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Acclimating families should be part of the process
The Royal Australian Naval employee who transferred to glitzy Las Vegas thought that his family would sample the American dream, but the assignment quickly turned into a nightmare.
The parents, worried that a barbed-wire fence around the local high school meant that it was unsafe, opted to home-school the children—even though they had no teaching experience. The family had only one car, so the wife and kids felt trapped at home. The homesick children stayed up all night on the computer chatting with friends in Australia—which is 19 hours ahead of Nevada.
“The man had a twitch because the kids were keeping him up all night,” saidAustralian Navy Lt. Cmdr. Sean Noble, a staff officer at the Australian Embassy in Washington, D.C. He spoke at a seminar on International Assignments and Family Transition, held in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 14, 2011. The seminar was sponsored by the California-based Global HR News.
The disgruntled civilian employee broke his contract and moved his family back to the land Down Under after just three months.
Get HR Aboard Early
Noble and other HR professionals and employee mobility experts said that what happened to the Australian family shows what can go wrong when HR isn’t involved actively in helping employees transition to overseas assignments. Companies can avoid similar headaches and wasted resources if they take certain steps before sending workers abroad.
“Family adjustment and the support an organization gives the family are critical to the success of the assignment,” said Peggy Love, president of education services at Dwellworks LLC, a Cleveland-based company that offers residential and destination support services for expats. Love spoke at the Global HR seminar as well.
Companies are becoming more adept at making international assignments work, said Brenda H. Fender, director of global initiatives at Worldwide ERC, a Washington, D.C.-based workforce mobility association.
Transferring employees to other countries usually costs about three times the employee’s annual salary each year if a company offers them a fully loaded expatriate benefits package, Fender said.
Such packages can include moving costs, cost-of-living and tax differentials, and cultural and language training for employees and their families, she said.
Traditionally, an international transferee was a Western male sent abroad to a foreign office in Asia, South America or Africa, Fender said. That has changed.
Now companies might hire a resident from Singapore for an IT job in Beijing or an African student who graduated from a German university to run an office in South America.
“As the world economy has gotten more integrated, companies source talent from anywhere,” Fender said. “It’s a much more diverse picture.”
Experts had lots of anecdotes and advice about making international transfers more successful:
Start with psychological tests to ensure that the candidate really desires to work abroad and has the flexibility, adaptability and open-mindedness to adapt to a new culture, Fender said.
Arrange for the employee to visit before making the move.
Encourage families to get out of the house, make friends, and get driver’s licenses and other identification they might need in their new locale. Employees and their families are often excited soon after making an international transfer, but then reality sets in, Noble said. Some become homesick. Cultural differences and bureaucratic headaches, such as passing a driver’s test or getting a social security card, can become irritating.
Education is essential, Noble said. For instance, many Australians think they know American culture because they are familiar with American icons such as Coca-Cola and Disney and because they watch U.S. television shows like “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and “Jerry Springer.” However, living in the United States is much different than the glossy, exciting images in the media.
HR professionals shouldn’t hesitate to use local tax and immigration law consultants to help them navigate laws in the different countries, Fender said. This is crucial because mistakes in tax and immigration filings for employees can turn into expensive fines and penalties, she said. Most companies need the help of overseas shippers to get household goods across the ocean, she added.
With the world still grappling with an economic downturn, HR and expats should be prepared for the unexpected, said Ghadeer Hasan, vice president of quality at Dwellworks. Hasan has scrambled to find housing for foreign workers who rent homes, only to find out that they are being evicted because the cash-strapped property owners from whom they rented were not paying the mortgage.
Companies might opt to give fewer perks to employees who volunteer to move to the United States to learn new skills or gain managerial experience, Bender said.
EADS North America, the U.S. branch of the European aerospace and defense company, offers employees a “look and see” trip about five weeks before they make the final decision to move, said HR Manager Vanessa McCall, PHR. This allows them to scope out housing and schools before they arrive, said McCall, who attended the Global HR seminar. She said that only a small percentage back out of the transfer after their visit.
EADS adopted a global expatriate policy, which ensures that they handle international transfers in a uniform way no matter where the employee comes from, McCall said. Highlights of the EADS policy include housing assistance, transportation allowances and assistance to help spouses find a job or learn a new language or culture.
Experts said that while getting employees and their families adjusted to living in a foreign country is a challenge, human resource professionals should not forget about repatriating them after the assignment has ended.
This helps ensure that the employee can utilize the skills they’ve learned overseas when they return to their home country, McCall said. Employees who work abroad often gain invaluable experience because they have to shoulder additional responsibilities in overseas departments.
“Work with the home office both on the mobility and the HR side to make sure the person has a position to get back to,” McCall said.
Greg Wright is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer who has covered Congress, consumer electronics and international trade for major news organizations, including Gannett News Service/USA Today, Dow Jones and Knight-Ridder Financial News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Study: Cultural Training Key Element for Global Assignments, SHRM Online HR Global Discipline, June 2009
Happy Returns, HR Magazine, March 2010
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