Cultural Chameleon BLOG

The many benefits of employing an international intern
Posted by admin on 9th January 2019

It’s the first day for a young Chinese intern ‘Li Wei’ at a Sydney based architectural firm. Li Wei has achieved steady results throughout his post-graduate studies at a major Sydney based university. As with many international students studying in Australia, Li Wei has had to overcome language challenges. Li Wei’s first language is Cantonese, and his second is Chinese Mandarin which both contrast dramatically with English. Li Wei arrives at the office slightly before 9.00 am and awaits instructions. The firm’s staff begin arriving and starting up their computers to check and send emails. The firm has recently opened an office in Singapore and has high hopes of gaining contracts in Mainland China. Finally, Li Wei’s manager walks into the office and tells Li Wei that the firm has a deadline so introductions would have to wait. Li Wei says ‘Mr Smith, ‘is there anything I can do to help?’ ‘Oh call me ‘Sam’ we don’t use formal titles’ here’ said his manager. He then handed Li Wei some papers and asked him to get three copies. ‘The photocopier is over there’, Sam pointed to the corner of the office. Sam spoke so quickly that Li Wei wasn’t sure if he had said 2 or 3 copies. However, he didn’t like to ask as Sam seemed to be in a rush. Li Wei walked over to the photocopier only to find it was completely shut down. He could not find any instructions that would tell him how to start the machine. He stood there not sure what to do next. Finally, a young girl came over. She pressed a few buttons and the photocopier jumped into action. “Hello, my name is Li Wei,” he said to his new colleague. ‘Oh hi, I’m Emily, I do most of the administration here’ she replied. Before Li Wei could ask her for further help, Sam shouted across the room ‘Li Wei, have you finished copying those documents? I need them now.’

This is not an ideal start for any new employee. However, let’s face it, companies have deadlines, and their clients must take priority over an intern, after all, isn’t the employer doing the young student a favour by giving him or her work experience. Furthermore, as the saying goes, when in Rome do as the Romans do so when in Australia expect to be treated as a native born Australian. But wait a minute, how often does an intelligent young person who has an in-depth knowledge of a critical export market walk through your door and offer to work for free. This individual may even be able to facilitate both essential long and short-term connections where relationships are the driving force behind business success. These international students have the ultimate expertise for helping Australian managers understand the many cultural nuances, that if unknown, can jeopardise costly international expansion plans. I am not suggesting the businesses need to stop being Australian in nature, however, listed below are some guidelines to ensure companies maximise opportunities that Chinese and other Asian interns have to offer:

  • Understand that these interns are used to a higher power distance to that of there Australian colleagues. This means that authority, i.e., their manager is to be respected and not questioned. This can have advantages. However, you need to be explicit with your communication and expectations. Ensure that there is someone on the same level as the student who they can turn to should there have been some misinterpretation. By telling you directly that they did not understand your instructions would be seen as losing face to all parties concerned
  • Ensure that the colleague you choose to help the intern has a vested interest in building a relationship with the new recruit. The person does not have to be a cultural expert. However, this employee must be able to deploy empathy as well as having an interest in international markets and how they may differ. It is also essential to choose someone who is not overly judgemental.
  • Make sure instructions are given, where possible, both verbally and in writing. Written instructions should be made in point form making it easy to identify where any misinterpretation may have occurred.
  • Once the intern has started to adapt to your working environment, start building a tactful and professional relationship with the young person. This may seem time consuming and unnecessary; however, many international students are well connected and extremely loyal to a mentor. Consider that successful business in a region such as China will depend on connections. Most companies invest large sums of money over a long period of time to establish necessary relationships before they have even started trading. Your intern may just be able to give you a lucrative competitive edge, so be careful not to look a gift horse in the mouth.
  • If you wish for your intern to contribute during a meeting make sure you tell them what is expected. You may also wish to facilitate a time for them to speak. Many Asian people are not comfortable with brainstorming as they are concerned that they may not be saying something that is correct. This would consequently cause both them and their colleagues to lose face. They would rather be prepared presenting only accurate data
  • Finally, as with all staff, Asian people love to receive positive feedback, however, you may wish to do this in private. When public praise is given your intern may feel that you are not acknowledging other crucial team members that contributed to their success. Unless you are referring to a whole team, your intern will greatly appreciate your positive feedback when delivered behind closed doors

It is all too easy to overlook the long-term benefits of an international intern in favour for a local student who knows how everything works. Yet, if this young person is willing to venture into what is undoubtedly, outside their comfort zone, surely, we can make a few minor adjustments to help them on their international journey, especially when all parties concerned could have so much to gain. To find out further information on how to maximise the potential of new international staff contact Cultural Chameleon on

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