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Expat Experience

Why Building Relationships is Harder for You

Turning into a Swiss Person

I sat on a panel, and I just got as far as saying “I think…” when the other panelist gave her opinion on the matter. She probably didn’t notice that I was trying to say something, but for a moment, I was annoyed and thought, “how rude…”. 

Funnily, many years ago in Germany, this would probably have been okay for me. However, I notice now how I have turned into a “Swiss person”. I also tend not to want to work with Germans who have just arrived in Switzerland because I notice in what they do too many of my own mishaps and small failures back when I was a newbie in Switzerland.

Having lived here in Zurich for over ten years now, I prefer to run my life Swiss-style. Despite considering myself open and tolerant, I still mess up intercultural communication. I’m not always understood, and sometimes I’m just wrong. I recently had a long discussion about left and right, and I know I have a weakness there. In the end, I found out that I muddled up left and right (again!).

Sometimes “Global English” also makes it worse: A bunch of non-native speakers trying to communicate in their second language can lead to misunderstandings and unnecessary emotions.

Here are eight reasons that might make it harder for you to build professional relationships right now. And I don’t think that the pandemic is the main reason.

Eight Reasons

  1. You are shy, introverted, or not convinced that you are good enough to deserve success. Many partners suffer from the “impostor syndrome,” a psychological state of mind where people doubt their own accomplishments or consider themselves frauds just about to be exposed, especially if their career-driving partner just got another promotion in another country.
  2. You are embarrassed and ashamed of being “unemployed”. This is especially hard in a society where most of your self-worth is driven by your career and how busy you are.
  3. You come from a home culture where achievement is overly emphasized. In this cultures ascription is considered an unfair privilege while at the same time you are blindsided by the fact that you had an ascribed status in your home turf.  Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner associated the achievement dimension with protestant work ethic and belief. 
  4. You underestimate the cultural and value diversity in Switzerland. Even if Switzerland is the home of Zwingli and Calvin, there are catholic cantons where status, just like in the protestant cantons, is often equated with a family name, wealth, and how many generations you have already been a member of this society. So, there is still a strong ascription component that is not so obvious to outsiders. You don’t recognize that you have been in the out-group until you join the “Circle of Trust.”
  5. You are unaware of how you come across in person and assume that your style and behavior are “normal.” For example, you have not yet learned to read the cultural cues that hint that you might be too pushy or rude. A typical example in Switzerland is that newbies tend to overstretch a time commitment. In a society that runs on the clock and is a role model of the sequential time approach according to E.T. Hall’s time dimensions, not respecting this often creates a lot of stress for the other person.
  6. You are sending messages to mark your status in your home turf, such as the “Dr.” title in Germany. Or hint at your seniority by name-dropping the influential VIPs you used to hang out with. Still, this is either not understood or considered boasting, narcissistic, and merely annoying in Switzerland. (You could even exaggerate your qualifications and background, for all we know!)
  7. You interrupt your counterpart because you feel that they are slow. The Swiss tend to speak slower than many other Europeans, but they don’t like to be interrupted in their thought process as they are used to having a voice and being asked for their opinion on everything.
  8. You come from a high-context culture and you feel like you don’t know how to address a “stranger”  adequately.  You don’t know how to phrase your requests (your “ask”) to them, and they don’t understand you at all.

Relationship Segmentation Can Be a Barrier

Over the years of running my own business and projects, I often noticed that all the tools I tested to maintain a strategic approach to networking failed miserably with the extensive network that I’ve built over my professional life. 

So, I decided to let go of “strategy” and follow my gut and memory. I realized that the best idea is not to worry too much about “contact segmentation.” We Germans love the word “Begriffsabgrenzung”, so we also do this to our social life (“Bekannter, Kollege, Freund, Verwandter, Familie, Partner, Ehepartner…”). It’s a step-by-step approach, showing how much you trust the other person.

The same segmentation exists in Switzerland, but there are “false friends”( e.g., the word “Kollege” means “Work Colleague” in High German and “Friend” in Swiss German). In Switzerland and Germany, the informal ways of addressing a person with “Du” have different meanings.

Without intercultural training, a German manager will behave like a bull in a china shop in Switzerland – completely unintentionally. Hence, working with German managers in the “honeymoon phase” is a lot of work for the trainer or coach. I prefer to work with you when you are beyond the honeymoon phase, and you understand that you might not function in Switzerland like you are used to.

A Fluid Approach

My colleagues have become friends over the years, and some of my best friends from my university days or early career are colleagues or clients now. Some of my team members have become family, and some of my family members work in the same field or closely related ones. And some friends will never pay you while others will insist on giving back. The world is colorful, and so are people.

While saying this, I don’t want to imply that you have to like everybody you work with or network with. However, it’s another atmosphere for collaboration and innovation when you can fully trust the other person, and know in your head and heart that this person would never talk badly about you behind your back and would not spill your secrets with your competitors. 

Safe and collaborative environments require “relationship work.” 

Let me know what you are doing today to work on your business relationships.

Over the last two decades in Human Resources, I have noticed that a lot of international talents were left frustrated by the process of moving to another country for work. I observed that the issues weren’t just financial, but pertained a lot to both the individuals and the company underestimating the challenges involved in moving to a new country.

Therefore, today I would like to draw on my experience and discuss some important practices for that critical period, the first 90-odd days, of an expat landing in a new country and beginning their onboarding process in the host company.

Be Thoroughly Prepared Before You Land

Increasingly, in this age of protectionism, many countries now require you, the expat, and your accompanying family to have active medical insurance before you arrive in the country. This is different from the travel insurance you may have used for vacations and needs to be negotiated with a local provider in the host country. Whether your company is processing this for you, or you are required to do so on your own, you also need to make sure you are aware of what is covered – are your children covered? What about planned or unplanned pregnancies?

On that subject matter, there is now a lot more paperwork and prerequisites required before visas and associated work permits are given out, with increasingly thorough information required. If your company is handling this for you, make sure you are kept in the loop so you avoid unnecessary delays. However, if you are required to manage the applications on your own, ensure you are aware of the full process. You may need the help of a specialized lawyer in this scenario, don’t hesitate to contact them.

You may also have to plan your own relocation, a shortcoming of lifestyle expatriation that many organisations have still not overcome. An issue many people have with selecting medium-to-long term accommodation is that they do not want to make such decisions based on photos alone. To get around it, a recent trend involves making short-term living arrangements via Airbnb or similar service, and then inspecting more appropriate housing in person. It makes a certain amount of sense, but you want to keep an eye on your budget, as good rentals may not come cheap.

Finally, make sure you have wrapped up all pending tasks and necessary paperwork before signing off!

The Move

It may seem just like an airplane journey but make no mistake, the move is frequently considered the most stressful time. That’s because of all the farewells and goodbyes, packing up and shipping of belongings. And don’t forget that while you are also spending time at the office on last-minute tasks, your spouse is at home managing the children and the packing. Generally, this means that by the time your plan lifts off, everyone is pretty exhausted and you may end up questioning your decision, worry about the unknown challenges ahead and fear for the future of your family.

In this situation, make sure you open up to your case handler from the Global Mobility team when they reach out to you. Talking about what you are feeling and experiencing with them will help them both meet your unique needs, and to guide you on the best way to manage stress. Often they will arrange an arrival service for you and give you a day or two off before you have to join the new workplace. Use this time to spend time with your family and help each other settle in properly.

Manage Expectations

You’ve landed, navigated immigration, moved into temporary living and started settling in. Now, it’s time to join work! You may find yourself settling in very quickly because the workplace and culture at the office give you a feeling of “being at home” fast.

That may not always be the case, however. There are a wide range of issues that can crop up, so your excitement needs to be tempered with a can-do attitude to learn new things. It really depends on the country you are in and how well you are prepared for the different cultures.

For instance, arriving in Switzerland is considered tougher because of the challenges associated with assimilating into Swiss culture later on. A move to Brazil would, for example, necessitate greater research into personal security. China has a culture revolving around work and you may find yourself working longer and engaging with colleagues far more than you bargained for. And did you forget that the host country’s native language is not English?

This not only means that you need to learn more about the host culture, but that your company needs to shoulder some responsibility for preparing you for such challenges – you may find that your company may sign you up later on for intercultural awareness training, spouse career coaching and host language training, all providing essential support not just for you but your spouse as well.

Don’t Neglect Your Family

It is natural to get swept away in the hubbub of new activities as you settle into a new work life, adjust to a new office culture and make new acquaintances. An unfortunate side effect of that is that you may forget that your spouse will be having an entirely different experience to yours. Their adjustment is tougher than yours and they can often find themselves feeling alone and left behind. Remember, while you are working they are the ones who will be ensuring your children’s schooling commences at earliest!

Providing emotional support to your spouse is critical in helping them adjust, especially if they are not always guaranteed work rights by the host country and have to put their own careers on pause. Language and cultural barriers can make it harder for them to do basic tasks (like choosing schools, setting up gym or sports club memberships) and builds up stress. Time zone differences can make it harder to contact friends and family back home and you both may feel the additional worry of not being in frequent correspondence with your own parents or close relatives and friends.

During this period of 90 days, you may be in frequent contact with the Global Mobility professional assigned to your case by the company. Their job is not just to get you up to productivity quickly, but to ensure a smooth transition for you and your spouse. They will be your guide and support during the entire assignment, not just the first 90 days so it is beneficial to form a good working relationship with them.

The initial period after your move will not follow a fixed path, some expat families face greater challenges than others, due to a variety of reasons. Whichever path your onboarding follows, remember to be in regular and detailed contact with your Global Mobility Manager, because as with most things in life, communication is key to success here.

Kind Regards,
Angie.

P.S. If you are looking for a more in-depth look at the expatriation cycle (from the pre assignment period to the first 90 days and beyond), The Global Mobility Workbook discusses it in much greater detail in the Expat Experience.

International Relocation is usually stressful. It ranks among the top 10 stress factors in life. I have worked as a Global Mobility Manager and I regularly consult expats and their spouses on career choices and one of the lessons I had learned is that you cannot take away the stress from international relocation completely but you can make it easier by following those seven rules I will share with you now.

1) Organize your move into smaller tasks with a checklist.

It is all about organizing yourself and all those relocating with you. Try to break down the move in as many steps as possible and work those off day by day. Better one baby step a day than a huge step in a week. I’m a fan of an online and an offline checklist and you can use our checklist if you find it helpful. Shortly before the move, I would rely on hand-written notes and post-its. Kanban-style visualization helps in any kind of project.

2) Reserve time to get tasks done

You can set aside a time in your diary possibly early in the morning where you get 1 or 2 relocation items off your checklist. You will instantly feel better for the rest of day. If you are a couple make sure that every one of you as a block of tasks bundled that make sense together. For example, your spouse might clean out closets while you check the exact moving allowance and contractual agreements with the moving company. You might take charge of selling household goods that are no longer needed while your spouse writes to insurance companies and other authorities. You might want to consider downsizing too, in which case we recommend you read this MyMove article, offering great downsizing tips (saving you money, trouble, and stress).

3) Work with the relocation company from the beginning

If you work with a professional relocation company clarify expectations early. Find out what their service includes exactly so you don’t do superfluous work. Usually, they will do the packing but not the unpacking of your boxes. Get an understanding of the volume your company will pay for you to relocate. If you move internationally for the first time you will not know how much a container holds. Invite the relocation consultant to your home as soon as you know about the relocation. The relocation consultant will tell you exactly how much of your furniture and stuff will fit into one container. The less “stuff” you have the better. You also don’t want to take valuable furniture into a climate that is tropical. Make fast decisions about what needs to be stored. In my last move, I used colored stickers to help me identify which picture will go into which building. You can use stickers for everything that will go into storage. Also, make sure that the relocation company will be authorized to dispose of anything you don’t want anymore.

4) Separate important documents

Sometimes the most important customs documents or your child’s passport end up in a moving box. Important documents need to be separated and best kept outside of the apartment during the packing process. Scan all of them and put them in an electronic folder like Dropbox where you can access them at any time. Moving companies tend to have a “red box” for all items that should not go into the container. Request it with the consultant’s first visit.

5) Plan at least two days for arrival and unpacking

My mum once had to unpack all my boxes because I needed to start to work. It took me quite a while to find out where everything was. Some of the things my mum put away nicely are still where they were three years ago. Try to make sure you have enough time to unpack. With children, you need to plan extra time too.

6) Make sure people have enough to eat and drink

Moving is a physical exercise too and if you are a nerd like me you probably hardly carry out that much. You don’t use the stairs so many times normally and you will feel exhausted from answering a lot of questions. You can create a good atmosphere with the movers by providing enough food and drinks to get through the packing. You should also tip them generously. So have enough cash with you at the location you depart from and the location you are moving to. Since an overseas shipment will take at least 6 weeks there is enough time to prepare for the moving day in the host location. Remember also that you should stay in corporate accommodation until you are positive that your consignment will arrive on time. In emergencies, relocation companies will rent out furniture to you but it is an unnecessary hassle.

Miracles cannot be expected but if you ensure movers have enough to eat and drink it usually helps the mood.
Miracles cannot be expected but if you ensure movers have enough to eat and drink it usually helps the mood.

Abu Dhabi Mosque

7) Keep all receipts and expect Murphy’s law

Sometimes moving goods get lost at sea or damaged. If you care too much about granny Susanne’s old kitchen cupboard you might need to consider to store it. If it is valuable to make sure you get proper insurance. Keep all receipts of expenditure you had due to the move even if you get a lump sum cash allowance to cover your relocation costs. You might need them to claim insurance. You will have a packing list and you can take photos of your important furniture and paintings for example. Otherwise, you might not have proof of damage. Most relocation companies are very generous with handling issues (unless they are not adhering to industry standards). Before you get into a fist-fight with the relocation company it is best to escalate the issue to your in-house Global Mobility Manager.

These are seven small tips for keeping sane during relocation.

If you liked this post please share it with a person who is currently relocating to another country.

Kind regards

Angie Weinberger

PS. If you wish to have a chat with me you can book a call with me here.

Once you understand how to adapt your application strategy to Switzerland you might feel frustrated by the amount of rejections you have received to date. Many of my clients are very eager in the beginning of their job search and after about two months reality of the Swiss job market hits them. My advice to clients in this case is to focus on two to three applications per week. However, make them count.

 

1) Stand out of the crowd by using your network

Use your network to follow up on your application or to support your application. Many HR processes in Switzerland are very standardized. It is usually necessary that you apply through a website first. However, you can ask your contacts in the company to follow up and support your application. This way the recruiter will be more inclined to take a closer look.

 

2) Have a perfectly branded motivation letter and résumé

I advise to seek a coach or consultant if you are not sure how to brand yourself. Most of my clients cannot tell me who they are professionally. We usually work that out within the first month of our cooperation. Once you know what you are good at, you still need to brand it in a way that is understood by your wider audience (not only by peers or similar professionals). This is not so easy but it can be done.

 

3) Less is more

Only apply to roles where you fulfil 70% of the criteria. Be honest to yourself. Then write on a piece of paper what you like about the company. On a second piece of paper note why you would like to work in this role. Based on these notes write a new motivation letter from scratch. This way you will avoid the copy and paste taste many motivation letters have.

 

4) Patience is key

The recruiters are under a lot of pressure to make the right choice so be patient and nice with them. If you follow up wait for two weeks before doing so. If you follow up over the phone ensure they have time to understand who you are. Try to connect with the person by being friendly and professional.

Tips GPT_7

Understand the recruiting market

Unlike other countries in the Swiss cultural norm is to be transactional and sequential. That means that many professional do not like to be disturbed in their way of handling a process (one candidate at a time). Even Swiss HR colleagues tell me that recruiting has become really low in standard.

 

A fast turnaround and response time used to be considered market relevant when I was hired in 1997 for the first time. Within 10 days of handing in my applications I had been to an assessment of two days and been given an offer within less than three weeks (as a graduate).

 

Nowadays, HR has hardly any decision making power in the recruiting process. Often the recruiter has to wait for feedback from the line manager for days. Also, most line managers increase the minimum requirements for candidates on a daily basis. Often they change their initial search as they are basically looking for a mini-version of themselves.

 

Another issue is the time component. Professionals and especially Line Managers have such an overbooked agenda that it is very hard to block interview times in their schedules.

 

I know: These challenges exist across the globe but you must not forget that here the recruiters hire for about 50 roles at the same time. Switzerland is still growing in many business areas. So be patient and kind and show a bit of understanding.

 

Again, the advantage is that the Swiss like to work with perfection. The least you can expect is a professional interview process and a personalized feedback once you made it to the interview stage.

Discrimination Issues

 

In Switzerland (unlike most other countries in the world) it is very common to add a picture and all of your most personal details on your résumé or curriculum vitae (CV). This includes but is not limited to your date and place of birth, marital status, names and birth dates of your children, work permit type and validity, postal address.

You may be discriminated purely on this basis.

Increasingly Swiss role descriptions demand “Swiss German” (which is a dialect not a language) and knowledge of the Swiss market.

Other reasons why you might end up in the rejection pile that are not really related to your professional experience:

  • Salary expectations: Switzerland has a very high salary level. Still, if your expectations do not match the budget of the position you could instantly be selected for the “rejection” pile.
  • Resignation period: You might have a non-negotiable resignation period. Usually staff is needed yesterday and most companies are not organized enough to hire a candidate before the current position holder runs off.
  • Children: Your young children cause concern about your availability.
  • Woman in their 30ies: Your age and gender causes concern about you having children.
  • Number of moves: Your annual job changes indicate you are a troublemaker
  • Social Media: Your Facebook pictures indicate you are partying to hard or likely to cause trouble.
  • Lack of German or French: Your lack of language skills is interpreted as a lack of respect for the Swiss culture.
  • Longer periods of unemployment or education periods.
  • The missing “rote Faden”: The most prominent cultural tendency in this country is “Uncertainty Avoidance” (check out G. Hofstede’s definition). Basically, you will need to fit into a shoe like Cinderella. If that shoe is too big (or goodness you have the same amount as Imelda Marcos) the recruiter might think you are not an “earnest professional” but a “Hans Dampf in allen Gassen”.

 

Most of my clients hate it when I tell them that they have to brand themselves in one area, which might narrow their “shoe” to Cinderella’s size. It is not against you. Just painful experience and understanding the market a bit longer. I talk to headhunters and HR recruiters. Their band with for your multitalented selves is limited. Make it easier for them to work with you and keep 60% of your talents in the drawer for later use. If you need someone to tell you what a wonderful person you are you can always email me.