Managing expats: What expats need from HR

Eric Lochner is European managing director at Kenexa. Originally from New York, he has been in the UK since late 2007

I love being an ex-pat, particularly in Europe, because there are so many different cultures, all within two hours of each other. With Kenexa, HR has helped me at both a home country and local level. The team does everything it can to ensure that I am focused on my day-to-day work, rather than on issues such as foreign taxes.

If I have frustrations, it’s probably about things that are beyond HR’s control. For example, it took me six months to get my TV hooked up – I didn’t even know I had to buy a licence.

It would have been good to know in advance what the working relationship would be like with firms I was expected to work with, such as our auditor. And it would have been helpful for HR to take responsibility for important dates, such as when a visa needed renewing.

If an organisation is investing in an employee to the extent of sending them abroad, there must be a critical business need for the move, so any items not related to their actual work should be outsourced or dealt with by a local HR person.

Once the expat arrives in the new country, HR can’t necessarily step back. It’s not a case of mollycoddling the expat, but of keeping them engaged in what they’re there to do, rather than worrying about non-work administrative issues.

Top tips:

  • If you represent a small company with more than a handful of expats, outsource the project to specialists, especially if different time zones are involved.
  • Put together a factsheet with information on the professional culture for pre-assignment reading.
  • Have a home country HR person who ‘owns’ each ex-pat, so that they have one point of contact.

Jan Woods is chief personnel officer at PepsiCo UK & Ireland. She is English, and has spent almost a decade abroad, in Thailand, South Africa and Hungary.

I enjoy the ex-pat life because as a family we love experiencing other cultures and religions. I have a particular interest in building talent, and there are great opportunities to do so in developing markets.

What really worked for me as an expat was having dedicated HR support. Once on the ground it needed to be support that was locally relevant – operational as well as strategic – which allowed me to land and orientate quickly. If someone’s moving to Russia, expat support out of London won’t be much help. HR departments have failed me in the past when they’ve known nothing about the local market.

At PepsiCo we offer cultural orientation, both on a macro level, covering the culture of the new country, and at a micro level, dealing with the operating norms and principles, and how we work there.

Selecting the right expat is crucial. Candidates need to have a core level of intellectual curiosity about other societies. We organise ‘look, see’ trips to make sure that we give our people the opportunity to say no, and see the full range of life there. When I was managing ex-pats at IMB, about 15 years ago, we treated the whole family as the expat, not just the employee. It worked very well, but I’m not sure if employers can afford to do this today.

Top tips:

  • Where possible, experience expat life yourself.
  • Before they move abroad, listen carefully to the expat and their family. One family’s needs are very different to another’s.
  • Recognise that the expat is new to the market – the first year can be incredibly tough. Be patient.

Mark Thompson is a director at PricewaterhouseCoopers’ sustainability and climate change advisory practice. He is English, and spent two years in Moscow with his wife and children.

I loved being an expat because of the challenge and amusement involved in doing everything differently. Buying groceries, dealing with colleagues, surviving the weather – all call for a slightly different attitude and approach and bring huge satisfaction when you get it right.

Our global mobility programme, an international development and resourcing scheme, has developed a lot since I started in my current role. Last year, almost 3,500 employees from 103 countries were posted internationally.

Being able to hit the ground running is so important – you need all the right information, contacts and processes to fit together to make that happen. Ultimately we settled and enjoyed our stay in Moscow, but the arrival could have been smoother for my family.

Local support within the host country is more important than having HR contacts back home. Although I had experience on the ground in Moscow, having local contacts, particularly in work, is really important. Our programme helps expats to find out about schools, lifestyle and so on in advance. The company also tracks secondments with home and host country ambassadors, as a way of maintaining contact.

Top tips:

  • Make sure the various processes fit together, particularly once the employee is on the ground.
  • Make sure the domestic side of things works: accommodation, schools, personal tax advice, and so on.
  • Keep communication going. It’s important for the expat to be kept up to date with what’s going on at home.
  • Recognise that the return may be more challenging than the outward move.

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