A foreign assignment or long-term deployment on an overseas operation is always an enormous step for a staff member and the company they work for.
As these are complex, costly operations both employer and employee need to thoroughly understand the process, challenges and stages of the expat lifecycle – here’s what HR Managers need to consider at each stage of the process:
Selection and assessment
Appointing the right candidate is key to the success of their new team and, ultimately, to the company’s growth, reputation and bottom line.
Setting up an initial short-term assignment – enabling the employee to experience the job and overseas location at first hand – can effectively gauge if they are suitable for the role and for a long-term posting. It also helps the employer to closely monitor their performance abroad while they gain skills and understand the country’s particular way of working and expat lifestyle.
While the right selection will move the company forward, the downside of getting it wrong include reputational damage (in the Arabic/Asian world, a cultural faux pas can irrevocably destroy a formerly healthy commercial partnership), jeopardising relationships with local customers – and alienating local employees.
Leaving a settled lifestyle
Before undertaking their assignment, the departing expat will usually be in a ‘comfort zone’. They will have a settled lifestyle where they are culturally and socially at ease in a familiar location where they may have lived in all their life.
The leaving process starts the minute they are informed of their assignment. Although this may spark excitement, the announcement can also bring concerns for them and their family.
In our vast experience, familiarisation trips are a good idea – particularly as the period between being informed and setting off into the unknown can be just weeks.
Making the transition
In these situations, everything that could have conceivably changed does so for the expat worker. This includes their job, location, the culture and society, frequently, the language, their friends and colleagues, the cuisine, the landscape – and the weather.
It’s not just a new Wi-Fi password, it’s a completely new life and even the most confident and self-sufficient player will experience some unease, especially if they had no prior taste of their new home and responsibilities. Studies also consistently show that the biggest single cause of expatriation assignments ending in failure is the inability of the non-working partner to adjust to the physical and cultural environment of the host country. A little time, effort and money invested on pre-departure preparation can significantly increase the chances of a successful expatriation and speed up the settling in process for both the employee and their families.
The Challenges of Settling in
The success of the assignment is usually dependent upon how comfortable the member of staff feels in their new surroundings – and how they embrace their new culture and job. The greater the difference between their new location and the home they have left behind, the longer this process can take.
There is no standard settling in period. The process can take between 3-12 months – reinforcing the importance of the employer ensuring that staff have time and resource to adjust to their new environment and culture.
Decision time – fight or flight?
Just like marriages, ex pat assignments undergo ‘honeymoon periods’ and time spent settling in and getting used to cultural adjustments is followed by a decision to ‘fight’ or ‘flight’.
The ‘fight’ mode sees staff make constant unfavourable comparisons with how things are done at home – ‘They do it like this, but I want the British way.’
While the ‘flight’ mode also entails employees comparing everything to home, their comparison is a non-judgemental one which is underpinned by an open-minded path of acceptance.
Both are entirely normal, and the more prepared the expat is, the more likely they will adopt the ‘flight’ path – and the quicker they will be at ease with their new circumstances and make a success of the role and challenges it presents.
Preparation to accelerate the acclimatisation process can include a taster visit, short-term secondment or a number of previous assignments in the location.
Repatriation – completing the assignment and returning home – also takes time and adjustment. Employees may think that the company has moved on in their absence and, while glad to be home, might feel deflated after their adventure.
Assistance in planning and supporting staff who may have trouble readjusting to home life and their old job – is as critical at the end of the cycle as it is at the beginning.
It is the responsibility of HR managers to plan, communicate and assist team members throughout the expat life cycle. To stint on this investment is a false economy which can lead to serious repercussions.
Gustavo Aranda, business development manager for intercultural experts Farnham Castle Intercultural Training.