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Creative problem solving opened up new pathway for businesses to invest in employees

Accounting firm builds strong international employee base through partnership with English Language Institute.

When presented with a problem, sometimes the solution means you pivot and do things even better than before. Pivot – that’s a term we all used and heard a lot during the COVID-19 pandemic. But creative problem solving really can turn a problem into the establishment of a best practice.

That’s what happened with the English Language Institute at Missouri State University early in the pandemic. Embassies were closed. Students experienced difficulties getting visas. And the ELI’s primary purpose – to teach American culture and improve English language skills to MSU international students – wasn’t in as high of a demand.

Paula Moore, like many others in the division of community and global partnerships at MSU, was tasked with thinking about alternative markets and pathways. Moore began considering how the ELI could provide outreach services to employers wanting to improve cultural relations with employees with English as a second language – both international students and refugees.

“They say two heads are better than one, especially if the second head has seen other parts of the world and different ways of doing things,” Moore said. “That creates multiple options for solving problems.”


A partnership begins

In late 2021, Abacus, an entrepreneurial accounting firm, reached out for help. Abacus was looking for a way to better support international employees.

“We weren’t sure what it needed to look like, but we knew we could live out our firm’s foundational principle of ‘People Deserve Better,’” said Andrea Battaglia, Chief Excellence Officer at Abacus. “As we began to discuss ideas, we reached out to a contact at MSU that connected us to Paula, and the rest is history.”

Together, Moore and the team at Abacus configured and signed a contract for services to assist with the training and transition for their international employees.

“They’re looking at the potential of doubling the size of their company in the next two to three years, and they see working with international students as a great opportunity to fill the ranks there,” Moore said.


More than learning a language

But Moore points out that the training has very little to do with language acquisition – these employees are often taught English from a very young age. Instead, it’s the idioms – like, “I’m all in” and “cut to the chase” and “hit it out of the park” – that come up in the discussions more often than not.

“Sometimes they also experience cultural adjustment issues, like what is the expectation of a good employee in the U.S.?” Moore said.  “We discuss some of the differences in expectations in terms of taking initiative versus waiting to be told what you’re supposed to do and contributing during staff meetings. We’re just helping to raise awareness of where those disconnects might be happening. Then we try to illuminate how they can understand each other better.”

The program for Abacus has three MSU participants: Moore, Pascal Hamon and Terry Barakat, who meet monthly with the four international employees at Abacus. Then, each of those employees also meets monthly 1-on-1 with the advisors.

“This program surreptitiously is for the international employees, but the other function is to prepare the entire organization to embrace international team members and create a more welcoming place for them,” Moore said. “It’s really laying the groundwork for creating a more diverse workforce in that company.”

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