Lady at office desk working on laptop

Caroline Walmsley, Global Head of HR, AXA - Global Healthcare

Managing expat employees on overseas assignments

Doing Business Abroad

PUBLISHED: 10 July 2019 | LAST UPDATED: 22 August 2022

Caroline Walmsley, AXA - Global Healthcare

Written by Caroline Walmsley

Global Head of HR, AXA - Global Healthcare.

Living abroad can come with a mixed bag of emotions. In this article, Global Head of HR, Caroline Walmsley advises how other HR departments can support their overseas colleagues, increasing the likelihood of successful assignments. 

It’s exciting, full of adventure and new discoveries. But it’s important to recognise that living in another country can also be a nerve-wracking experience. There are challenges to overcome and, in some cases, fears to be faced. Some may just be apprehension, but others may take your team a little more time and resilience to deal with.

So for Global Mobility Managers or HR departments managing employees internationally, it’s vital they understand the details of what employees working abroad may be facing.

There are, of course, challenges that are country-specific, such as coping with extreme temperatures, which whilst can be prepared for, ultimately are up to your employees to adapt to. But there are others that are much more common, and which you should make yourself aware of before a member of your team heads off on an international assignment.

Business man looking at tablet device

Looking for cover for your business?

We make it easy for you to get international health insurance to suit your company’s needs. Just tell us how many people you need to cover and we’ll work with you to create a respected package that can help you support and retain your best talent, wherever they go for your business.

Let us call you

Picking up the language

We spoke to over 500 expats and heard that nearly a third (30%) found picking up a foreign language to be the most challenging aspect of moving abroad. It’s true that not being able to communicate as clearly or confidently as you’d like can make even the most simple tasks, such as picking up a parcel from a neighbour or visiting a shop, a daunting or scary experience. It’s not just the logistics of daily life that can become a struggle for those working abroad, though. Communication failures can also make it difficult to integrate socially, with aspects such as humour not always translating easily from one language to another. Company culture could be uniform no matter where an employee works, and there may be one ‘common’ business language (such as English), but it doesn’t always mean one employee can fit seamlessly into a new environment.

As their contact in HR you can encourage assignees to stay curious, be open about their struggles and to get involved as much as they can. Language skills come with time and practise, but if they’re really having difficulties and weren’t able to take language classes before their assignment started, why not suggest they find one locally? This can also be a great way to meet people who might be facing the same struggles, helping to build up a support network.

Family matters

It’s common for expats to miss home, with two-fifths (40%) of those we spoke to reporting that being away from friends and family was the most difficult part of moving abroad. Leaving relatives behind can be especially hard in countries where the time difference makes it a challenge to keep in touch. But with the rise of social media and services such as video calls, it’s becoming easier than ever to stay in touch on a day-to-day basis, wherever friends and family may be. However, could employees take advantage of flexible working policies in order to catch up with their loved ones? Encouraging family contact instead of restricting it will ultimately engage the employee more, keeping them motivated and helping them settle into their new role and location.

A common worry is that if something happens to a loved one, particularly an elderly relative or dependent, an assignee wouldn’t be able to get to them quickly. Working closely with the employee and the local HR representative to calm these fears can help provide reassurance. Some companies will offer flights home as a benefit for international assignees, so use details such as this to comfort an assignee if they are worried about being away from family.

Finally, it’s worth urging expats who are struggling with homesickness to immerse themselves as much as possible into their adventures overseas. Maybe there are other expat employees they could get in contact with, expat clubs or forums they could join or new sports they could take up. If they can create a fulfilling and happy life abroad, they are less likely to miss home as much.

Helping your employees feel at home…

Struggling to fit in is a concern that expats are most likely to grapple with before they actually take the plunge and embark on their new life overseas. Fortunately, it’s one that doesn’t end up ringing true in many cases. Nearly two-fifths (37%) of the expats that we spoke to said they integrated easily with other families, and just 15% said that it took longer than expected to integrate.

However, in countries where there are significant cultural differences, such as religious beliefs and traditions, HR departments need to work with expats to make sure they’re aware of the local laws and customs before moving. The success of an international assignment often depends on how well the expat settles into their new environment, so it’s vital they feel well prepared when they arrive. There’s also the issue of suitability. Whilst many employees might jump at the chance to work abroad, it’s worth reminding them the extent to which their lives may be affected – would their partner have the same lifestyle they do where they currently live, for example? Providing this ‘pre-immersion’ preparation could help identify any possible issues in advance and prevent a potentially unsuccessful assignment.

Getting around

It can be disorientating to be in a place that you aren’t familiar with. While these concerns are understandable, it’s important not to let them hold your assignee back. Could a buddy system be introduced to help with familiarisation, helping them quickly get to grips with possible barriers, such as local public transport facilities? With a helping hand they’ll soon start to feel right at home.

It’s true that the expat lifestyle comes with its challenges, but with perseverance and an open mind, there’s no reason they should define an assignee’s time abroad. My advice is to not dwell when things get tough. Encourage your expat colleagues to take risks, engross themselves in the culture and customs of their new home and try not to let their worries hold them back. Remind them that their time abroad may only be temporary, so they should live it to the full and you’ll be there to support them if any problems arise. 

The information in this article is correct at the time of publishing.

The research mentioned was a sample of 501 expats living in a country different to that of their birth. It was conducted by Critical Research in January 2017.