Jorge worked in South America as a top executive in one of the
branches of an international organization. When his company decided
to downsize personnel, Jorge was offered a transfer to the
company's headquarters in the United States. Jorge and his family
headed to North America with high hopes.
Two years later, Jorge was fired after the board of directors
determined he had not fulfilled the company's expectations. Taken
aback by this turn of events, Jorge approached Jim, his friend of
20 years and boss for the last two. Jim told him off the record
that Jorge's attitude, since his arrival, had been erratic and his
annual professional evaluations had rendered unfavorable results.
Jorge had never been fired before and, in fact, had been recognized
for his outstanding achievements as general manager in South
America. Now Jorge's efficiency was being called into question.
What went wrong?
Jorge's friend and former boss asked him what he thought had caused
his poor performance after the transfer. Jorge confided that since
his arrival he had encountered many family problems, mostly with
his wife. They had been married for 35 years and had three children
and six grandchildren living in South America. In fact, Jorge
explained, he and his wife were very close to getting a divorce. It
had nothing to do with not loving one another or not getting along.
When the transfer was offered they decided together to take the
step, but Jorge's wife had not been able to adapt to a new way of
Jorge's long work hours kept him away from home for 12 hours a day.
This routine included many Saturdays. On weekends, Jorge was tired,
so he and his wife rarely went out. Jorge's wife felt isolated. She
did not speak English, and the couple had only a few Latin American
friends. The circumstances proved to be too much for Jorge's wife.
She decided to return to South America.
Jorge's wife had told him she was tired of staying home, cleaning,
doing the laundry, and cooking, day after day. This was not the
life she had envisioned for herself in her senior years. Back home,
she had enjoyed family life with their children, grandchildren,
relatives, and friends. She enjoyed a comfortable life with
domestic help and a chauffer. But in the United States, Jorge's
wife told him, she felt imprisoned at home.
Supporting an employee's transition
It's no surprise that personal problems affect an employee's
performance. In Jorge's situation, his wife's cultural and personal
assimilation to a new country under unfavorable personal and social
conditions played a large role in Jorge's own transition after
When planning for an international transfer, corporations and
employees generally take into account basic factors, such as
income, health benefits, children's education, housing allowances,
and transportation. Very little consideration, however, is given to
changes in interpersonal relationships within and outside of the
family group. Obviously, the employee being transferred faces
expected challenges at work. But personal challenges also arise for
those who accept international assignments, as well as for their
Cultural adaptation of expatriate workers and their family members
is crucial for a successful assignment. Corporations invest a
significant amount of money when transferring employees to other
countries. It makes good financial and business sense for these
companies to help future expatriates face the challenges and
cultural shock they might face both before and after the transfer.
Adjusting to a new life away from home would be made easier, for
instance, if the employee received counseling by professionals.
Jorge's experience could be a lesson for corporations. When Jorge
was hired, the company found in him an employee with expertise and
experience. He clearly struggled after being transferred, but his
bosses and the board (not to mention his friend!) waited two years
before approaching him about this, and by then the solution was
simply to let him go.
Replacing Jorge meant not only economic losses, but also the loss
of a long-term employee with considerable corporate knowledge. Had
his company planned for Jorge's cultural transition, perhaps his
story would have had a different ending.