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									           QUERY: The Expatriate Adjustment Cycle: Why HR Should Care – What Can HR d
                                                  Do?
                                                 Gina Teague
          Experts agree that there is a predictable adjustment cycle that transferees go through
regardless of the relocation destination. Most often we think of it as happening only on
international relocations, but it can happy just as well on a U.S. Domestic transfer. Naturally, the
intensity of the experience will vary greatly depending on a number of variables, including the
location, family dynamics, and the amount of information and support provided by the sponsoring
organization.
          Most corporate transferees agree that they receive adequate support and preparation
pre-departure, but don't feel they're continually supported and informed throughout the entire
relocation lifecycle. Why should HR care about adjustment to the relocation lifecycles? Simply
because if not acknowledged and handled, transferees can start to feel resentful and isolated.
This can lead to failed assignments, early repatriation, high incidents of attrition upon reentry, and
bad PR for the company--both at home and overseas.
          This article goes through the adjustment lifecycle, stage by stage--from pre-departure,
through culture shock and adjustment, to eventual repatriation--and explains why each stage is
critical to adjustment. It describes how HR can actively support each phase, even without adding
dollars or manpower to the equation. It‟s simply a matter of understanding what types of support
is needed at specific times throughout the entire lifecycle.
          Drawing on the experiences of HR managers and relocation specialists, this article will
also give specific How-to advice that HR can put into immediate action.

                   The Expatriate Adjustment Cycle: Why HR Should Care –
                                   And What Can HR Do?
                                        2,582 WORDS
Research and expatriate experience testify to the fact that, while each international
assignment is unique, there is an identifiable pattern of ups and downs that relocating
families typically go through. The theory of the expatriate adjustment cycle can be found
in the seminal works of intercultural writers such as Kohls, along with the more
personalized, often humorous accounts of the adjustment process to be found in the
relocation support books written by current or former expats. Relocating families usually
learn about the symptoms and feelings associated with the different phases of the
adjustment process during a pre-departure cross-cultural program.

But why should IHR be aware of – or even care about the expatriate adjustment
lifecycle?

Rarely a month passes without a survey or journal article highlighting the
disenchantment of the transferee or his/her spouse crossing the desk of IHR
professionals. The focus of the article may change, however, the sentiments remain the
same. In short, relocating families often feel that, once the logistics and basic
orientations have been taken care of, they effectively drop off IHR‟s radar screen, and
are personally – and sometimes professionally – cast adrift.

An awareness of the distinct phases that transferees typically go through while on
assignment and the accompanying physical and emotional manifestations can help IHR
staff be more proactive in anticipating when particular issues are likely to arise, and to
plan flexible, timely, and ongoing support programs & strategies accordingly.
What follows is a presentation of the typical adjustment “life cycle”, the challenges
associated with each particular phase, and some suggestions for IHR support
interventions to address these ongoing yet changing needs:
PREPARATION
This is often a time of mixed emotions – excitement about the new life ahead – tempered
by anxiety about leaving an established life and loved ones behind. It is not unusual for
the employee to formally start the new position well before the family has transferred,
polarizing roles and leaving much of the responsibility for selling the family home,
preparing for the shipment, etc. to the spouse. Factor in the maelstrom of emotions
bombarding everyone (what do you mean they don’t play ice hockey in Rio? 6 months of
quarantine for Rover? I can’t fit in yet another farewell party!) The assignment can be in
jeopardy before the family has even set foot on foreign soil.

While IHR staff and the transferee are busy ensuring that all logistical, taxation,
compensation details are addressed, more enlightened companies will also address the
cultural implications of living and working in a different country by offering the family a
cross-cultural program. In this supportive, confidential setting, the transferee and family
members have a unique opportunity to receive vital information, process their feelings
about the move, and develop practical strategies to support them through the personal
and professional challenges that lie ahead.

When offered in the form of just another check box on a menu of options, the cross-
cultural program may appear to the overwhelmed transferee as just one more item that
can‟t possibly be shoe-horned into a tight schedule. When presented as an integral part
of IHR‟s preparation and support system for the international transferee and a value
added proposition for the employee, the outcome is more likely to be a family who
departs feeling more empowered and equipped to embark on this adventure – and with
a deeper appreciation of the role of IHR in the process.

The IHR manager, in conjunction with a relocation professional, should help the
transferring family process the pros & cons attached to taking cross-cultural training
before or after a homefinding visit, or even post-arrival in-country.

A flexible and affordable supplement – or even alternative – to traditional face-to-face
counseling or briefing sessions are the new generation of online or CD Rom culture or
country specific orientations. While this information can not achieve the degree of
customization of traditional coaching sessions, these tools allow the user the opportunity
to self-manage the learning process, and increasingly offer ongoing online coaching
options.

Out of sight can mean out of mind – particularly when it comes to career pathing and
succession planning, not to mention the inevitable company reorganization. A pre-
departure meeting with an IHR professional can help the departing employee develop
strategies for keeping in the loop of developments back at head office. A distance
networking strategy or mentoring program, if properly institutionalized, can be effective
ways of keeping the transferee connected while overseas, and facilitating reentry down
the line.

HONEYMOON
With the grunt work of the move behind them, the expatriate family now enters a buffer
zone. Living in a hotel or temporary accommodation, with the safety net of a expense
allowance, they can opt to visit an international restaurant rather than the local market,
and take taxis rather than braving the public transport. Rather like the newlyweds who
relax on the beach, this temporary honeymoon idyll bears no relation to the challenges
that lie ahead. Indeed, many expats report that initially they feel as though they are on
an extended vacation, temporarily relieved from the responsibilities and routines of
everyday life.

The more sheltered, idyllic, and extended this period is, the bumpier the jolt back to
reality when the next phase hits. Unfortunately, expats may not envisage that they will
need support down the line, HR feels that “No news is good news”, and the
communication stops. Instead of waiting for the phone to ring when reality sets in,
it would behoove IHR to channel the positive energy generated by the new experience
and surrounding in constructive ways that will facilitate a gradual introduction to both the
local cultural and the realities of expat life.

An introduction to a support group – whether it be in-house or external to, and
independent from, the organization - can provide an invaluable lifeline for the expat
family, particularly the spouse/partner who is on the „front lines” of interfacing with the
local culture.

Anne-Marie Lange found the proactive approach of the Schlumberger Spouse
Association to be a godsend when she first arrived in Caracas, Venezuela with a young
child and pregnant with her second. “Firstly, we arrived to find a welcome basket with
really useful items, including age appropriate toys for my daughter. One of the members
arrived to show me around on my second day. Even though I was somewhat jet-lagged,
it was just the nudge I needed to introduce me to the new environment. The Association
is run by other expats who have “blazed the trail” in that location and are therefore
uniquely positioned to provide the information, support, and empathy that the newcomer
needs. By offering this service, I feel that Schlumberger understood the challenges and
made our life in Caracas easier for all of us.”

Further, by connecting transferees with a forum that can address the most basic
questions that the family may not wish to bother HR with, the organization makes a
valuable service available, while rationalizing the use of its own resources and
personnel.

Another truly practical benefit at this juncture is to encourage all family members to start
or continue with foreign language classes. Language acquisition in the long term will be
the key to unlocking the mysteries of the culture; language lessons in the short term can
provide a much needed lifeline and source of daily contact and cultural insights at a time
when the accompanying spouse in particular may feel isolated. Flexible options can
offer individual versus group lessons, and home tutorials versus language school based
classes to accommodate individual family members‟ issues of convenience and comfort
level.

CULTURE SHOCK
The third phase is commonly referred to as “culture shock”. The causes and symptoms
vary widely, however there is usually a correlation between the amount of realistic
information, practical planning and informed support received during the pre-departure
and honeymoon phases and the degree of severity with which this phase hits. Typical
causes might include:
- Missing aspects of life back home
- Discomfort with the local cultural values and/or norms
- Difficulty managing household staff
-   Withdrawal of support from the local expat community or IHR; the red carpet‟s been
    rolled up!
-   Inability to communicate in the local language
-   Frustration navigating local bureaucracy to get work permits, drivers licenses, etc.
-   Inability to locate essential items needed for everyday living

Health Care Support
An accumulation of these causal factors can trigger the type of physical or emotional
symptoms that are normally associated with stress, or even a mild depression. It is
important for professionals who support expat families to be aware that expats can be so
overwhelmed by the experience that they often fail to “connect the dots”.

For instance, the persistent headache, lethargy or distractibility are common symptoms
of the stress generated by adapting to a new cultural environment. That doesn‟t make
the headache any less painful or the lethargy any less real, however it underscores the
need for the expat to get prompt and reliable assistance in addressing both the
symptoms and their underlying causes.

Sally Lipscomb, former expat and President of The Rainier Group, an International EAP
provider based in Chicago states: “It is vitally important that expat families are fully
familiarized with their international health care plans, and that they understand how to
access all services available to them, including the emotional support provided by a
Global EAP program, BEFORE the help is actually needed!”

Professional Development – for the employee – and the spouse
For the accompanying spouse who has taken a hiatus from a career, education, or other
community based activities, the loss of an important source of identity, self worth, and
possibly financial independence might be felt particularly keenly at this time. Most
companies offer some support to the spouse, often in the form of an education
allowance, assistance with work permit application and/or a job search, career
counseling, or a loss of income stipend.

However, assistance with career counseling or work permit application is usually offered
as part of the pre-departure package. While always valuable, many spouses are unable
to make significant career or life planning decisions for the assignment until the family is
established, and they have an opportunity to get a sense of what professional and
lifestyle opportunities the local environment may offer. For this reason, shorter
interventions (possibly involving online career planning and job search coaching) spread
over the pre-departure and several months into the assignment will be more effective
than a one shot program before the spouse has been able to test the local waters.

There are many online resources these days that IHR can introduce expat families to:
some are subscription-based, some are free, run by former expats. These sites offer
online coaching, ask the expert forums, articles on relocation related topics, and
message boards. Far from degenerating into a “gripe & swipe at HR” sessions, when
properly moderated these forums provide an opportunity for connections, information,
and support.

Similarly, it cannot be assumed that, just because the employee isn‟t waving any red
flags, that the adjustment is complete and successful. The transferee is often frustrated
to find that, due to cultural and linguistic challenges, initially they are not as productive or
in control as they are used to. This is often compounded by the extra demands on the
home front, as the rest of the family struggles to adapt. Again, this is where a brief,
timely intervention will pay dividends for all concerned. The transferee might require
more intensive language training, the advice of a culture coach, or a review of goals and
expectations, to stay on track.

ADAPTATION
In the final phase of the adjustment cycle, “adaptation”, the level and intensity of
communication between the expat family and IHR usually subsides dramatically. This is
“pay-off” time; following a period of tremendous upheaval and a steep learning curve, the
transferring employee is finally becoming productive in the new environment; family
members become settled and learn to appreciate the new culture and the expatriate
lifestyle. Time for everyone to relax, right? Wrong. Now is the time to ensure that
business goals and professional development objectives for the assignment are on
track. Again, a local or distance mentoring program and regular performance appraisals
are key components of an integrated international career management program.

At this point, the accompanying spouse‟s experiences and local knowledge base can be
used either on an informal basis, by inviting her/him to be a “buddy” to an recently
arrived spouse, or by getting involved in a company sponsored support group for expat
families. Spouses who benefited from an institutionalized support program to help them
navigate the new culture upon arrival are usually only too willing to extend a welcoming
hand to those who are following in their footsteps. Further, the act of instructing a
newcomer into how to navigate the local culture can be a powerful validation of the
overseas experience for the spouse, and provide another line on the reentry resume!

During this, probably the most relaxed and enjoyable phase of the assignment, the last
thing anyone wants to think about is the prospect of all of the upheaval that repatriation
will bring.

REPATRIATION
Particularly for families that have been overseas for an extended period or on
successive international assignments, the process of returning home can be as arduous
and traumatic as the initial relocation. The home environment to which they are returning
may have changed considerably. Similarly, the expats themselves have changed as a
result of their overseas experience, and often find it difficult to “slot right back in where
they left off”. Returning employees who have enjoyed being the “big fish in a small
pond” at an overseas subsidiary may rankle at the constraints – and lack of expatriate
prestige and benefits – that go along with finding themselves as just another box on the
organizational chart back at HQ.

The bottom line is, the impact of repatriation is often underestimated by transferee & HR
alike. In fact, repatriation merits exploration of its own “adjustment cycle”, which typically
mirrors the 4 phases of the adjustment cycle. As with the relocation process, issues of
timing and a sense of control over the process will play a critical role in the successful
readjustment of the returning transferee. Experience has shown that when both the
organization and the expat family take a planful, proactive approach to the process of
returning home, expectations are more realistic, and the whole reentry process is
smoother for everyone. IHR can facilitate this by communicating on a regular basis
about organizational succession planning and individual career pathing issues
throughout the assignment.
An organization that wishes to retain its returned expats, many of whom will have
acquired a valuable portfolio of international experience, skills and local market
knowledge whilst abroad, will strive to offer the same level of support services that they
provide to outward bound employees. This includes repatriation programs, career
support for the spouse, and on-the-ground destination services support (particularly for
families who are not returning to their city of departure).

The overall benefit to providing more flexible IHR support programs staggered
throughout the entire duration an overseas assignment - and in particular linking them to
the 4 specific stages of the adjustment lifecycle - will be a more rational use of HR
resources, and more effective, strategic interventions for expat families.

Equally important, IHR support programs designed to reflect the entire duration of the
expatriate lifecycle will make the expatriate family feel consulted, supported and
empowered by the sponsoring organization throughout the lifetime of the assignment –
including repatriation. This, in turn, leads to enhanced productivity and performance for
the employee in-country, and reduced attrition upon re-entry.

								
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