Low foreign-language skills and a lack of readiness to adapt to new cultures are the two biggest barriers to young employees who want to work abroad, according to research from management education gurus CEMS.

In a survey of 1,200 hiring managers, students and graduates around the world, the organisation found that only one in five of the HR respondents considered the geographical mobility of their youngest employees to be strong. This will no doubt come as a disappointment to the 92% of undergraduates that the survey revealed are eager to work abroad in the early stages of their careers.

Indeed, the majority of HR leads think that their newest hires could do far more to develop the skills, or self-confidence, required to work internationally. Quoted in the research, L’Oréal’s global vice president HR, Bertrand de Laleu, says: “With English you just have half of it. We need to enlarge the scope. Beyond the language skills, the ability to work in very contrasted economies is a differentiator. Organisational diversity is crucial. It’s no longer only about New York, London, Paris. Now it’s also about Sao Paulo, Lagos and Mumbai.”

In the view of The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards, Kate Cooper, “This wouldn’t be a problem if UK universities did more to embrace the opportunities that large numbers of international students provide. Of course, there’s only a certain amount that those institutions can do to encourage people to make friends – but they could do an awful lot more than they’re doing at the moment, in terms of setting up cross-cultural team-building activities.

“No doubt you’d find a few academics saying that they wouldn’t want their precious time eaten up by what they would see as non-academic activities. But if students form bonds and friendships with people from different backgrounds in their first few weeks at university, not only will that help performance and retention – especially in the lower-tariff institutions –but they’ll acquire a greater sense of global diversity, too. They’ll hear about family traditions and cultural rituals, and when they get to either third-year or Masters stage, they’ll pick up hints about what they’ll need to know for the job-selection processes that lie ahead. All told, this is a marvellous opportunity for UK universities to grasp that the curriculum is not just about knowledge, testing and exams.”

On the question of what type of formal, CPD-level responsibility students and young employees can take to enhance their knowledge, Cooper notes: “going on a course that schools you in the practices and customs of, say, Chinese meetings would provide you with a sound body of knowledge. But really, it’s the sort of thing you could find out about yourself if you use your discernment and hunt down the most authoritative material online. In the end, the best way to understand a culture first hand is to have relationships with people who are steeped in it. That can’t be done as a quick fix – it’s not bite-sized learning, but something that requires time and commitment.”

She adds: “Interestingly, this research has arrived just after I was involved in a roundtable about transitioning people out of the military and into civilian employment. An expert on the panel said that not only should there be work placements in civilian organisations for people about to leave the military, but it should work the other way around, too – so that staff in civilian hiring departments can gain a better idea of how daily interactions work in the services. That would give them sharper, more empathic insights into the kind of lifestyle that people exiting the military are about to leave behind.

“Army-to-civilian transitions and vice-versa obviously constitute massive cultural shifts – and that goes to the heart of what we’re talking about here: how do you understand another culture, other than experiencing it and talking to people who are in it?”

For further thoughts on how to develop your cultural intelligence, check out this learning item from the Institute