As firms expand, employees may be sent abroad, or will have to have that experience.

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PHILADELPHIA — Wow, Malcolm Dahn thought, this is really odd.

Dahn, 41, a partner in the accounting firm KPMG LLP, happened to peer inside a conference room around noon at one of his company’s offices, and what he saw blew his mind.

“There were literally 15 to 20 people in an audit room, taking a nap,” he said, still marveling. “They would take a nap in plain view — all these people, people in their cubicles.”

Dahn told this story recently in KPMG’s Philadelphia office, where they jokingly call him “Mr. International,” but the memory comes from the three years he spent at KMPG’s office in Seoul, South Korea, where naps at noon are part of accepted corporate culture.

Dahn is part of an expanding group of U.S. workers — employees with significant international experience and a broader perspective at a time when the world is growing smaller and an increasing number of companies operate in many nations.

“We’re seeing, despite the economy in the United States, a lot of U.S. firms expanding overseas because, frankly, there are better economic opportunities for them abroad,” said Geoffrey Latta, executive vice president of Orc Worldwide, a New York consulting company specializing in international employment practices.

Not only are companies increasing the percentage of workers they are sending abroad, but they are also requiring international experience as a prerequisite to leadership positions. And they are also fielding more applications from recent graduates, fresh from semesters abroad, who put a high premium on global opportunities.

“Our clients are global, and we want to make sure that we have our professionals at least as global as our clients,” said Aidan Walsh, KPMG’s partner in charge of international deployment.

Of its global workforce of about 120,000, KPMG now has about 2,500 on foreign assignment.

The company wants to increase that to 5,000 by 2010, aiming to have 25 to 30 percent of its professional staff with international experience at some point.

“It teaches our people a whole raft of new understandings,” said Walsh, in New York. “It helps them to realize that the U.S. doesn’t have a lock on all the great ideas of the world.”

Here’s what’s happening, based on Orc Worldwide’s 2006 survey, its most recent:

• Companies have doubled the number of employees they’ve sent abroad.

• Western European countries send the most workers abroad, mostly to other Western European companies.

• Companies develop international human-resources policies themselves but turn to outside vendors to handle logistical issues such as relocation, tax planning, visas and cultural orientation.

• Most U.S. postings are for up to three years, but there is a trend toward shorter assignments.

• Worldwide, 85 percent of those sent abroad are male.

• Manufacturing, financial-services and computer companies send the most workers abroad. The least? Leisure, advertising, nonprofit, retail and construction businesses.

A boost up the ladder

Building international bench strength is not cheap, said Penny Stoker, vice president of global human-resources services for AstraZeneca P.L.C. in Wilmington.

Typically, she said, it costs two to four times an employee’s annual salary to cover expenses. Expenses can include a child’s school tuition, tax equalization, cultural training and subsidized housing.

That is why, she said, the company focuses its international assignments on those scheduled for advancement. “Is that an investment that is worth the company making?” she asked. “We look at it very hard with our talent pool.”

As employees advance, she said, a simple posting to a foreign country is not enough. They must also learn to work on international teams and then to manage across borders. For example, Stoker’s direct reports are stationed in the United States, China, the United Kingdom and Sweden.

Impatient to advance, college students entering the job market want international assignments quickly, said Claudia Tattanelli, chief executive officer for Universum North America and Asia Pacific, a market-research firm specializing in employment trends among recent college graduates.

“These ex-pat opportunities are great,” said Tattanelli, based in Philadelphia. “They build very strong résumés. They can learn faster than staying at home.”

Changing standards

Part of what is driving the global push for the big accounting firms is the likelihood that international financial reporting standards (IFRS) will become the norm for U.S. accounting, instead of generally accepted accounting practices (GAAP), the current U.S. standard.

“That is red-hot in all corporate America,” said managing partner Gerald “Jerry” Maginnis, Dahn’s boss at the Philadelphia office.

That is why Maginnis brought Dahn along on a recent visit to one of the firm’s local clients. Dahn provided a firsthand perspective on IFRS based on his experiences with it during his Korea stint from 2003 to 2006.

“This is an intellectual-capital business,” Maginnis said. “You always want to be demonstrating how you are adding value to your client relationship.”

Dahn said he frequently talked to his colleagues about corporate culture in Korea and how it differs.

In the United States, for example, an auditing team will work steadily over weeks to complete a project, working 7:30 a.m. to about 7 p.m., weekdays.

In Korea, the approach is more last-minute. Late-nighters, until 2 and 3 a.m., are the norm — hence a later start to the day, maybe 9:30 a.m., and those naps at noon.

“I came to believe that there’s nothing wrong with it,” Dahn said. “I learned to adjust my schedule and not to schedule any meetings before 10 a.m.”

And, Dahn said, his Korean co-workers also adjusted. They came to understand that Americans started earlier and left earlier.

“I don’t think they thought I was lazy,” he said. Even though Dahn worked later than normal, he never did end up sleeping at his desk, like his Korean colleagues.

“But,” he said, “I was tempted.”