Overseas Assignments: Tips for Adapting in a New Country
One of the sexiest professional perks is a stint abroad. Being sent by your company to one of its international locations usually means a promotion and a higher salary. There is a sense of adventure in it. What’s more, it is often a sign that you are being groomed for bigger things professionally when you arrive back home. Although it costs many companies as much as three to four times an employee’s normal compensation to send them overseas, an increasing number of organizations are doing so, mainly in an effort to fill talent gaps. A 2010 PriceWaterhouseCoopers study of CEOs revealed that companies saw a 25 percent jump in overseas assignments in the last decade. They predict such assignments will grow to 50 percent by 2020.
For professionals, the promise of moving abroad is enticing, but it can also blind you to some of the challenges, especially if you are going with a family. How good will you be at adapting in a new country? We rounded up the most important things you need to consider first, and we offer some tips to make it all go smoother:
Is Your Partner Game?
It happens often: young, single professionals—the most mobile workers–are not senior-level enough to send abroad. Once they reach a level of experience where they are ripe for an international appointment, they usually have families. According to one global mobility study, 69 percent of the assignees surveyed were between ages 30 and 49 and nearly 50 percent of them had both a spouse and children. Moving overseas with a family is, naturally, an order of magnitude riskier and more complicated than heading off alone, and the numbers bear this out. Relocation experts say the leading reason overseas assignments fail is the inability of a family to adjust to the host country.
- Give serious thought to what your partner will do professionally during your tenure abroad. Are there opportunities for him or her to work, study, volunteer or otherwise stay busy in a way that satisfies them?
- Before agreeing to an international move, get clear on the visa situation for employee spouses— permission to work varies from country to country.
- Understand what relocation services your partner is entitled to before and after the move, such as language training, employment counseling and intercultural communications training.
- Reach out to other families who have made a similar move and seek their advice, especially when it comes to informal support systems for partners.
The Financial Lowdown
Overseas assignment packages are usually sweet deals. Companies typically cover all moving expenses, temporary housing, private school costs for children and relocation advisory services. They might also throw in a salary adjustment if you are going to an area where living costs are significantly higher. Benefits are designed to let you maintain the same or better standard of living in your new place. Yet there might be other costs related to living abroad you are not considering. Know as much as you can before you take off.
- Understand your tax liabilities. You might have to continue to pay some taxes in your home country in addition to local income and other taxes where you are living.
- Calculate fixed expenses that you will have to cover during your assignment. For instance, if you own a house or apartment in your home country, you will have to continue to pay related costs (taxes, insurance, mortgage).
- Find the out the real cost of housing in your destination city. Rental prices can vary wildly by neighborhood, and you will want to live in a convenient, safe area.
- Adapting in a new country is easier if you can make periodic trips back home. Check if travel costs for annual home visits (for you and all family members) are covered in your relocation package.
- Know the investment implications. If you are no longer a legal resident of your home country, you might not be able to invest in stocks, bonds or other investment products there.
Same Company, But Different
You may still be working for the same company abroad, but the organizational culture is bound to be seriously different. Local traditions have a big impact on work norms. In fact, the second most common reason overseas assignments fail is that assignees are unable to adapt to the local business culture.
- Be ready to ask questions and listen to everyone on the front lines in the organization before making any decisive changes. This gives you a chance to learn the culture in a non-confrontational way.
- Find cultural interpreters to help you navigate the foreign culture’s business landscape. Ideally find an expatriate employee from your home country who has lived there for some time and understands how things work. Also seek out a local professional who has experience working with expatriates like you.
- If relevant, learn the local language. Maybe you will still use your usual business language in the new job, but you would be surprised how important it can be to small talk in the local language, both at work and privately.
- Embrace humility. The traits that make you a powerful leader in your own country may not go over well in another culture. Be ready to change.
Have we scared you out of taking that international tour yet? We hope not. It just so happens that expatriate employees are more engaged overall than their counterparts back home. And international assignments often offer long-term career benefits. Research on their value point out that at least a quarter of executive and board level leaders have experience working abroad, and 23 percent of returning expatriates are promoted within their first year after coming home. So, whether it is China, Chile, Czech Republic or some other far-flung place, give some thought to doing an international tour. Just be ready to adapt and you will make the most of your global experience.
Kate Rodriguez is a freelance marketing copywriter based in Munich. She has over 20 years of professional experience in public and private organizations. A former international trade analyst for the U.S. government, she also worked as a university career coach, specializing in international career search. Most recently, she was employed at Experteer as a customer service agent and online marketing manager.