A three-step formula for a successful expat assignment


Happy families:

A three-step formula for a successful expat assignment

Guest post by Sheelagh Mahoney

With a single failed overseas assignment costing businesses up to 2 million British pounds in relocation expenses and resource, meticulous planning to ensure the milestone move is a success for the whole family has never been more critical.

Coupled with the hefty financial battering to companies’ balance sheets are the invisible costs of employees’ low self-esteem, depression, sense of failure – and even substance or alcohol abuse.

A Harvard Business Review1 has revealed that 32% of leaders rejected international positions because of their families – and 28% did so to protect their marriages.

In some organizations a global move is seen as career critical and a necessary stepping-stone to promotion. It is likewise no longer just highflying men who are jetting out to international assignments.

The perception of expat wives playing bridge surrounded by domestic help is an archaic stereotype and a rise in the number of women taking up global appointments requires a different approach to addressing the issues and concerns of a relocating family.

HR global mobility professionals and senior managers responsible for helping expatriates to prepare for relocation abroad are now supporting house husbands, same-sex partners and less traditional family units. The key to success is recognizing the unique difficulties faced by every family member who will be removed from their familiar support structure boosted by relatives and friends – and dropped into a new, and often very different, culture.

Below are three vital issues to help minimize the risk of failed assignments:

  1. Consider the concerns of the whole family

Encourage your executive to talk to his or her family and listen to their concerns. The manager may be worried about being sidelined in an office on the other side of the world.  He or she may wonder if it is the right time for the family to move and if the children are too young or too old.

A partner may have to give up their job, will worry about language and cultural barriers, not to mention practical issues such as schools and doctors. Younger children may be excited but their older siblings will understandably worry about making friends and starting a new school. A major concern for many managers and their families is what will happen when they return to their home country. Expat life can be very comfortable for everyone and the adjustment to returning home can be notoriously difficult.

  1. Involve the non-working partner and children in the process

Whatever the dynamics of the family, everyone needs to be involved and engaged in the relocation process from the outset. An international move will be more successful if the family has made the decision together and feels supported by the company before and after the relocation. Farnham Castle Intercultural Training includes tailored cultural training for families – working with parents and children both together and separately to help them cope with a different culture and the practicalities of both business and private lives. It is also useful if expats have a grasp of some basics of the local language before leaving. If possible, employers are advised to offer cultural support and advice before and after the big move.

  1. Accentuate the positive

It is easy to focus on the negative aspects of relocating abroad. We have known people who have wasted time and energy on minute cultural details that they can’t change. Instead, encourage your employees and families to look for the benefits. Working and living overseas can be exciting, educational and enriching – providing opportunities to learn a new language, gain additional qualifications or explore new professional avenues.

Companies ignore issues around expat assignments at their peril – and often at a very high cost. Can your organization afford to throw away millions on a failed international relocation?

[1] Harvard Business Review. 2014. Work Life Balance. [ONLINE] Available at: https://hbr.org/2014/03/manage-your-work-manage-your-life

[Image: Pavel L Photo and Video]

Sheelagh Mahoney is the Head of Intercultural Training at Farnham Castle Intercultural Training.

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