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Supporting Workers Overseas

The experience of working in a foreign country is not without its challenges and risks—so employer support is crucial.


​The overseas posting has long carried a certain glamour and elite status. Think of the executive who brings American-style ingenuity to a developing market, amassing profits and cross-cultural friendships along the way. Or the midlevel manager, trading predictable U.S. office culture for a foreign business environment with traditions such as afternoon tea breaks and double cheek-kissing hellos. Or even the work-world newbie, using an entry-level paycheck for an affordable beachside rental in a less-expensive international locale.

But the adventure is not without its challenges. Both the employer and the traveling worker are forced to navigate cultural differences and legal issues. Dropping the ball on either one could mean fines, an expulsion from the country or a culture clash that thwarts the critical development of relationships with those in the host nation. (Pro tip: When working abroad, avoid saying someone "dropped the ball," since the phrase is not common outside of the U.S. People in most countries don't share Americans' attachment to sports like football and baseball, where dropping the ball is a big mistake.)

"The main thing is to get familiar [in advance] with what's going on, where you're going," says Anton Mertens, an attorney in the Immigration & Global Mobility practice and a member of the Global Commerce industry team for Arnall Golden Gregory. "You make a mistake, and it costs money."

The U.S. government doesn't keep track of how many Americans are working abroad, but one estimate from the Association of Americans Resident Overseas is that nearly 9 million Americans are living in foreign countries—more than double the count of 4.1 million in 1999.

Americans working overseas generally fall into one of three categories:

  • The assigned worker. This is an employee sent by their home company to work in a foreign office.
  • The "wandering worker." This is an individual who cuts a deal with a U.S.-based employer to work very remotely.
  • The freelancer or independent contractor. Since these overseas American workers are singularly responsible for their own legal and cultural adjustments, employers in the U.S. should focus their attention on the first two types of workers, legal experts say.

Know the Law

Employers with workers abroad need to comply with applicable U.S. and foreign laws. Legal mandates fall into four general categories, says attorney Donald Dowling, who advises U.S.-based companies on international labor and employment laws for the international employment law group Littler. Dowling advises on those categories—employment visas, general employment laws, payroll, and duty of care—and others.

Work visa laws vary from country to country, and employers are typically responsible for sponsoring the necessary visas, Dowling says. In some cases, the process is more complicated if the company doesn't already have an office in the foreign country and is trying to expand.

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One category is the "digital nomad" visa, which some countries began promoting during the pandemic as a way for Americans to work abroad legally. This visa typically requires the nomad worker to pay money to the foreign country's government, and the visa holder must show financial viability, so as not to become a burden on the host country.

Still, some countries have passed this type of law but haven't created an infrastructure to implement it, says Patty Shapiro, a lawyer with Ogletree Deakins who advises U.S. and multinational employers about the legal risks of posting workers abroad.

Many people want to work overseas, but "unfortunately, the law is extremely archaic and has not caught up with the times. It does create a number of potential pitfalls for employers," Shapiro says.

For example, local employment laws are a big legal issue—and potentially a big headache—for employers. Every country, Dowling says, has its own employment-protection laws, and Americans working legally abroad are protected by them. The U.S., employment lawyers say, is virtually alone in having at-will employment policies; most other countries have laws against dismissing an employee without cause or severance pay.

Mandatory benefits—such as paid maternity leave, paid vacations and holidays, and caps on hours worked—also apply to Americans working in-country, Dowling says.

Meanwhile, some U.S. employment laws—including Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act—apply to Americans working overseas. (Others, including the Family and Medical Leave Act and occupational safety and health laws, do not protect Americans working in other countries.)

American employers must also comply with foreign payroll laws, Dowling says. That is different from local tax liabilities the workers themselves must shoulder, he cautions. Employers also must set up payroll systems that satisfy the employment laws of the host countries.

Finally, U.S. employers owe Americans working overseas a "duty of care," Dowling says. That obligates companies to take precautions to protect the health and safety of their workers in foreign countries.

Companies may also voluntarily provide additional benefits to international workers—such as school tuition for employees' children, language classes, and help for spouses accompanying the expat workers. But those are negotiable.

Cultural Issues

What's often more complicated than the legal terrain is the cultural divide, which can make the difference between a successful and unsuccessful stint overseas, experts say.

Used to working weekends, maybe banging out a Sunday afternoon email to get ahead of the workweek? That's not going to fly in lots of foreign cultures where days off are sacrosanct, says Craig McCollum, vice president of Meditech International Services at the U.S.-based health IT services company CereCore.

"There's definitely a [difference in] work/life balance" between the U.S. and the United Kingdom, where McCollum is based, he says. "Work/life balance is important." Vacations are respected, and many Brits are away from work for two or three weeks during August, he adds.

One of the biggest cultural barriers is communication, experts say—and it's not the language barriers as much as it is how people express what they think and feel.

First, abandon U.S.-centric expressions. Don't say a colleague "hit a home run" with a successful project or that the team will have to try a "Hail Mary pass" to save a flailing endeavor. Those comments will be met with baffled looks.

"We hear a lot of people say that Americans abroad need to learn not to speak in American," says Greta Bauer, head of International Fulfillment Solutions for Sterling, which conducts background and identity checks for global employers. Bauer, who is based in the U.K., says, "I did find I had to find a new way of speaking," including putting more pauses into conversations and being more deliberate in word choices.

 ‘We hear a lot of people say that Americans abroad need to learn not to speak in American.’
Greta Bauer

Americans also tend to be very direct, which can be seen as too abrupt or even rude in other cultures. In Malaysia, for example, people generally want more context and detail when being given a message—and the communication can be indirect, Bauer says: "It takes some getting used to."

In Britain, a no-go idea will be met with the phrase, "That would be less than ideal," she adds. "That's British for 'Absolutely not; it's unacceptable.' "

Nonverbal communication can be a big adjustment for Americans as well. In Latin America, there tends to be more touching—a hug or kiss hello that might make some Americans worry about a sexual harassment complaint.

Different cultures also have different ideas about and approaches to business interactions, and Americans working abroad should be prepared for that.

In some countries, people like to haggle about transactions, Mertens notes. That's an adjustment for many Americans who are used to considering a price or a deal to be done once it's signed.

Also, in many cultures, getting to know the other parties has to come first to create mutual trust, says Mark Hedley, vice president of talent recruiting at recruiting firm G-P. "The first meeting is about building a connection, building a relationship, not about discussing business," he explains.

Hedley adds that we tend to move quickly in the U.S., but a lot of countries are relationship-based when it comes to doing business. "Sometimes, relationships will override everything," he notes. "Even in a fast [deal], you have to build a bond."

"We sort of established that you only have three months to establish trust," adds Natalie Abegesah, SHRM-CP, vice president of human resources at the U.S.-based nonprofit development group Partners of the Americas. And that means understanding and respecting how other cultures do business, she says.

Hierarchies and leadership are also more defined in some cultures, says Steve Smith, president, international at Sterling. "There are some cultures across Asia where [employees] will look to the leader to tell them what to do," he says. "Actually, encouraging them to collaborate can be difficult."

The best approach in such cases, Smith says, is to give people space and permission to speak. But "especially in Asia, you won't find people volunteering their opinion," he says. "They wait to be asked."

In the Netherlands, the very idea of entrepreneurship is a foreign concept, says Christine Sullivan, a partner in the Amsterdam office of the immigration law firm Fragomen Global.

 ‘We sort of established that you only have three months to establish trust.’
Natalie Abegesah, SHRM-CP

Sullivan, whose husband is Dutch, found that it was difficult to start her own business when she arrived in the Netherlands 16 years ago. She couldn't open a bank account as a self-employed lawyer then, and since internet access had to be paid for through a bank account, it was hard to get online.

You could be a millionaire, Sullivan says, but if you didn't have an employer, you couldn't prove to a landlord that you could pay your rent. "Everything was based on having an employer," she says.

Business Etiquette

Different cultures also have different sets of business manners—and violating them could create problems in work relationships.

Accustomed to interjecting during an online business meeting? Don't do that in Britain, McCollum notes, where participants use the "raise hand" feature on video calls and wait their turn.

Mertens, who is originally from Brussels, cautions Americans not to address someone by their first name right away; in Belgium, Germany and France, the custom is to use honorifics. Shake hands at the beginning and end of a meeting. And don't be late—in several European countries, the Americans attending a party might show up 15 minutes after the start time, while the Europeans are likely to be in line to get in when the event is set to begin, he says.

Don't be inadvertently dismissive either, expats say. If someone gives you a business card, don't just put it in your pocket; look at it first, Mertens advises. Sullivan adds that a common complaint she hears about Americans is that they ask, "How are you?"—and then don't bother to wait to hear the answer.

Companies can make the adjustment process smoother by preparing American workers for the move overseas with information and advice about everything from navigating foreign business norms to adjusting to local living customs.

"We make sure we hold training sessions and webinars—not only for our people, but also for our clients," says Jezel Elladora, director of client experience at Cyberbacker, a U.S.-based virtual assistant services company. "They have to build rapport, or at least build relationships," to make the business dealings run better.

Ultimately, experts agree that relationships are essential to establishing trust—no matter what the culture.

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Your company offers very flexible work schedules, maybe even the option of working remotely full time. Your staff checks in regularly, joining Zoom meetings and conference calls and answering emails and Slack messages expeditiously.

You assume they're relatively close to the office.

In fact, they may actually be in Costa Rica (or Portugal or Thailand), maintaining an elaborate ruse in which they keep their U.S.-based jobs while working in another country.

As remote work exploded during the pandemic, some workers took the idea to a new level: What if they moved to some far-off foreign location and just kept working?

The internet is rife with advice on how to carry off the deception. Arrange your background for Zoom calls so it looks like you're back home instead of on the beach. Dress for the weather back in the home office. Hide your computer IP address or get a virtual private network (VPN) of your own so the company IT team can't track you. Or get a travel router so it appears you are logging on from back home.

Not a Good Idea

That might sound like a good plan. But experts say it's just a bad idea, putting both the employer and worker at risk.

"From the employee's perspective, the biggest risk is if you get caught," possibly putting your job on the line, says San Diego-based attorney Patty Shapiro, who counsels companies expanding their global workforce in her role with Ogletree Deakins' Cross-Border Group. The foreign government could also toss the employee for breaking immigration or visa laws, issue fines, and even ban the person from returning, she cautions.

Meanwhile, secretly working abroad creates "exposure for the company," Shapiro explains. If the worker is found out, local employment laws could kick in, leaving the company on the hook for everything from complying with payroll laws to paying corporate taxes owed to the foreign host.

Due to the inherent subterfuge of the arrangement, it's not known how many employees are attempting the ultra-remote scheme. The best way to avoid thorny legal problems? Talk to your employees, experts advise. If possible, offer workers the chance to work very remotely. For example, Google lets employees take four weeks a year to do so, with manager approval. Meta last year agreed to allow some staff to work from anywhere.

Employers need to make sure they're following each country's laws about American workers. Oh, and workers might want to check to see if the weather in their Zoom backgrounds is correct. –S.M.

 

 

Susan Milligan is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

Explore Further

SHRM provides information and research to help business leaders support employees working in foreign assignments.

Managing International Assignments
Overseeing international assignments is one of the hardest areas for HR professionals to master—and one of the most costly. With so much at risk, global organizations must invest in upfront and ongoing programs that will make international assignments successful.

10 Ways to Learn More About Other Cultures
Here are some suggestions on how to become better informed about other cultures. Start by asking employees from a particular culture to teach you about it. 

HR Q&A: Do US Employment Laws Apply to US Citizens Working Abroad?
A review of the four major U.S. employment laws that have some application in other countries.

International Labor and Employment Compliance Handbook
SHRM provides members exclusive access to a suite of interactive tools, including this one that allows users to compare the legal landscape in 27 countries and counting.

SHRM Resource Hub Page: Workplace Immigration
Modernizing employment-based immigration is crucial for employers to find the talented workers they need so that their organizations can thrive.

SHRM Toolkit: Introduction to the Global Human Resources Discipline
A three-year international assignment can cost millions of dollars, yet many organizations fail to get it right.

HR Q&A: Where Can I Find International Law and Culture Information?
Through SHRM's partnership with Aperian, SHRM members can access its GlobeSmart Guides, an online learning platform that promotes global collaboration and inclusion.


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