HR Best Practices Can Lead to a Better Expat Experience

Mentoring employees before and during an expat assignment is among the effective preparation strategies for adjusting to a new country

By Kathy Gurchiek Mar 22, 2016
LIKE SAVE PRINT
Reuse Permissions

Employees who have accepted international assignments adjust and perform better in the host country when effective HR management practices are implemented, according to a report included in a compilation of research that the SHRM Foundation recently released.

The findings in Crossing Cultures: Unpacking the Expatriate Learning and Adjustment Process over Time are based on responses from 171 expatriates surveyed 30 days before leaving for their assignments and then nine more times over the first nine months of their international assignment. The respondents—nearly three-fourths of whom were men, and most of whom had a spouse and children moving with them—were from three multinational organizations. Their assignments spanned 38 countries in Africa, the Americas, Asia, Australia and Europe.

The study found that the expat’s psychological well-being, language fluency and training before relocation had a positive overall effect on adjusting in the first nine months of the international experience. The findings, the researchers wrote, underscore the importance of HR practitioners understanding the expat’s adjustment process. HR professionals must make sure their organization:

  • Addresses the employee's need to develop language fluency in the international assignment.
  • Offers psychological screening to assess readiness for an international assignment, including an individual’s openness to having an international experience.
  • Provides strong support before and during the assignment, including setting clear expectations about the employee’s role and performance and giving feedback and assistance.
  • Provides the employee with a self-assessment tool prior to the international assignment to help set realistic expectations for adjusting to the host country.
  • Provides a mentor in the host country. A former, current or more experienced expatriate to offer an insider’s perspective can be especially helpful; a host-country national who is a distinguished organizational leader also would be a good choice.
  • Maintains a connection between the expatriate and the home-based organization.

Mentors, Support Team

Cynthia Biro, global co-head of Skills Village at PeopleTicker, an information provider based in the New York City area, found that mentors in the host country helped her when she opened offices in various international locations. In preparation, her employer arranged for expatriates in those countries to contact her about a month before she left the U.S. Once she was in the host country, each expat spent several hours, on different days, introducing Biro to the area, including showing her where to shop for food and taking her on tours of the city to expose her to various areas and to learn the city’s history, she noted in a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) discussion on LinkedIn.

“I cannot tell you how much it helped me in my management and expansion efforts whilst [I was] onsite. Everyone was much more approachable in the office, because we had ‘off time’ and ‘warm introductions’ beforehand. I highly suggest this strategy for others. I also had language classes, and they helped, but the introducing of expats prepared me best.”

At defense technology company Raytheon, a support team is assigned to an employee who accepts an international assignment, said Randa G. Newsome, vice president of HR and based in Waltham, Mass. The team includes a sponsor, an in-country supervisor and an HR point of contact and it remains active throughout the employee’s preparation, deployment and repatriation.

“The support team is responsible for understanding the employee’s assignment and career aspirations, and for engaging in regular communication and activities to help the employee fulfill development goals throughout their assignment,” she said in an e-mail to SHRM Online. “Most important, the support team works to place the employee in a meaningful company role upon their return—one that aligns with their career aspirations and benefits from their international experience and acumen.”

Pre-Selection Criteria, Screening

Spell out pre-selection criteria for expat assignments, said Suzanne Garber, CEO of Gauze, a Philadelphia-based global database of hospitals, in an e-mail to SHRM Online. She has been an expat and has managed and helped other expats prepare for their assignments.

“The onus is on the hiring manager to ensure that cultural compatibility is one of the determining factors to awarding an expat assignment. Without fully understanding this component of the expat assignment, it may be doomed to fail,” she noted. “Many rising executives know that obtaining an expat position is one way to propel one’s career into super-stardom. ... However, all who are chosen are not best suited. Why not? Because while the job specs were carefully crafted, the cultural aspects were not. Culture, in an expat position, trumps credentials.”

Not everyone will adapt well to a new country or culture, wrote Vancouver, Canada-based HR consultant Debra Walker in an e-mail to SHRM Online.

“Tests that show adaptability, resourcefulness, problem-solving, thinking on one’s feet, ability to work in grey [areas]—and even introversion vs. extroversion review—are good to incorporate, so that individuals that will not adapt well will have a clearer picture before they even leave home soil.”

Most multinational firms do not have a standard screening process to identify traits—such as resourcefulness and a high tolerance for ambiguity—that make for a successful expat, said James P. Johnson, Ph.D., professor of international business at Rollins College Crummer Graduate School of Business in Orlando, Fla.

“These qualities cannot be taught in a brief pre-departure cross-cultural training program. Instead, efforts should be made to identify candidates that have these traits, and to train them in the technical aspects of the international assignment, rather than select the person who has the technical skills and assume that he or she can acquire the necessary soft skills that are essential to international success,” he said in an e-mail to SHRM Online.

Language, Cross-Cultural Training

Learning the host country’s language is important, said Johnson, who has worked in Finland, Great Britain, Mexico, Spain and the former Yugoslavia.

“It can go a long way in developing relations with employees, colleagues, customers and neighbors,” he said, but advised being realistic in one’s expectations. “Traditional language training is time-intensive and crash courses can be expensive. In addition, many firms that offer language training require the employee to do it in his or her free time or take vacation days to attend a crash course.”

He also thinks cross-cultural training should be a mandatory component of an international assignment.

“Less than 50 percent of firms require it, although many are getting better in realizing that training is not only essential for the employee, but for spouses [or significant others] and family members” accompanying the employee, he noted in an e-mail. Family members should have access to training as well for help securing a driver’s license, for example, and locating babysitters, schools and English-speaking medical providers.

And Gauze’s Garber stressed that additional cultural training is a must, even if the assignee has visited, worked in or previously lived in the host country.

“It is imperative to get a briefing on what’s going on in the country now. This includes an update from a political, gastronomical, religious and security perspective.”

Richard Phillips, managing director at Britam, a risk management and training consultancy in London, has employed more than 1,000 staff members in expatriate roles over the last 11 years—most commonly in "quite challenging environments," he said in an e-mail to SHRM Online.

“The single most important part of their preparation is making absolutely sure they understand the living and working environment they are about to enter—warts and all! To avoid wasting time and money, do this first and check as part of your quality process. It is human nature to look at the positives of a role and skip the bits you don’t know much about.

“Make sure your candidates are fully appraised of the challenges, issues and differences to their previous experience to avoid them wanting to return five minutes after arrival.”

“The single most important part of their preparation is making absolutely sure they understand the living and working environment they are about to enter—warts and all! To avoid wasting time and money, do this first and check as part of your quality process. It is human nature to look at the positives of a role and skip the bits you don’t know much about.

“Make sure your candidates are fully appraised of the challenges, issues and differences to their previous experience to avoid them wanting to return five minutes after arrival.”

“The single most important part of their preparation is making absolutely sure they understand the living and working environment they are about to enter—warts and all! To avoid wasting time and money, do this first and check as part of your quality process. It is human nature to look at the positives of a role and skip the bits you don’t know much about.

“Make sure your candidates are fully appraised of the challenges, issues and differences to their previous experience to avoid them wanting to return five minutes after arrival.”

Kathy Gurchiek is the associate editor at HR News. Follow her @SHRMwriter. Join the SHRM LinkedIn discussion on preparing expats for their assignments.

LIKE SAVE PRINT
Reuse Permissions

SHRM CONNECT

Join SHRM's exclusive peer-to-peer social network

Join Today

Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You

SPONSOR OFFERS

Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 3,200 companies

Search & Connect