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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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