Tag Archives: expatriate

Intercultural Training Best Practices

Author:
Michael Tucker, Ph.D – Tucker International

[Editor’s Note:  We are very pleased to introduce Dr. Michael Tucker as a guest author.  Dr. Tucker is the Principal at Tucker International, a full-service international human resources development company.  He is the author of the Overseas Assignment Inventory (OAI), and Tucker Assessment Profile (TAP), which are validated instruments used to assess, select, and develop personnel and their spouses for international assignment.]

Your company is embarking on a new venture in a new market.  Management has asked you develop a program for assessment and intercultural training for the team that will be deployed there from all over the world.  Where to start?

The best practice to address this situation is to partner with an intercultural consulting firm that understands international business and your company.  Using a well-planned and customized approach will deliver the best results.  Here’s a real example from one of Tucker International’s clients, which illustrate the most effective approaches.

Case Study
An international HR Director at her global company’s headquarters contacted Tucker International to discuss a new company project in Africa.  We knew the client organization well in terms of its international business strategy and international assignment policy and practices.  She invited us to a meeting at headquarters to discuss the project.  During the meeting, a review of the project was conducted – its business goals and schedule, organizational structure and staffing plans (some sixty-eight expatriate positions were planned).  The start-up had just been approved, and there were very short time frames.  Tucker International staff were dispatched to South Africa, where a situation and project assessment was conducted with client representatives, local informants and current expatriates from other companies.

The next step in the process was the provision of an intercultural assessment and selection program among multiple candidates for the project along with their spouses.  About one hundred and forty candidates were assessed for the sixty-eight positions.  The most culturally adaptable candidates and spouses were chosen to go on a look-see and home finding visit.  They then completed written and telephone needs assessments with the consulting company.

Tucker International designed a five-day intercultural training program, which was delivered for everyone assigned to the project —- employees, spouses and youth.  Immediate post-program evaluations were conducted and subsequent programs were modified based on the evaluations.  The training program was very staff-intensive, and included the following resources:

  • Highly Qualified Senior Master Trainer
  • Expert on the Assignment Country
  • Business Culture Consultant
  • Belief Systems Consultant
  • Host Country Resource People
  • Returned Expatriate Spouse
  • Assessment and Development Consultant
  • Highly Qualified Youth Trainers

About one-year into their assignments in South Africa, Tucker evaluated the success of the expatriate employees and their families’ intercultural adjustment, as well as expatriate job performance.  We also looked at the success and usefulness of the intercultural training program, and areas which required additional attention.

The project was a success from many perspectives – no early returns, business objectives were met on time and high levels of intercultural adjustment and expatriate job performance were achieved.

This approach is illustrated as follows:

  • Company and Project Situation Assessment
  • Participant Needs Assessment
  • Intercultural Assessment and Selection
  • Custom Design
  • Three or More Training Program Days
  • Training Staff Intensive
  • Short and Long-Term Evaluations and Feedback

Summary
This case represents a true service approach to preparing expatriates for international assignments.  In an ideal world, every global company would utilize a comprehensive and even elegant intercultural service like the one presented in this case.  Unfortunately, corporate budgets don’t always allow International Human Resource Professionals to take their expatriate programs to this level.

The intercultural services approach illustrated here is certainly most applicable and affordable when a fairly large group is being mobilized.  However, many of the aspects of this approach can be applied even for “one-off” assignments. With a global company’s success often depending to a great extent on the successful intercultural adjustment of their expatriates, it is critical that they try and provide as many of the services from this “Best Practices” approach as possible.

More about Michael:

International HR Forum Year in Review 2009 – Best of Expatriates and International Assignments

This is the second of our three-part “Best of …” series, where we will feature links to our best posts on selected topics. This part is focused on Expatriates and International Assignments.  We will publish one more “Best of …” posting, featuring content about Leadership Development and Cross-Cultural topics, before the new year.  If you missed the first post about Compensation and Benefits, you can take a look at it here.

The posts below are some of the most popular ones featured on the International HR Forum.

We hope you find these summary posts to be a helpful way to explore some of the best content on our blog.

Best of Expatriates and International Assignments from the 2009 Archives of the International HR Forum:

Five Secrets to Reduce Benefits Cost, Part 2

Author:
George Bashaw – Atlas Global Benefits

I developed five secrets to lowering your benefits cost without changing your plan design or carrier. Out of the five, I am confident at least one will help you. I posted the first one last week.  Here is number two:

Secret Two:  Duplication of Coverage
Every year, I find a new plan that has duplication of coverage, where a company is  paying for a benefit more than once.  This is most common in very large companies, and ones that that have experienced multiple mergers.

Case Study: Duplication of Coverage
Last year I discovered that a new client had three  Employee Assistance Plans (EAPs).  Of the three, they only knew about two of them, and communicated only one to the employees.  One EAP plan was a rider attached to a long term disability contract.  Another was a rider attached to the international expatriate medical coverage.  The third was a standalone EAP plan.

We decided to scrap the standalone plan and keep the two riders.  We felt the rider on the expat plan served the international employees needs far better than the other two plans.  Further, we decided to keep the rider on the LTD plan.  Even thought it was a rider, it was a good plan and it was less expensive than the standalone plan.

Financial Impact
Cleaning up the duplication of benefits in the scenario above took about two hours to analyze and saved my client about $50,000.  Even though the savings was insignificant in comparison their total benefits cost, we would not have reached our goal ($500,000 of total savings) without eliminating the duplication of coverage.

Scour Your Plan Designs
Have someone take the time to look at all your plans and see if you can find a duplication of coverage.  Who knows, you may be paying for something two or three times.

I would love to here where you have found duplication of coverage.

More about George:

Ten Tax Tips for Twelve-Thirtyone: Year-End HR and Payroll Actions for Global Mobility

Author:
Claudia Howe – Global Mobility Tax, LLP

Wow!  Where did the year go?  Now that it’s almost over, HR and payroll professionals are working hard to finish out the year.  In the world of expatriate compensation and taxation, here is a reminder list of 10 things to do before December 31 (for our international readers, I realize this will be a bit US-centric, but hopefully useful nevertheless):

Tip #1: Pay all taxes due for jurisdictions that do not have a 12/31 year-end
Some countries have different year-ends, for example:  Australia = June 30,  Hong Kong = March 31,  New Zealand = March 31,  UK = April 5,  South Africa = February 28.

If taxes are not paid throughout the year or by 12/31 (especially in the first year of assignment), the employee or the company (for tax equalized assignees) may lose out on claiming important foreign tax credits on the US tax return and could have a nasty surprise at April 15.  This is due to the fact that the US only allows tax credits on the US return against taxes paid or accrued during the tax year.

For example:  Suppose you have an expat from the US in the UK since June 2009 and have not quite been able to get regular monthly UK tax payments set up.  If  UK taxes have not been remitted to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (aka UK tax authorities) before 12/31, they cannot be claimed as a credit on the US return, causing temporary (and potentially permanent) double taxation!

Tip #2:  Pay all US taxes due through payroll
Perhaps you are aware of a very large January bonus that was not withheld at the top marginal rate and on which a US tax payment  should be made to avoid the underpayment penalty.   What are the options to make the payment?

  • Option 1:  send a check in the mail to the IRS with an estimated tax payment voucher (1040-ES – Q4, due January 15).
  • Option 2:  make the payment through payroll before 12/31.

Best choice?  Option 2.  When making payment through withholding, the IRS will treat it as evenly paid throughout the year and this will minimize/eliminate estimated tax penalties that could otherwise apply.

Tip #3: Update your tax accruals
Year-end budgeting is in progress.  If there are liabilities out there – be it US or foreign tax liabilities that will come due, it is important to accrue for them so that the financials are correct and also to avoid surprises later on.

Tip #4: Review relocation Gross-ups
For folks that were relocated during the tax year but are not tax equalized, a relocation gross-up should be processed if the company promised to pick up the taxes on the taxable items such as temporary lodging, temporary transportation, etc.  Many major relocation companies will do this for you, or will at least give you the amounts to be grossed-up.  Tax professionals can also be useful here especially if you are relocating an executive with the expectation of no tax detriment:  your 25% supplemental rate would likely not cover that tax bill and you could end up with a disgruntled exec at tax time in April.

If you process gross-ups at year-end, don’t forget to send a courtesy email to the employee informing him/her why the last paystub or the W-2 looks so much higher all of the sudden.  And be sure to process the payments of withholding through payroll (see Tip #2, Option 2 above!).

Tip #5: Review expatriate compensation details for W-2 inclusion
The tricky part of expatriate compensation is that it is usually not delivered all from one location;  many items such as housing, children’s education, local tax payments, etc.  are paid from the host location and are not channeled back to US payroll for inclusion in the W-2 (which, of course is required by law:  all compensation no matter where or how paid must be reported to the IRS on the W-2).

It is especially at year-end that I am reminded that our colleagues in payroll are indeed the unsung heroes of corporate America:  they are expected to deliver correct payroll on-time with 100% accuracy all the time – talk about stress! And no-one stops by to say:  “Thanks, Andrea, for getting my W-2 right – I know it must have been a challenge”!

Tip #6: Review withholding on US bonus, commission and equity compensation payouts
For US expatriates on assignment in a foreign location, remaining on US payroll, usually federal (and sometimes state) withholding will be turned off.  In lieu of the actual withholding, a hypothetical tax withholding for tax equalized folks is implemented or a fixed withholding amount for the foreign jurisdiction is taken out of the pay.  Since oftentimes these are fixed dollar amounts per paycheck, the withholding on bonuses or commissions are easily overlooked. Better late than never – now is a good time to review and ascertain that the correct amount of withholding has been taken out of these type of payments to ensure that the employee does not owe the company or the governments any underwitheld amounts.

If actual federal/state taxes are withheld from executive or high-income taxpayer’s bonus and commission payments, and if the person is tax equalized, you will want to ensure that taxes were withheld at the highest marginal rates, not the 25% supplemental rate.

Tip #7: Finalize your Authorization List
Make sure to finalize the list of employees that are eligible for tax services and let your tax service provider know before 12/31.  Delays beyond that date could delay the kick-off for the tax season.  Then your employees could be left wondering if their taxes will be taken care of – or not?

Tip #8: Sign your Engagement Letters

Your tax firm may not be able to provide services until they get that signed engagement letter back from the company.  So better check with the person who signs the letter to make sure it get out and not hung up in legal or procurement.  Again, delays could cause problems for your employees.

Tip #9: Solicit the completed 2009 travel calendars from all assignees
This can be coordinated with the tax firm you are using; the travel calendar is one of the most important items in the tax preparation process.  Most will supply you with an automated calendar at the beginning of the year to make this process easy, but of course, your assignees have to use the tool!  Tax firms spend almost half of the tax preparation time on reporting compensation in the correct format and sourced to the correct jurisdiction.  The travel calendar is a key item needed for this exercise as well as to determine tax residency status, qualification for tax exclucsions, etc.  The earlier the tax professionals can get their hands on it, the better!

Tip #10: Don’t forget to enjoy the holidays!
We all tend to get very stressed at year-end – it is a hectic time, after all!  But sometimes we do have to remind ourselves that we need to take a deep breath, sit back, and relax…and enjoy the Season!

Happy Holidays!

More about Claudia:

Five Secrets to Reduce Benefit Cost, Part 1

Author:
George Bashaw – Atlas Global Benefits

There are only a few ways to negotiate with an insurance carrier on fully insured plans.  For most carriers, claims history is the most important factor in determining pricing.  Therefore, you better know your claims if you wish to negotiate with its leverage.   Over the next few months, I am going to share five simple ideas to help you save money on your benefits.  Out of the five, I hope you find at least one of them useful.

Here’s the first one:  Know Your Claims!

Fully Insured and Self Insured
Insurance plans are fully insured or self insured. Most large companies have both. Typically, large multinational companies have self insured medical plans and fully insured non-medical plans.  Medium and smaller companies tend to have a majority of fully insured plans.  Therefore, it is likely that your company has at least a few fully insured plans.  Only fully insured plans will be discussed in this blog.

What’s Inside a Premium?
Premium can be broken down in two parts, claims and retention.  When an insurance company prices a new premium, they estimate future claims by looking at your claims history.  Estimated Claims + Retention = Premium.  Retention is approximately 20%-25% of the premium cost and consists of the following:  premium tax, overhead/administration, margin/profit, and commission/fees.

A Happy Insurance Carrier
Insurance carriers want claims to be around 75%-80% of premium.  If claims are over 80%, the carrier starts to lose money; if they are below 75%, they start raking in the profits. 

Claims Analysis:

Do a thorough analysis of your claims.  If your claims history is running less than 75%-80%, demand a decrease in premium.  If you do not get it, there is some reason why the carrier does not want to insure your risk.  For example, a carrier may not want to cover offshore drillers, so they jack up the price to reduce that demographic in their pool.

If you claims are over 80% you are getting a good deal. However, there are some carriers that may want your group and will offer you a better deal, even if you are running over 90% claims.

Please tell me your thoughts and share your experiences.  Know your claims!

More about George:

Expat Selection: It’s Not Just Skills

Author:
Bruce Alan Johnson and R. William Ayres – Bruce Alan Johnson Associates (Pty) Ltd

Bruce Alan Johnson

Bruce Alan Johnson

Bill Ayres

[Editor’s Note:  We are happy to welcome Bruce Alan Johnson and Bill Ayres as Guest Authors.  Bruce and Bill have extensive experience working with companies to help understand how business is conducted in different cultures.  They are the co-authors of the book Carry a Chicken in Your Lap: Or Whatever It Takes to Globalize Your Business]

A large American corporation sent a senior executive to reside in an African country known for its wide religious tolerance, as the general manager of the company’s regional operations.  Managerially speaking, the man was qualified. But he brought with him a zealous sense of religious superiority that manifested itself as rigid intolerance.

In his first week on the job, he screamed at Muslims who were in a corner observing one of the five prayer times of the day, and then at Sikhs whose heads were traditionally wrapped.  By the next week, more than a hundred employees had walked off the job.  Some of them brought in government authorities to the site.  In the meeting that followed, the executive said that he would accept crosses as jewelry and pins, but no other expression of religious identity!  Even though the officials tried to explain the supreme importance of religious diversity in their country, the response was an arrogant assertion of “rights” that the executive claimed he had.

Of course he had no such rights, and a week later the government informed the American corporate headquarters that this executive would have to be removed at once, or all government contracts with that company would be canceled and official hearings would be held for the aggrieved workers.  He was recalled, another casualty of the mistakes companies make in sending the wrong people overseas.

Cultural Fit is Important in Expat Selection
Every time we talk to an audience about sending people overseas, we start with one fundamental point: not everybody can do this. Not everybody will be successful in Copenhagen just because he or she did well in Cleveland or Calgary. Furthermore, no magic, single thing guarantees success. The world is a complex place. It would be surprising if we didn’t need complex abilities to deal with it.

But what if you’re coming the other direction—sending people to the United States?  Over the years it has become quite plain that the most costly mistake made by companies sending people to the US has been the blind belief that there are dollar signs instead of “S’s” in the name United $tate$.  The second error lies in believing that a country as stunningly diverse as America is in fact an homogenous market.  America is not just 50 states—it spans 11 time zones, from the westernmost tip of Alaska to eastern tip of Maine.  And its people are so diverse in culture and outlook that domestic companies usually take great care to make sure that the right Americans are matched to the appropriate areas of the country for sales and marketing.  A person who sells successfully in Mississippi will almost certainly be rejected by the more harried residents of New York.

Recently a Middle Eastern company of considerable wealth sent a two-member team to New York City to head their American office.  Not only had neither member of the team ever been to America—both made vehement anti-Semitic remarks almost every day.  Needles to say, they were strongly resented by most New Yorkers, and failed completely.  They were recalled at considerable expense, the company’s reputation in the States tattered.

HR Should Take the Lead!
When it comes to finding the right people—and avoiding the wrong ones—human resources needs to play a critical role.  The reason is simple. Understanding the keys to choosing the people most qualified for overseas assignments is something that most line managers aren’t well equipped to do. Managers’ primary purpose is to get the job done.  Often, this does involve deciding who’s going to do what.  But in the international arena, those decisions are not based on how well you know the technical field or the business goals. They’re based on what you know about your people.

This is where HR can and should play a key role. Arnold Kanarick, who headed HR at The Limited and Bear Stearns, pointed out, “HR isn’t about being a do-gooder. It’s about how do you get the best and brightest people and raise the value of the firm.” Good HR offices are staffed with trained professionals who know how to evaluate aspects of a company’s people to assist tremendously in choosing the right people to send overseas.

To do that requires recognizing a fundamental reality: the world is a very complex place that does not lend itself to packaged solutions.  The primary challenge is finding people who can deal with differences—but what kinds of differences vary widely, depending on where your organization wants to go and what it wants to do.  There are no simple tests or easy systems for scanning personnel files.

So what should you be looking for?  Here’s a profile of what a potentially successful overseas assignee should look like.  Key characteristics include:

  • Matching demographic characteristics (gender, race, religion) to the place they’re being sent.  Different cultures react differently to different sorts of people.
  • Open-mindedness toward difference.  Can the people you’re sending work well with others who are different?
  • Language facility.  People who have no facility whatsoever for learning foreign languages—or, worse still, who actively resist even a modest attempt—should not be sent overseas.
  • Language assumptions.  Anyone who thinks the world speaks English (or their native language), or that the world ought to speak English, should stay at home.
  • Acceptance of the world as you find it.  Anyone infected with the desire to change other parts of the world to be more like their home will definitely do a poor job of representing your business.
  • Tolerance of different ways of doing business.  Just because you didn’t think of it doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
  • Time-change tolerance.  The more difficult it is for people to adjust to jet lag, the effects of travel, and time-zone differences, the less they probably ought to do it.
  • Cultural-time Flexibility.  People who understand that different cultures think differently about time, and who can adapt themselves to those cultural differences, will do much better overseas than those who don’t.

So how do you find employees who fit this profile?  There are two keys here: know what you’re sending them into, and know your people.  Choosing people to send overseas can’t be done with a one-size-fits-all checklist.  But a good HR department that does know the firm’s employees, and that does its homework, can make a tremendous contribution in helping companies get the right people in the right places overseas.

More About the Authors

Bruce Alan Johnson Associates

Carry a Chicken in Your Lap: Or Whatever It Takes to Globalize Your Business

Bruce on LinkedIn

Bill on LinkedIn

Expatriate Challenges in Developing Countries

heaps_warren1Author:
Warren Heaps – Birches Group LLC

Today I had the pleasure to deliver a presentation to the Thames Valley Chapter of the Forum for Expatriate Management.  If you are not familiar with this organization, I urge you to visit their website – there is a wealth of great resources to be found regarding all aspects of international assignment management.

My presentation focused on the unique challenges of expatriate assignments in developing countries.  There is information about:

  • the challenges of designing expatriate compensation packages;
  • the emerging trends in the sources of talent for these assignments;
  • some comparative information on hardship pay (a key element of packages to some developing countries); and
  • a couple of ideas about alternative approaches to consider.

If you would like to look at the presentation in its entirety, please send me an email using the Contact Us page.

If you have some thoughts or questions about this topic, use the comments feature to share them!

More About Warren

Warren Heaps

Warren on LinkedIn

Developing Markets Compensation and Benefits Group in LinkedIn

Email Warren

Birches Group

Expats Moving Overseas – Ten Tips to Transition to a New Culture – Part 2

Heather MarkelAuthor:
Heather Markel – Culture Transition Coaching

Editor’s Note: We are especially pleased to welcome a new Guest Author, Heather Markel, who has shared with us her ten tips for a successful expatriate cultural transition.

A few weeks ago, I shared five tips for helping expats transition to a new culture. This post is a continuation of the previous one, rounding out the ten areas to focus on when transitioning to a new culture for an expatriate assignment.

#6 – Starting All Over
One of the toughest transitions for an expat is adjusting to a new office environment from “square one”. The expat may have held a senior level job in their previous location, and the new job can feel like a demotion. For the accompanying spouse, starting all over can be literal – if they’ve left behind a job or fruitful career, they may have to start a new career, or, in some cases, due to legal restrictions, not be allowed to work at all.

In both cases, it’s imperative that some attention be given to setting expectations. For the expat, this is about an initial period where they observe the office environment, rather than try to exert their own style or behavior on everyone else.  For the spouse, expectations should be set around what types of work are permitted. There should also be some support to help spouses with the job or career-search, or on finding something to replace the job they previously held.

#7 – Access to Activities
Transitioning to a new culture isn’t just about the office. Whether single, or with a family, expats need to find fulfilling activities to help them adjust to a new culture. If the expat has moved with their family, then group activities will be important to the success of their overall experience.

Of course, available transportation may impact which activities are accessible, so providing assistance with ideas, or resources, is ideal.

#8 – Changes in the Family
For expats who have traveled with a spouse, it is more than likely the spouse has given up a job or career to follow along. If the non-working spouse isn’t happy, it can have a very negative impact on the overall experience. If the non-working spouse used to be a provider, and is now tasked with looking after the home, or the children, the role change will inevitably impact the family as well. It’s important to have an awareness of the changes, set expectations, and have a set of tools with which to navigate the resentments and challenges that are likely to develop.

#9 – Clothes:  What Not to Wear
In many cases, this may be more impactful on women, than on men, but it’s important that a migrating employee understand if there are any cultural dress patterns. First, it’s less likely they will feel like they “stick out like a sore thumb” if they adapt to some of the typical dress codes. Second, there may be instances where the lack of this knowledge could land them in trouble – for example, in cities where women are expected to cover themselves from head-to-toe.

On a more subtle level, Americans tend toward either matching suits, or more casual garments in the office. When going out in the evening, it may be inappropriate to wear jeans. In France, women in the workplace sometimes wear what I’ll call “mismatched suits” – they look impeccably-dressed, even though their skirt does not have a matching jacket. Oddly, it’s not quite business casual; it’s simply a style difference. Going out in the evening, jeans are often acceptable if paired with a nice top.

Another thing I often find humorous is that in France, people always stare at shoes. So, while you might get away with wearing an old, worn-out pair of shoes or sneakers in some countries, you’ll become quickly insecure if you try the same in Paris.

Again, these are very subtle examples, but these small gaps can make all the difference when someone is trying to feel like they fit in to a new culture.

#10 – Eye Contact and Tone of Voice
Two behavioral areas between cultures that deserve attention are eye contact, and tone of voice.

One huge area where eye contact comes into play is on public transportation. For example, in Paris, it seems mandatory to stare at fellow passengers and it can be very uncomfortable the first few times you look up to find someone staring at you, meet their gaze, and find they do not look away. In Tokyo, it’s exactly the opposite experience. Passengers typically avoid all eye contact by pretending to sleep – it’s another jarring experience to see an entire car full of people with their eyes closed.

Finally, the tone of voice with which you speak can often reveal that you are a foreigner. As an American, I know we tend to speak fairly loudly in social situations, especially when dining or drinking. However, other countries lean towards quieter conversations. So keep this in mind and adapt your conversations accordingly.

In Summary
I hope you find these tips, and the ones from my previous article, to be helpful in understanding the challenges that expatriates and their families often face upon arrival in a new country. If you are an HR professional responsible for assisting expatriates with their transitions, be sure to keep these tips in mind.

I am always interested in hearing more tips or experiences. Please share yours as a comment to this post, or contact me directly by email.

More about Heather

10 Rules of the Road for Your Expatriate Program – Part II

bio_400x400 Author:
Chuck Csizmar – CMC Compensation Group

Last week I posted the first five of ten “Rules of the Road” for managing your expatriate program.  I hope you enjoyed reading them.  In this post, I’ve included the five remaining rules.  Enjoy!

Rule #6: Always have a Backup Candidate
It is very important to avoid a scenario where management believes that only one person is capable of handling the assignment.  If all your plans are dependent upon one candidate, and your choice discovers this (they usually do), the assignment from that point will likely become more contentious, problematic, internally disruptive and ultimately more expensive.  You will have lost leverage when trying to apply Company policies, demands for exceptional treatment will increase, costs will rise as a result and the likelihood of equity issues with other employees will increase.

Having a second choice will enable you to more easily finalize an equitable package of terms and conditions, test the candidates’ genuine interest in the overseas assignment and lower inflated egos down to earth.

Rule #7: Do Not Play “Let’s Make a Deal”
Everyone tends to lose on this slippery slope.  The expatriate community is a small group that will eventually learn of any special deals someone received that others did not.  While the expatriate policy document should provide a “safety valve” for approved discretionary exceptions covering extraordinary circumstances, be mindful of creating precedents where the sole reason is to placate an employee (or their spouse).  This problem can be a major dissatisfier for the rest of your community.  Explore cost sharing and trade-offs with the expatriate to mitigate the perception of inequitable treatment.

Certain employees, especially those with a sales background or like temperament, may view many aspects of the assignment terms and conditions as negotiable, simply because it is in their nature to question or challenge what they consider is the Company’s “initial offer”.

A word of caution:  if the employee considers the international assignment less as a wonderful career opportunity and more as a “favor” to the Company, the warning signs should be posted that this might not be a good match.

Rule #8: Have a “Hand-Holder” in Place
Another key to a successful assignment is to provide a ‘go-to” person in the host country for the myriad questions that will crop up as soon as the assignee arrives.  Set up a local contact point for host country issues, expatriate experiences and administrative fulfillment of the assignment terms.  Insist that the assignee utilize this person, not their manager, co-workers or even well-intentioned HR people unfamiliar with the expatriate program.  This go-to person should have the authority to make decisions, to “handle” whatever the question might be.

While this sounds like an easy step do not assume that anyone would automatically take this task to heart.  Left to their own devices, host country employees often find it difficult to invest the time to help assignees understand local business conditions and culture.  Thus you need to make it someone’s responsibility.

Likewise there should be a contact person in the home country as well, a designated individual prepared to handle policy interpretations, provide advice on navigating procedures and assuming responsibility for the home administration of the assignment terms.

Rule #9: Do Not Forget That They’re out There
A successful assignment requires constant attention from both the home and host country contacts.  Communication should be frequent, as should the “check-up” calls to gauge the assignee’s temperament.  For example, does the assignee understand the COLA calculations, have any payroll or currency exchange issues arisen, is the family acclimating well, are there issues the assignee would like to discuss?  A key source of dissatisfaction for assignees and their families is a feeling of being “out in the provinces” and therefore out of touch with what is happening back at the office they have left.  Make every effort to ensure that they do not feel marginalized, taken for granted or forgotten.

Make sure the assignee has a Mentor (as compared to a hand holder) back in the home country as well, a Senior Management-level individual charged with representing the assignee’s career interests during the assignment.  This person should schedule periodic career discussions with the assignee.

Rule #10: Have an Exit Strategy
All too frequently companies are at a loss as to what to do with expatriates who have successfully completed their assignments.  It is not uncommon for assignees to leave the Company upon their return from overseas or within the following year, because either no suitable position was available in the home country or what was available was a diminished or less visible role.

After incurring the huge expense for an employee to develop deeper and broader competencies on the international stage, it is a wise business practice to pay close attention as to how best to utilize that increasingly marketable (and therefore valuable) talent when the assignment ends.  Without due care and planning the career cycle of an assignee is left as an afterthought, one that usually crops up late in the assignment;  meanwhile the assignee has been worried (and thus distracted) for a much longer period of time.

While there are no guarantees that future positions will be available back home for employees presently working overseas, the international assignment letter should at least state that the Company will attempt to secure a “mutually agreeable position of similar stature” upon completion of the assignment.  It is in the best interest of the Company and the assignee to carefully plan for a successful repatriation.

Follow though
Well, that’s my list of ten rules.  The road ahead has curves, dips and more than its share of bumps and potholes.  However, if you manage to keep these sign posts in mind (commit them to memory, post them on the wall, send and resend them to managers), the experience does not have to be an endurance course for all concerned.

You will need to keep at it though (persistence is its own reward), because there is no pill or “Easy Button” that will magically ease the journey.  There is no cure for the realities that expatriate assignments will always be costly, procedurally complex and a personal as well as professional risk for those involved.  But by adhering to your own “rules of the road” your expatriate program can reap significant benefits: lower assignment costs, business objectives achieved, satisfied employees and host management, retained and developed talent and ultimately greater overall business success.  It can be done.

More rules?
Do you have rule that I did not include in my top ten?  Please, leave a comment and share your insights with the community.

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Expats Moving Overseas – Ten Tips to Transition to a New Culture – Part 1

Heather MarkelAuthor:
Heather Markel, Culture Transition Coaching

Editor’s Note:   We are especially pleased to welcome a new Guest Author, Heather Markel, who has shared with us her ten tips for a successful  expatriate cultural transition.


The complexities of moving to a new culture are immense.  Typically, expatriate training programs include a cross-cultural component.  However, I believe there are some areas which may be overlooked as the expatriate and possible family members prepare to move overseas.

With that in mind, I’d like to offer ten areas to focus on when transitioning to a new culture.  This list is by no means exhaustive.  Rather, it’s intended to help with the design of transition assistance programs.  The first five areas are listed below, and the remaining five will be out in my next post, so keep a lookout for it!

1. Language – Conversation Topics
It goes without saying that when moving to a different country, it’s necessary for both the expatriate, and their family, to learn the local language. Routine activities would otherwise become overwhelming. (Note: Even when moving to another country that speaks the same language as at home, it can still feel like learning a new language.)

Beyond the basic language skills, though, there should be training on conversation topics that might be considered taboo, or that are a normal part of the culture.   Not knowing these topics could lead to the expatriate and their family feeling left out.   For example, history may be a topic to tread lightly on in Australia, whereas a fascinating topic for someone in Europe. Other topics to examine are politics, art, and food, as some examples.

2. Food – What You’ll Find and What You’ll Eat
It’s essential to understand two aspects of food – what you will find, and what you will not. Most of us have our “comfort foods”.   Thinking of several different cultures, comfort foods could be dishes such as Thanksgiving turkey, fish-and-chips, spaghetti Bolognese, tacos, Vegemite, or kimchi.  If you’re moving someplace where your favorite foods aren’t available, outside of an expensive import, the inability to find them during a challenging period could be disappointing for an expatriate.   Especially if they are spending a traditional holiday away from friends and family, being able to find typical holiday foods can make the difference between a bout of depression and creating a new tradition.

Conversely, there will be new foods to try.   In many countries you’ll find that intestines, brains, and kidneys are staple foods.   It’s also possible that an expatriate will be invited to someone’s home and suddenly be in the delicate position of eating strange foods to avoid insulting their host.  Therefore, it’s critical to prepare for expatriates to both sample new foods, and to help them figure out where they can find comfort foods, if available.

3. Meeting New Friends, and Coping With Missing the Old Ones
One of the toughest parts of any expatriate assignment is making new friends, and starting a new social network.   While doing so, it’s easy to become disappointed at how different everyone is, and to miss the closeness of former friends.   This can lead to what I call “the social media trap”, where every free moment is spent using Facebook, Skype, etc. to stay in close contact with everyone back home.   However, this strategy will make it impossible for the expatriate to succeed at making new local friends.

If expats aren’t prepared for this difficult task, they can easily isolate themselves, and then become lonely and disillusioned with their overseas experience.

4. Getting Familiar with a New City
There are several components that go into familiarity with a new city.

  • Location – Where is the town center? Where is the office in relation to home?
  • Transportation – Is there a subway and bus system, are their taxis? If not, what alternatives exist?
  • Safety – What areas of the city might be dangerous at night, or even during the daytime?
  • Essentials – Being able to locate the nearest supermarket, laundry, and shoe-repair shops. Also, medical doctor and dentist referrals can be very helpful as someone gets to know a new city.

5. Formality at the Office
One of the most difficult subtleties between languages and cultures is the nature of addressing peers and managers.   Depending where in the world an expatriate will be working, challenges could range from knowing when to use first versus last names, to understanding when to use formal versus informal verb conjugation.  In some countries this could be about handshakes versus bowing or other customs.  These challenges are often further complicated when addressing a female superior, where the challenge becomes figuring out whether to use the equivalent of “Ms” or “Mrs”.

It’s essential that these subtle behaviors and forms of address be understood for an expat to be accepted at the workplace. If they do not, they may become embarrassed in front of fellow employees and potential clients.

Summary
This list is just a start.  In my next post, I will share five more tips with you.   In the meantime, let me know what you think by leaving a comment!

More about Heather