices, local prejudices, and gender relations – all are vastly different from country to country, so business people working outside the U.S. have a lot to consider when preparing for international job assignments.

Those who hold an MBA degree or a position in management can prepare for their journey by making sure they are properly inoculated, their passports and visas are in order, they are familiar with local customs, and they understand local labor laws and practices. Not only will managers and executives have to live in a foreign environment, but they will also have to know how to manage employees who are not U.S. citizens.

Plane tickets and coffee

Things To Consider When Traveling Abroad

On the website Travel.State.Gov, the U.S. Department of State provides an exhaustive checklist of important steps and considerations that business people should review before embarking on an international job assignment, especially if they have never been to their destination country before. A few of the more crucial items are:

1. Basic Destination Information – Getting ahold of travel brochures and pamphlets for a destination country is easy, but further research into a foreign culture may be necessary, especially for a businessperson who will be managing foreign nationals.

“Invest some time in learning about the history, culture, and customs of the countries to be visited,” travel authority Donna Thomas says in an interview with business writer Carolyn M. Brown in “7 Tips For Foreign Business Travel” on Inc.com.

“Attend cross-culture seminars or training. Read books about that country. Brush up on the differences in negotiating styles, attitudes towards punctuality, gift-giving customs, and the proper use of names and titles.”

2. Assess The Risks – Checking to make sure that there are no adverse travel warnings, bans, or alerts associated with the country one plans to travel to is a wise move. Often, travel agents, airport personnel, and human resources liaisons will cover any pertinent alerts. The traveler should also perform an extensive internet search for travel alerts and can even contact the U.S. embassy in the destination country.

3. Planning For A Crisis – As American students living in Cairo learned during the 2011 Egyptian political upheaval, crises are unpredictable and must be planned for ahead of time. Emergencies can strike at any moment, anywhere, ranging from earthquakes and tsunamis to a military coup d’état.

A businessperson abroad should outline an emergency plan ahead of time, according to the GoAbroad Writing Team in its 2017 blog post, “How To Prepare & Deal With An Emergency Abroad.” The plan can include registering at the U.S. Embassy upon arrival, accessing State Department resources, limiting one’s time outside of tourist comfort zones if necessary, staying out of trouble or even potential trouble, and keeping one’s online information secure.

4. Obtain All Required Documents – The importance of checking off each and every required piece of documentation – such as passports (including children’s passports), work visas, medical prescriptions, international driving permits, and all other obligatory paperwork – before traveling to a foreign country cannot be overstated. Again, business people should do their own research and check with their human resources department and the State Department to make sure everything is in order.

5. Inoculations – Obtaining the recommended vaccinations before traveling to locations where certain diseases are prevalent can mean the difference between life and death. For example, while cholera and malaria are not widespread in the U.S., businesspeople headed to countries where those diseases are endemic should consider getting vaccinated before their departure.

6. Other Considerations – Before leaving for a foreign business assignment, businesspeople who are elderly, disabled, female, or LGBT, or who exhibit any traits that may warrant special travel concerns, should research how they might be viewed in foreign countries.

Some countries are not legally required to offer amenities for handicapped persons. Others view women as legally subordinate to men. Christians or Jews traveling to orthodox Muslim nations may encounter severe prejudices. Always adequately research a destination before traveling there.

Management In Foreign Cultures

Obtaining an MBA degree can help prepare students for challenges they could experience overseas, including cultural, ethical, economic, and management differences.

Entrepreneur John Rampton notes several key areas of focus for international managers to keep in mind in “How To Grow And Manage International Teams” in Forbes. His tips include:

• Establish a clearly defined structure, including detailed expectations, objectives, backup plans, and team responsibilities broken down for each team member.
• Build strong channels of communication, taking into account the differences in time zones.
• Take advantage of technology designed for collaborative, cloud-based team projects. These can include Skype, Basecamp, Trello, Slack, and Google’s suite of collaborative applications.
• Build trust among team members by sharing values and taking the time to remember team members’ important dates, religious holidays, and families.
• Take the time to learn cultural differences and educate team members on cultural and ethical considerations.

Ethics also play into management challenges overseas. Two competing views address ethical conduct in foreign cultures, according to business ethics expert Thomas Donaldson in his classic article in Harvard Business Review, “Values In Tension: Ethics Away From Home.”

Cultural relativism suggests that no cultural practice is right or wrong, Donaldson says, just different and therefore worthy of respect. Problems arise, however, around cultural practices such as child labor, for example.

Ethical imperialism, or absolutism, declares the opposite; that only the values and culture of a company’s home country should matter when establishing ethical guidelines for operating in foreign nations. But absolutism creates problems such as failed negotiations over something as simple as one executive giving a gift to another.

Donaldson suggests that the answer lies between the two extremes. A company will be well grounded in ethical behavior and cultural sensitivity if it respects human rights and local traditions while maintaining its own moral code of right and wrong. In this way, executives might successfully avoid offending a business partner in an important meeting, yet still draw the line at instituting child labor within their company.

UAB’s Online MBA Degree Program

The University of Alabama at Birmingham offers an online MBA program with concentrations in finance, marketing, management information systems, health services, and a general track option. Classes combine traditional instruction with modern online technologies. Online courses are completed collaboratively with instructors and other students via computer and/or mobile device.

Other program concentrations include Finance, Marketing, and Health Services. For more information, explore the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s online MBA website.

1. Traveler’s Checklist – https://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/go/checklist.html
2. 7 Tips For Foreign Business Travel – https://www.inc.com/guides/201103/7-tips-for-foreign-business-travel.html
3. How To Prepare & Deal With An Emergency Abroad – https://www.goabroad.com/articles/how-to-prepare-deal-with-an-emergency-abroad
4. How To Grow And Manage International Teams – https://www.forbes.com/sites/johnrampton/2015/05/15/how-to-grow-and-manage-international-teams/#42f7717a2c60
5. Values In Tension: Ethics Away From Home – https://hbr.org/1996/09/values-in-tension-ethics-away-from-home