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What expats want: the 5 kinds of expat support most valued by your international workforce

By FIDI, 2 March 2017

In the 2003 film, What Women Want, Mel Gibson plays an old-school, chauvinistic ad man who has to prove to his new boss (Helen Hunt) that he is just as able to create advertising for women as he is for men. (Spoiler alert: he gets a bang on the head and discovers he can read women’s minds.)

The reason for mentioning this is that the HR assistant is in a similar position. You may not be going abroad yourself, but you still need to get inside the expat’s mind to understand their needs. Your responsibility is to help make a success of each global assignment – but what sort of expat support do they really want? Based on our experience of supporting countless global assignments over the years, this is our advice on the 5 things that you would hear if you could read their minds…

1. They want to know what’s going on ‘back home’

One of the biggest reasons for expat failure – or of unsuccessful repatriation after the assignment – is that expats become disconnected from what is happening away from their own, often remote, expat experience. One of your key responsibilities is to ensure that:

2. They want the admin sorted

While this is perhaps the least glamorous of the responsibilities of a global mobility department, it is important to help expats with the minutiae and paperwork of a global assignment for two reasons: first, if an expat is encumbered by details they will be less effective at the tasks they have been sent out there to perform and, second, they are just not very good at it.

A well-drilled global mobility department, by contrast, gains experience over time of the various requirements – from arranging working visas to getting family pets through quarantine – and should look after it on the expat’s behalf. You may also find that your relocation partner will be able to help in a number of surprising ways.

3. They want a clear contract

The expat will want to know what’s expected of them, and what they get in return. It may not be you who negotiates the package, but your understanding of it – and your ability to manage queries and answer questions – will be important. Speak to expats before departure to ensure that everything is clear: what costs are covered, what allowances are to be paid and why, and what exceptions may apply.

One perennial issue with global assignments is the inevitable comparison between assignees. Why am I not getting the same package as they did last year? Why did he get a better apartment? Why do I have to pay for this when other didn’t? Since you will be involved with multiple global assignments, your understanding of the differences between assignments (and therefore allowances) will be a key skill.

4. They want to know what’s next

This is crucial – but your expats will probably only realise how important it is when their assignment nears its end. The problems that coincide with repatriation and the frequently associated ‘reverse culture shock’ are well known.

From your perspective, you need to keep communication channels open. You should ensure that the expat is aware of the need to plan the role they will have when they return home, and you should equally make sure that the placement of returning expats is on your own agenda within the HR department. It may not be your direct responsibility to map out their next career step – but it will be a huge help to them if you can set the wheels in motion.

5. They want to know that you’re there for them

One thing you can always guarantee is the unexpected. Not everything will go to plan for your expats and that’s when they may need you most. Whether it is a social or cultural issue that takes them by surprise, difficulties with work, or unexpected costs or contract queries, the knowledge that somebody back on the mother ship is looking out for them is very reassuring. In extreme situations, there may even be health or security issues that you will be asked to help with.

Their success is your success

In general, remember that a global assignment – in particular the early stages when expats are getting used to their new surroundings – can be an extremely stressful time. Communication is once more the key issue. Keep in touch to let them know you’re always there, just in case.

While you may be miles away from the expats you manage, you have an important role to play in ensuring the success of global assignments. Follow our guidelines and the success of your expats will reflect well on you.

Oman-Beverly Smyth, Dublin, Ireland is a member of the following trade associations