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Myths of Expatriate Life

by Barbara Fitzgerald-Turner

When my husband announced that his employer, a mid-sized computer software firm, wanted to send him to Paris as acting country manager for a year, pleasant memories returned of a vacation spent in Parisian cafes and art museums. But those romantic visions quickly disappeared as my practical side began contemplating the realities of moving our 4-year-old son, my consulting practice, and university teaching work to another country.

During my human resource career, I had created and implemented expatriate programs to help employees and their families face the challenges of foreign assignments. I therefore thought I was well-prepared for what lay ahead. But I soon discovered the difference between theory and reality. In particular, I learned that expatriates, their "trailing partners" (a term I came to detest), and their children are victims of six common myths held by employers.

Myth 1: They're in Western Europe, not a Third World country. How difficult can it be?

Many U.S. expatriates I met overseas were frustrated because their employers downplayed the challenges they faced in adjusting to life and work abroad. These expatriates were tired of hearing comments from homebound colleagues such as "Yes, it must be tough not to be able to find an English-speaking doctor. But, hey, you are in Paris, you must shop all the time!" To someone living in a city where the exchange rate and value-added tax make everyday items 60 percent more expensive (a McDonald's Happy Meal was $6!) this type of comment can be demoralizing.

Many colleagues do not realize that the inefficiency and lack of customer service that seems quaint during a vacation becomes increasingly frustrating when encountered daily. ð Imagine not being able to get utilities turned on in your new home because you have not learned "the system" or moving into an apartment with bare light bulbs and no kitchen sink and discovering that these items cost three times more than in the States. Incidentally, the French believe that it is presumptuous to make interior design decisions about light fixtures or kitchen appliances for tenants.

Another common frustration is the practice by some employers of paying expatriates only in U.S. dollars. Dealing with very different banking rules and fluctuating exchange rates is incredibly time-consuming and stressful for expatriates, who need local currency to buy groceries.

Myth 2: We are giving them allowances and premiums that should solve most of their problems.

Companies are wasting an amazing amount of money on well-intentioned efforts to aid expatriates. Unfortunately, various financial incentives and protections are often given indiscriminately without considering the individual circumstances of employees and their families.

In one case, an expatriate's employer provided him with a lavish apartment near the Eiffel Tower. The employee would have preferred simpler accommodations and intensive language lessons for his spouse. Another firm sent an employee and his wife on a pre-assignment visit via first class airfare and accommodations at the Ritz Hotel. Needless to say, this created certain expectations. The expatriate, who was being paid in U.S. dollars, was shocked when the company later refused to revisit the exchange rate differential after the dollar plummeted in value and they were barely able to pay rent.

I heard countless couples say they would have traded part of the ongoing premiums for more home visits or access to a car. As an experienced expatriate in Germany told me, "Companies seem to feel that once they have transported families and their goods to the foreign country, their responsibility has ended. They leave them stranded."

Myth 3: We are sending our best and brightest. They can handle anything.

That assumption is especially common among smaller companies that send people to perform a "knowledge transfer" with newly created foreign offices. Employees chosen for international assignments usually have a high level of technical expertise, foreign travel experience and, occasionally, some language skills. Because of their many abilities, employers have unstated expectations that these individuals can handle any situation that arises with minimal effort. Unfortunately, employees are aware of this expectation and are hesitant to discuss their true feelings with the home office because they fear being perceived as struggling.

Experience traveling abroad is certainly useful, but travel does not equip individuals for the challenge of conducting every personal and business interaction under a new set of rules. These rules affect everything from hiring new employees (handwritten cover letters are standard in France where handwriting analysis is often used as a screening tool) to buying produce in a market (shoppers never touch fruit or vegetables).

For example, according to the Windham International and National Foreign Trade Council study Global Relocation Trends 1995 Survey, nearly 40 percent of the responding employers offered no cross-cultural preparation to expatriates. In my experience, this percentage approaches 90 percent with small- and mid-sized companies.

Myth 4: We are a global company, so we give our expatriates appropriate support from the home office.

In many companies operating overseas, senior management is sensitive to the global environment, but employees at other levels are untrained and unaware of the support expatriates need. A number of expatriates of small- to mid-sized companies complain that it took weeks to process expense reimbursements through the U.S. headquarters because the accounting staff was intimidated by exchange rate conversions.

One company refused an expatriate's request that his paychecks be deposited directly in his U.S. account. He continued to receive checks in U.S. dollars, which he had to send back to the United States for deposit. "Here I am, totally disrupting my life for the company, and they can't help me with this" was his sentiment.

Expatriates often complain about conference calls from the United States that are scheduled late at night or on local holidays when the office is closed. Fearing they will appear to have abandoned their American work ethic, expatriates often hesitate to mention local holidays. One Californian's family was frequently awakened by calls from her home office. no one could seem to remember the nine-hour time difference.

The failure to promote global sensitivity throughout the organization is documented in the Windham International/NFTC Survey, which indicates that of the 43 percent of participants that provided global training, 25 percent provided it only to potential expatriates.

Myth 5: Language skills are critical for the employee, but optional for the family.

Many small- and mid-sized companies provide language training only for the employee. if they provide such training at all. The result: Families that do not learn at least minimal language skills often are afraid to leave their homes.

I knew several spouses who rarely left their apartments except to shop at stores with English-speaking clerks. Others ventured out only on weekends when their more fluent spouses could accompany them.

This can damage a partner's self-esteem. As one spouse who holds a doctorate in economics said, "I have to remind myself I am not stupid, although my limited French reduces me to the level of a 3-year-old in communicating."

The language barrier becomes more critical in emergencies. Even with sufficient language skills to communicate at the grocery store, people may not have the vocabulary to deal with medical situations.

Myth 6: The trailing partner who left behind an established career will adjust. It just takes time, and we providing an allowance.

The trailing partner who left behind an established career will adjust. It just takes time, and we are giving them an allowance.

Partners of expatriates are very cynical regarding what they call the lip service paid to their predicament. They indicate there is little or no recognition or appreciation for their situation. And when employers do offer assistance, trailing spouses often discover that the assistance promised is of little value. When FOCUS, a resource center for expatriates, surveyed its London members, only 11 percent of trailing partners received any career support. With high unemployment rates and restrictive policies in many foreign countries, it is almost impossible for a spouse to obtain employment unless it is with the expatriate's company. which is usually not possible because of lack of need or anti-nepotism policies.

Instead of feeling excited about a new experience, many trailing spouses feel isolated and lonely, leading them to focus on the negatives instead of the positives of their new world. Despite the assumption that allowances will solve the unemployment issue, according to a recent survey completed by Right Associates, 42 percent of dual-income families reported a decrease in their living standard after relocating.

Beyond the Myths: Ways to Help

Though many larger companies are attempting to stabilize or reduce their number of overseas assignments, the expatriate workforce is growing because of the steady increase in small- and medium-sized companies entering the international marketplace.

Considering the fact that failure rates for overseas assignments average 45 percent, employers should understand how to best support expatriates. Following are specific ways HR professionals can strengthen expatriate programs and policies:

Hire a relocation service in the host country. A relocation service can make the difference between productive employees able to focus on challenges at work, and distracted and frustrated individuals who feel the company has deserted them.

One expatriate's employer refused to hire a relocation service, instead asking its local corporate attorney to negotiate the real estate lease and obtain the residency permits. Because the attorney had to educate himself in these areas, the company spent three times what it would have spent for a relocation service offering more competent and comprehensive assistance. Services provided can include obtaining immigration and work permits, car and home insurance, and drivers' licenses; locating housing; negotiating leases; facilitating connection of residential utilities; finding doctors and sorting out health care issues; selecting schools; and helping clients assimilate into the new culture.

Provide predeparture assistance and ongoing consultation for expatriates and their families. Expatriates I met rarely had received any predeparture assistance beyond tax advice and relocation of household goods. It is crucial that, at the very least, basic language skills and cross-cultural training be provided.

Predeparture assistance should also address critical family issues such as what the partner will do, children's schools, medical coverage, and making friends. In addition, basic household issues such as temporary living accommodations, obtaining appliances compatible with foreign electric service, banking needs, and shipment logistics should be addressed. The most successful expatriate families develop action plans for the first two weeks, one month, three months and nine months, with key milestones they are striving to achieve.

Don't assume that "no news is good news". maintain regular contact with expatriates. Become a trusted resource for resolving issues at headquarters and lend a sympathetic and confidential ear when expatriates just need to vent. I suggest calling weekly during the first 60 days of expatriation and monthly thereafter for the first year.

Design flexible expatriate policies. Instead of allowances and premiums governed by arbitrary rules, provide a fair budget and a choice of support services. That approach spends employers' money more wisely and gives expatriates the sense that the company understands the challenges their families will face.

Monitor your internal systems and people. Are you really a global company? Make sure that your firm is not so "headquarters/U.S. centric" that you unknowingly create barriers for expatriates? Can the accounting staff translate foreign currency? Are phone conferences scheduled with faraway time zones in mind? Do procedures accommodate entirely different systems overseas?

Companies operating overseas need to invest in global awareness training and education for employees at all levels in the organization who are involved with global operations. This modest expenditure will result in a much greater return in all the investments being made in the firm's global expansion.

Solve the difficult problems To reach "strategic partner status" in globalization, help your employees focus on the difficult problems of integrating expatriates and their families into their host country. not just the "easy" issues of moving households and managing tax implications. Recognize the differences between expatriates, then use that recognition as a departure point for developing expatriate policies.

The cost-benefit ratio of serving a small pool of expatriates may seem high, but the company's investment in expatriates may be the key to future business success. Enhanced support from HR reduces the risks of the organizations's expansion strategy and enhances the chances of success.

For more information, read Ways To Help Expatriate Families Adjust.

This article has been generously contributed by Barbara Fitzgerald-Turner, SPHR, president of Human Resources Strategies in West Chester, Pennsylvania.