Sending employees overseas can have enormous all-round benefits. You get to develop a key member of staff, while having someone you know and trust at the centre of your operations abroad.
However, sending an employee abroad is a big endeavour. It is not as straightforward as giving them a plane ticket. Expat employees have to be well looked after to help them overcome the sizeable challenges involved in relocating for work purposes. Failure to acknowledge these issues greatly heightens the chances that the whole endeavour will be fruitless.
Here are some of the important things you need to be aware of when sending employees abroad.
As an employer, your focus is understandably going to be on the logistics of getting an employee settled in overseas and producing results. However, you need to consider how expatriating affects all aspects of your employee’s life. You are sending them abroad to do a job, but they can’t focus on that if they have other things on their mind. A good example is the issue of visas; if the company handles this for the employee then it frees up their time and energy to focus on their role rather than fretting about their residence.
As well as legal documents, it helps to provide as much assistance as possible for your employee as they search for things like accommodation. There is bound to be a period of disruption on either side of the move, which will affect your employee considerably. While going abroad may be a great opportunity for expat employees, it’s your business’ needs that are motivating the change, so you have a responsibility to help make the transition as smooth as possible.
A HR contact in their new country of residence is a must to help keep expatriate employees orientated and guide them through the culture change. Speaking to someone on the phone back home isn’t the same; if you’re in significantly different time zones it could even leave your expat employee cut off from assistance for a considerable while. A local HR contact is important because it gives your employee somewhere to turn to. They should be responsible for helping expat staff with any issues that arise, particularly when it comes to culture shock.
The difference in cultures can be enormous and this can present serious challenges. Working in countries with markedly different cultures can take some getting used to and it can be easy to make an error which significantly affects relationships. It’s just as important from the company’s point of view to ensure your employee knows and respects the cultural norms overseas. Trusting that they ‘pick it up as they go along’ risks incidents that could damage the company’s reputation; in some countries a simple ‘faux pas’ could land your employee in prison.
Ben Wilkins, a Pricewaterhouse Cooper (PwC) International Mobility Team Director, explains;
‘Cultural awareness and integration is something that employers can underestimate but for the employee it’s really important. Employers can be very good at sorting out the overall package but tend to overlook the other aspects. You’ve got to get it right upfront. Every country has different rules and employers can usually use an external adviser to limit the risks involved.’
According to Northeastern University in the United States, 40% of managers who ‘fail’ after being sent abroad do so due to a lack of sufficient preparation. 33% of European companies provide training; a fifth of American companies offer almost no training for cultural adjustment.
A job abroad is the same as a job at home; it requires the right candidate. Just because you have a need for a sales manager overseas doesn’t necessarily mean your top sales manager is the right person for the job. As Personnel Today notes;
‘This may be a difficult one to answer – it’s often the case that the shy member of staff may thrive in foreign climes, while their brasher colleague may be unexpectedly reluctant to stray far from home and familiarity. Much will depend on the length and location of the posting, and whether applicants have dependants.’
The right person for an expatriated role is one who is curious and adaptable. They have to have an interest in foreign cultures and in having new experiences. Someone who doesn’t particularly care about foreign places and cultures isn’t going to integrate very well with their new colleagues or your business partners.
You also need to choose someone who respects rules and hierarchy. There may be some business sense in keeping hold of less-than-perfect employees at home, but certain countries are much stricter with their laws and someone who doesn’t respect authority could find themselves in trouble. Cultures are different and someone who doesn’t respect and honour that fact could cause friction.
If possible, arrange a trip abroad with your intended candidate or candidates with the company so that they can get a taste of the place they will be going to. It’s easy enough to agree to expatriate, but a person might not fully appreciate the realities of living abroad. Sampling the culture at least gives them something of an indication of the life they are agreeing to for the next few months, or even years.
Sending your employee abroad is only half of your responsibility. How you get them back again is just as important and goes much further than simply paying for flights. Expatriate employees can experience ‘reserve culture shock’ when coming home. It’s highly unlikely to be a case that they just hop off the plane and are ready to pick up where they left off.
Retaining expat employees can be hard if you don’t have a solid plan for settling them back in; around a quarter want to leave their company once they return to their original role.
Moving home is likely to affect their performance in several ways, including increasing their tendency to be critical, making them more withdrawn, or increasing feelings of self-doubt. A common problem reported by expatriate employees returning home is exhaustion. As the US Department of State explains;
‘Because many of the routines, patterns and customs of US culture are new to you, you must consciously pay attention to performing basic functions. Add to that the stress of the logistical tasks of your return, and you may begin to feel overwhelmed by this experience. Exhaustion is a commonly reported effect of reverse culture shock.’
When an employee with a family relocates for work, they either have to leave their family behind for the duration of their overseas placement, or bring their family with them. Either option is highly disruptive and will have a significant impact upon their wellbeing. Recognising this is an important step in helping your expatriate employee to settle in and perform well overseas.
As Andrew Walker, Director of Global Mobility with WorleyParsons, notes;
‘The number one reason for assignment failure is the family’s inability to acclimatise and adjust to the new location. As long as I’ve been in field, it’s been an issue. But it’s only within the last five or 10 years that organisations have been more pro-active about addressing it.’
It’s important to understand what you are asking from an employee you’re sending abroad. Yes, it may be a great opportunity and experience, but it often involves uprooting their entire family. If their family isn’t happy or looked after abroad, your employee is not going to perform well. Sending an employee overseas is a big investment for the company, so it’s worth taking steps to ensure it doesn’t fall through because you didn’t think about your employee’s family and their happiness as well.
Providing assistance with finding accommodation and schooling, for instance, helps the whole family settle into their new surroundings and goes a long way to ensuring your employee is relaxed, comfortable and able to focus on their work.
Doing business overseas is a complicated process. You can’t expect an employee to land in the middle of a part of your business they don’t understand, in a culture they aren’t familiar with, and instantly become productive and generate results. An employee overseas is just like an employee at home; if you want to get the best out of them, you need to provide them with stability, support and opportunities.
Do all these things for your expats and your business will benefit greatly. You’ll realise that these tasks aren’t inconveniences; they are the secret to success.
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