When McCormick & Co. wanted to get a better handle on its joint-venture operation in Japan, the Hunt Valley spice maker sent 27-year-old Scott Beeson on a three-month assignment to learn how the business was going.
Beeson, armed with an MBA, an interest in international marketing and 100 hours of Japanese language from a Berlitz course, enthusiastically walked into the Tokyo operation.
Much to his chagrin, however, only two people in the office spoke passable English and he had no idea what the midlevel managers were saying.
"It was a very traditional Japanese company, and I couldn't talk to anyone," he said.
Eventually Beeson's assignment stretched from three months to 2 1/2 years. He hired a tutor and learned to speak nearly fluent Japanese. His work there won high praise from company officials.
"I'm a pretty flexible person, so it was not so much a shock," said Beeson, McCormick's marketing and business development director for consumer products for Asia.
Beeson said the rewards of his experience in Japan were worth the difficulties. "I felt that every day I was making a contribution," he said.
Although Beeson's experience might not be the textbook example of how an employee should be prepared to work overseas, it illustrates one quality that nearly every expert agrees on: Employees who accept work in foreign countries need to be flexible and open-minded.
"You have to have enthusiasm," said Lee E. Preston, director of the Center for International Business Education and Research at the University of Maryland. "The people who want to be Americans should just stay home."
James Albrecht, vice president and managing director for McCormick's International Group, said foreign postings frequently provide opportunities for advancement.
The first question McCormick and other companies face is how to select the workers.
Usually companies first look at employees' technical expertise and then their compatibility with a foreign culture.
Gary Wederspahn, director of design and development for Moran, Stahl & Boyer International, a Boulder, Colo., consulting and training firm, said selecting employees only on the basis of technical skills can be a mistake.
Companies frequently fail to consider the family in the relocation decision, said Noel Kreicker, president of International Orientation Resources, a Northbrook, Ill., cross-cultural training and consulting firm. She experienced firsthand the loneliness and frustration of being the wife of a worker stationed in a foreign country.
Kreicker, who had lived in the Philippines as a member of the Peace Corps, thought she was prepared to accompany her husband on his assignment in Bogata, Colombia.
But she didn't speak Spanish and couldn't get a driver's license. She was concerned about the lack of medical care for their three young children.
She was frustrated by the poor communications systems. When her sister was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident, Kreicker couldn't get a phone connection to the United States for three days.
That was the last straw. Within six months after arriving in Colombia, the family returned home.
"The failure rate is great if the spouse isn't happy," she said.
Robert Hoslach, regional director of Inserve, a Dallas cross-cultural training firm, agreed. If it's a choice between counseling the worker or counseling the family, he would rather counsel the family, he said.
Preparation for an overseas assignment varies from company to company. Albrecht readily admits that McCormick probably does not prepare its workers adequately.
The company is about to start an internship program designed to give workers some experience in foreign countries. But until now, the training has been limited to providing employees with some language classes before sending them abroad. Most of the learning is on the job in their new post.
Harold L. Adams, president of RTKL, a Baltimore architecture zTC firm with offices in London and Tokyo, said the firm gives employees a booklet on the history, culture and etiquette of a country where they will be working. Language training is essential for the employees assigned to Japan, he said.
Although Towson-based Black & Decker Corp. prefers to hire natives to work in its plants around the world, the company is contemplating a more structured training program to prepare its American employees for work in foreign countries.
These kinds of programs typically last three days and introduce workers to the history and culture of a country. Often the speakers in these training programs are natives and other Americans who have had foreign postings and can share their experiences.
Generally, however, at least some language training is needed, if for no other reason than a courtesy to the native country, Maryland's Preston said.