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The best - and the worst! - about an expat assignment.

| | Read : 6 min

Expatriates usually have this fancy aura around them. There is always someone who knows someone who is living the dream as a foreign employee in Paris, Tokyo or New York.

But if you read the numerous personal blogs from expatriates worldwide, it seems that what is supposed to be the perfect experience can sometimes turn into a bittersweet story.

Depending on a number of things, moving abroad as an expat can be either amazing or deceiving. So it’s crucial to study ALL aspects of expatriation and to differentiate reality from fantasy.

If you decide to become an expat, you will need to prepare carefully your arrival and settling in but also when the time comes, your return home. In the meanwhile here are some of the main advantages and downsides of expatriation to keep in mind.What are the main benefits and issues when sending an employee abroad?

For the company, sending employees to affiliates can represent a valuable investment or a waste of time and money.

What are the main benefits of having expat employees?

Get your local affiliates to grasp a better understanding of the company:

Each company has its own core values and culture. Part of them comes from its own identity or its funders’ –take Steve Jobs and Apple for instance- , the others come from its background (in other words, where the company is originally located).

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Someone from headquarters who lives and breathes the culture of the company can better explain these on a daily basis. He/she will be there every day, sharing the same office. A face to face over a meal at the cafeteria and a chit chat over sport results or family matters are always more powerful than a videoconference and PowerPoint slides.

Proximity will create concern and trust and encourage locals to embrace more willingly the company’s rules and customs.

Smoothen management and tighten internal network: 

It’s not so easy to get directions applied or to build a team spirit when you work five thousand miles away – not even mentioning the time difference!

An intermediary sent from headquarters will facilitate transmissions of orders AND requests back and forth with main office and locals.

That person also comes with his/her own network and will help locals to identify and get in touch with the right person back at the headquarters. It is way more effective than a complex organization chart!

By living with the locals, the expatriate also gets a better understanding of the local culture (habits, holidays, religious practices, etc.) and can report them to headquarters to adjust management, strategy/objectives or timeline accordingly.

For instance, you must adapt your timeline in advance if you need to manage a tight deadline in Middle East countries during the Ramadan or in August in France when a lot of business are closed. An expat can be of great help in that task.

Teach local staffs with methods, expertise and savoir-faire.

Whether an affiliate office is already established or needs to be created from the bottom up, someone from headquarters should be able to directly train local staff with the right things to know and apply.

Local employees can then make their own the different processes of the company or what makes its savoir-faire unique and special and explain it to their customers/partners in a more specific and emotional way. 

What are the possible inconveniences of sending an employee abroad?

The cost: 

Moving abroad represents a solid amount of cash (moving, settling, tax equalization, etc.). The company is traditionally supporting this with an expat “package” negotiated as a part of an expat contract or amendment. It also includes a raise in the employee's actual salary, tickets to go home for the holiday, etc. Figures can add up pretty fast!

The complexity:

What should you consider before sending a candidate abroad ?

Depending on where you are sending expats, HR department might have to face office hours and headaches dealing with visa issues, work permit, tax equalization, etc. Some countries love their paperwork!

Selection of the right candidate:

This is not a drawback per se but many things must be taken into account to make it a success and as an HR, you might have to deal with a few mistakes before becoming good at recruiting the perfect expat.

For instance, in a famous South-Korean company, HR department have decided to only send a married person (with his/her family) abroad rather than a single person.

A single person can seem a better choice at first. No strings attached, this person might put more dedication and hours to accomplish his/her mission.

But HR staff have noticed that a single employee will more likely suffer from homesickness or cultural changes because he/she has no family members or companionship to support him/her and help him/her deal with the pressure from the new position.

So they only send abroad employees with an established family. Even though it will cost them more, it will bring less risks of an early departure so more efficiency in the long run. 

Sending an employee abroad means a certain investment and possible issues. It’s important for HR and management to figure out soon enough if it is worth it! 

What are the main benefits and drawbacks if you become an expat? 

Now let’s discuss how the expat situation can turn out from an employee’s perspective. 

What are the benefits of becoming an expat? 

A great push in your career.

Taking a position abroad usually means a promotion, bigger responsibilities, better salary, etc. And also a fair chance for you to get another promotion when you go home based on the experience and leadership skills you will gain while abroad.

The golden expat “package”:

When you are sent abroad, your company usually offers you a “package” (open to negotiating). The expat package may include all kind of supports (financial and technical) for you to move, find an apartment, a school for your kids, etc. It might include extra money to pay for rent, transportation, a number of flight tickets to go home but also bonuses, a bigger salary, compensation for tax equalization…

In certain countries such as France for instance you might benefit on top of it all from a tax exemption which can represent a nice amount of cash at the end of the year. As a resident, you might also benefit from certain services only available in the country you moved in. Healthcare in France for instance is more affordable which might result in interesting savings when it comes to get your teenage kid some braces or a new pair of glasses, etc.

A personal rewarding journey:

Were you getting a little bored in your work routine? This expat assignment might be the opportunity for you to get a fresh start. Discovering a new country might be an amazing experience.

It’s also a way to bond with your family. If you have kids, it’s a great opportunity for them to learn a new language, develop a globe-trotter state of mind. These will be strong assets later on down the road.

It will most definitely help you to build a stronger self-confidence, to gain maturity… and to develop a valuable professional network.

What can be the risks or drawbacks of becoming an expat?

Am I the right person for the job? 

It takes great confidence, autonomy and leadership to represent your company abroad. You must stay positive no matter what as any of your decisions will contribute to smoothen angles but also get things done because at the end of the day, that’s why you are being sent for.

You will have to be extra-cautious as any comment or decision you make will send a direct -or subliminal- message to the people you will work with. Facing new individuals but also a different culture, there will probably be some obstacles to overcome and it will require a lot of patience.

You should definitely think it through before taking this opportunity. What’s in it for you?

  • Are you at this point in your career where you want to face new challenges or would you rather stay in a routine and enjoy other aspects of your life?
  • Are you the first to be detached over there?
  • Have you talked to colleagues who went there before?
  • Which feedbacks did they give you? Positive, negative, mixed?

Am I ready to move abroad?

Expatriation : Are you ready to move abroad ?

You absolutely need to get to the bottom of this question, maybe by doing simple exercises such as a pros and cons list.

  • Is this the right location for me and my family?
  • Your wife hates the countryside and your new job will be in the middle of nowhere in Alaska...
  • You are a convinced atheist and your new job is in a very religion-driven country...

Small details can turn around a great opportunity into a bittersweet nightmare.

You will certainly miss friends, family, food, TV programs, the weather! If you move to Paris for instance, you might not become a baguette addict over a minute! Paris might be the city of love but it has the reputation to be tough for foreigners when building a new social circle.

It’s not because you have the best memory ever of a one week holiday that living in that same place will happen to be as extraordinary. Every city has great things to offer (culture, food, history, etc.) but also downsides. You must separate myth from reality.

Will it be OK to live some place where no one speaks my language? 

It might sound exaggerated to mention this in a globalized world but yes, living in a country where barely anyone speaks your mother tongue and where you need to work in a language which is not yours (English for instance if you come from an Asian or a Spanish country) might reveal itself to be quite a challenge for you as well as the rest of the family.

The language barrier might be a downer, particularly for the one who is not working (wife, husband).

Taking language classes before moving and while you are there as well as picking the right school for your kids might help you get through it.

Have I prepared myself enough?

Handle as many aspects as possible before your arrival. You might be able to make a few adjustments once you are there but moving is stressing enough so try to take care of the most important matters before you go.

You can request your company to hire professionals to help you, you can ask your future local colleagues for their advice. If you want to be as comfortable as possible when you arrive, select a safe neighborhood to live, find a nice school for your kids, arrange some activities for your spouse so he/she won’t feel homesick and bored, etc.

What about going home? 

Preparing for his return is just as important than preparing for the expatriation.

Being an expat usually lasts a couple of years. There will be a time to move back and go home.

This return home can be quite a shock if you don’t prepare it properly for you but for your children as well if they moved with you, depending of their age.

Everything is manageable as long as you plan it ahead and receive the proper guidance through the whole process.

When you become an expat or if you are facing this possibility, each advantage can become a drawback and vice versa.

It really depends on two major issues: to find out (before you go would be better!) whether this position is for you or not and then to prepare properly your expat journey so your family can get the best out of it and not the worst.

If you are an HR, you must step in the shoes of a future expat to get him/her the best support possible but you must always keep in mind as well the company’s best interests. And who knows, maybe become an expat yourself someday!

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