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The Expat Experience: Managing Expectations is Essential

More companies than ever are exploring “journey” of the expat and the family members who accompany them. The experience includes various so-called ‘gain-creators’ or ‘pain-relievers’ that occur in various intensities before, during and after an international posting, and which every expat deal with sooner or later. An important part of this process is to pre-manage the expectations of the expat and family members as much as possible. This article describes a number of different phases of the expat experience and provides insights on how to deal with these as an employer. What increases ‘gain’ and what relieves ‘pain’? In other words, what can you proactively solve? And where do expats in general become happy?

Before Departure

This phase begins the moment the employee and employer speak about a possible assignment abroad. As soon as this has been discussed, the potential expat already has certain expectations about the posting which usually includes salary, reimbursements and support. In this phase it is important to be clear on a number of topics:

  • A comprehensive expat policy with a clear framework of what they and family members can expect before, during and after the posting;
  • The possibility of a pre-assignment trip;
  • An extensive checklist of the actions to be taken, for example for the immigration process and the steps in the timeline;
  • A clear description of the roles and responsibilities.

It is important that the expat is impacted as little as possible, so they can continue to focus on work and the purpose of the posting. Employers can realize gain here by engaging specialists in key areas:

  • All aspects of the physical move;
  • Coordinating all aspects of suitable housing;
  • Advising about the education of the children

After Arrival: “Soft-Landing”

Crucial for increasing gains and relieving pains in this phase, is ensuring support is provided when settling in at the new location, the so-called “soft landing”. This is also an essential part of the change process and help should be considered:

  • Engage a professional party to make the expat and the family feel comfortable in the new environment;
  • Familiarize yourself with the new environment: supermarket location, doctor, gym, and so on;
  • Support for setting up basic utilities and necessities like internet, opening a bank account and registering with local authorities.

If such matters are well organized and help is provided, the expat will have a much easier time settling into the new environment. When not properly arranged or without clear instructions for the expat, uncertainty and frustration can be expected. Ultimately, this does not benefit the experience or effectiveness of the expat. It is also important to be clear on what the expat really needs to do and where help is provided.

During the Post: Culture Shock and Transformation

There will come a moment when the novelty of the new environment has worn off and the ‘ordinary’ life starts. No matter how big or small the cultural difference, there will always be moments of comparison of between the new environment and home. In many cases communication in a new language will be required and, in most cases, the expat will adapt to the new environment. This can often be tiring, intimidating and emotional. One way to manage the expectations for this as an employer is to offer language and culture training prior to departure.

After the culture shock phase comes the transformation phase, when the expat begins to adapt to the local habits and customs. This phase is often even more important for the partner. While the expat usually works and retains the structure of having a job, the partner often gives up a job and career. For most partners, the most challenging task is building a meaningful life abroad. Whether or not the partner can integrate into the new environment is an important factor for the success of an international post. It is important to ensure that the entire family feels at home in the new environment.

During the Post: Contact Moments

Keeping in touch with distant family, friends and the home organization is essential for overall wellbeing during the post and a successful return. To facilitate this, contact moments need to be supported:

  • Include a visit to the home country (home leave) in the policies. Combining this return with a visit to the home office helps maintain connection;
  • Offer support during personal situations like child birth, marriage, divorce, illness or death;
  • Processes and policies for assessments and salaries;
  • The timely follow-up on the upcoming end date of the post.

Communication during the post is a crucial part of the expat experience, so they don’t feel forgotten.

Successful Return

Many expats and families experience a reverse culture shock when they arrive home. Things within the home country and organization may have changed. In many cases they may need to search for a new home, schools for the children and a job for the partner, all of which can be stressful. A clear return policy and assistance with matters such as schools, career advice and tax assistance helps with the transition.

Important steps for a successful return of an expat include:

  • Preparing the expat for the challenges of return at least 6 months before the end of the post;
  • Keeping the expat informed of changes in the organization, structures and policies on a regular basis during the post;
  • Clarity about the role of the expat upon return.

In Practice

To prevent the “pitfalls” during the expat process and positively influence the expat experience, expectations set in advance are essential. Some best practices from the employer for a positive contribution to the expat experience are:

  • View the expat policy, the temporary letter and post targets in the context of communication and clarity regarding mutual expectations
  • Describe the roles and responsibilities of all stakeholders in the process;
  • Always conduct an interview with the expat to discuss the process and the steps to be taken

The last point is essential. If a partner joins the program, it is beneficial to involve them in this interview, because they are involved in the process and often have a lot of questions. The return is not always considered at the beginning of the post, because that is often too far away. Yet it is advisable to communicate on time about this to prevent negative emotions and even dismissal of the expat after the posting. The proactive and the timely discussion of the intended return are essential in the process. A successful return starts with a successful posting and a successful expat experience results in a win-win situation for the expat and the company.