Maximizing the Expat Experience

In 1995 I started my international career with my first posting in the UK. Eight countries and 13 years later I returned home to the USA.

Whether companies relocate employees abroad or they recruit employees from abroad, they are essentially making a large investment in that individual. In return they are looking for that employee to fill an immediate need as well as develop that person as part of a succession planning strategy. From my experience, there are a few basic steps organizations can take to create an environment where the expat experience can be a highly beneficial one for both the company and the employee:

1) Actively support the transition of the employee and (especially) the family

This is by far the most critical factor in getting an international relocation situation off to a good start.  As an expat, the initial feeling of moving to a new country is filled with nervousness and excitement. However, it can also be very overwhelming, especially if a new language is a factor.

Having a contact where the employee and family can go for immediate support is very important. Major things like choosing a location to live and picking schools are obvious concerns. However, for someone new to a country, normal tasks, such as paying utilities, opening a bank account, etc., begin to take on a whole new dimension.

Companies should have a dedicated HR person or a relocation service that can provide the family support and peace of mind. Having that reliable source to quickly answer questions relieves a lot of the pressure that would otherwise build.

2) Provide proper indoctrination

Even though the expat employee may be working with the same company in a new country, upon entering the new environment he/she is essentially entering as a new employee. Therefore, it is important to spend the extra effort to get the expat employee “up to speed” on the environment in which they are entering. The easiest and most efficient manner to do so is to have a structured set of meetings taking a 360-degree approach (boss, peers and subordinates) right away. This achieves two objectives: it provides an update on the state of the business and establishes an immediate set of core contacts to ease the integration process within the company.

While this appears to be overly basic, I have seen cases where this was not done. It was unintentionally assumed that the expat employee already understood the key issues of the business unit, which turned out to be an incorrect assumption. This led to frustration and a sense of not belonging in the new surroundings, a situation which could have easily been avoided.

3) Ensure expectations are clear from the beginning

When an expat arrives there should be some basic elements already in place, such as a role profile and perhaps performance objectives. While this is a good start, priorities, projects, resources, etc. change quickly depending on the circumstances. It is therefore important that the expat be made clear on what specific efforts are the highest priorities, especially in the short term. Again, the focus is on helping the expat get his/her posting off to a good beginning.

4) Be ready to ride the “wave”

From my own personal experience, and interacting with dozens of other expat families, there tends to be a pattern of behavior that impacts the expat experience over the course of an assignment.  I have classified these into five phases:

Nervousness ->  Excitement  ->  Settling In  ->  Longing for Home  ->  Ready to Go!

Of all the phases the one that can be the most disruptive is “Longing for Home”. A personal example of how this can be impactful would be the US Thanksgiving holiday. Living overseas this was just another work day and being away from family was difficult especially around traditional holidays. Over time this became less of a problem, but initially it was challenging.

Given the potential negative impact this can have on an expat and their family, it is important to be sensitive to these situations. I always encouraged my expat employees (especially first time expats) to have a planned annual visit back home. Knowing that there is an upcoming return, even if months away, can do wonders for homesickness.

The expat experience provides a unique opportunity for professionals to develop their careers and expand their personal horizons. At the same time this allows companies to groom talent for the increasingly international marketplace. With the high level of investment made by both parties it is in everyone’s best interest to provide the maximum benefit for all. Taking these relatively simple but vitally important steps will provide a footing for a productive and enriching expat experience.