A CRASH COURSE AT CULTURE SHOCK UNIVERSITY

A CRASH COURSE AT CULTURE SHOCK UNIVERSITY

It's just past 9 a.m. on a Tuesday, and Bob Mulshine is talking lunch.

The menu isn't important. What's critical is to invite a co-worker to eat with you, Mulshine tells the three young men. All recently arrived from India, and work for Integral Strategies Inc., a Pittsburgh software business.Mulshine is a consultant retained by ISI to run its ''Culture Shock University'' an intense, two-week orientation program designed to help the company's international hires adjust to living and working in the United States.

At this particular ''Culture Shock'' session, Mulshine encourages his Indian students to break the ice with their new American colleagues by engaging in small talk about the weather and taking casual lunch breaks with them.

''You don't want to be separate from the team; you want to be accepted in the business culture as a lunch or break companion,'' Mulshine tells the trainees.

All speak fluent English and came from their homeland with top credentials to tackle the assignments for which ISI recruited them: designing and installing computer software packages on a project basis for various businesses.

''They come fully ready to write (software) code and set up computer hardware,'' said Mulshine, who's been conducting ISI's Culture Shock sessions for almost two years. ''What they want to know is whether to say, 'Thank you' when they're in line at McDonald's.''

Advice about meals when it's appropriate to eat with a co-worker of the opposite gender, when to brown-bag it, when to order alcohol and that all-important fast-food etiquette could easily consume an entire session of Culture Shock University.

But Mulshine has other topics to cover this morning. They include how to greet colleagues and managers in the workplace, whether to address co-workers by their first names or titles and when it's OK to interrupt a business meeting to ask a question.

''When employees are comfortable, it creates better client satisfaction,'' said ISI President Sunil Patil. He experienced culture shock firsthand when he came to Pittsburgh from his native India a decade ago to work as a consultant for Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield.

Patil, 33, also worked at Pittsburgh mutual-fund giant Federated Investors before he co-founded ISI in 1996. He learned by trial and error that it was acceptable to use first names in a business setting and other workplace nuances that born-and-bred Americans take for granted.

With a robust economy and tight job market making it tougher for companies to land skilled workers especially high-tech firms employers are increasingly turning to international hires. While those workers may have top-notch technology skills, the cultural adjustment to a new country can get in the way of job performance.

''When companies bring people in because of their skills or capability, that person has to feel comfortable in the social context of what's going on,'' said James Craft, a business administration professor at the University of Pittsburgh's Katz Graduate School of Business.

Giving foreign employees assistance in what he calls ''basic functioning'' - language skills, ways Americans greet each other and what holidays we celebrate - goes a long way toward freeing up those people to concentrate on their work duties instead of the stresses of a new environment, he said.

At ISI, 60 percent of the 140-person work force is foreigners, mainly Indians who have obtained temporary visas to work in the United States. So Patil makes it a top priority to familiarize them with American business protocols early.

The Culture Shock sessions are limited to five new hires at a time and are conducted in a training room decorated with world maps and posters of Indian landmarks in the company's headquarters.

In addition, new ISI employees receive a 49-page handbook filled with information and tips about getting along in this country. Chapters are devoted to topics as diverse as what to wear to work (brown suits are an absolute no-no), how to figure out daylight-saving time and what vegetarian food items might be available at the local Pizza Hut.

''We're pretty much willing to do whatever it takes to make them comfortable,'' said Lyle Knisley, manager of training and development for Bayer Corp., a German-owned chemicals firm that maintains its U.S. headquarters at Pittsburgh.

German workers assigned to Bayer's Pittsburgh operations normally stay here two to three years, said Knisley. Most of them are highly skilled in English, but if their spouses and children aren't, Bayer offers language classes for employees' families.

Bayer also provides training in business etiquette because, Knisley said, ''the U.S. style is very informal'' compared with Germany. For instance, he said, ''In the German culture, you don't call someone by their first name until you're given permission to do so. You use business or professional titles.''

Outside of the office, the company helps its foreign workers - a small percentage of whom come from places other than Germany, including Japan shop for housing, enroll children in school and conduct such routine business as applying for Social Security cards, driver's licenses and checking accounts.