The value of connection cannot be discounted when employees take on overseas assignments.
Multinational corporations commonly send individuals on international assignments to fill organizational skills gaps and maintain competitive advantage. However, according to research by Brookfield Global Relocation Services, rates of expatriate failure remain as high as 16-40 percent, and such failures lead to substantial losses. Research published in Career Development International suggests that U.S.-based firms lose more than $6 billion annually in failed overseas assignments.
Organizations try various approaches to help expatriates become successful on assignment, with varying success. While there may be a place for logistical support and cultural training, nurturing relationships between expatriate and host-country individuals can increase understanding and appreciation for country norms.
Logistical support is designed to help expatriates make needed lifestyle arrangements. A key component is the pre-assignment host-country visit to help expatriates become familiar with the location and culture. Expatriates typically receive support for finding housing, arranging schooling for children, and securing transportation. Other logistical support includes arranging international health insurance, offering banking assistance, and helping expatriates meet legal requirements and gain access to relevant government services.
Interestingly, logistical support sometimes makes the expatriates' adjustment worse because it can leave the employees with a faulty sense of the daily realities they will face in that country. Positive impressions gained through a tourist-type pretrip can quickly fade once the assignment is under way.
Cultural training approaches
Functioning effectively in intercultural contexts is considered the most important attribute expatriates need. Thus, another necessity for employees going on overseas assignments is predeparture cross-cultural training. Such training is designed to reduce culture shock and facilitate cultural integration by teaching expatriates about the host culture and how to interact with host-country nationals; overcome language barriers; and navigate the social, political, and religious differences they will encounter.
Although some researchers suggest that cross-cultural training is helpful, others argue it is more expensive and time consuming than it is effective. While cultural training may be an expression of organizational support, and such training may help smooth out language differences, increasing sociability is not a primary outcome of cultural training. This points to the need for a different kind of solution for supporting expatriate effectiveness.
Social support between expatriates and their co-workers can ease expatriates' cultural adaptation by orienting them to what is acceptable and unacceptable in the host culture. This type of social support also is believed to help boost job performance.
Cross-group friendship, in the most basic terms, occurs when a member of one group is friends with a member of another group. Although cross-group friendships most often are examined within the context of race, the concept applies to any grouping of people—such as departments within an organization or people from different cultures.
Extended cross-group friendships occur when a person knows someone within his own group who has a close relationship with someone from another group. Expatriates who know someone from their own country or culture who has a close friendship with someone in the host country would be said to have an extended cross-group friendship, constituting a friend-of-a-friend connection to the host country.
These types of friendships are powerful for expatriates because, as they observe comfortable interactions between their friend and someone from the host country, the expatriates' fears and negative expectations diminish and are superseded by positive impressions of the host country.
Expatriates with direct or extended cross-group friendships tend to feel more positive and less anxious about the other group, have a greater desire to interact with members of the other group, and gain a deeper understanding of themselves and the other group. These outcomes align with concepts of cultural intelligence.
Thus, direct and indirect cross-group friendships—both inside and outside work—can be invaluable for expatriates as they seek to adapt to a foreign home and work environment. This leads to several promising implications for talent development professionals wanting to support the success of their organizations' international assignments.
I've identified several relationship-building strategies—based on in-depth interviews with 11 experienced expatriates—for promoting expatriates' success before, during, and after their international assignments.
Preparation phase strategies
Preparation typically begins after a candidate is selected for an assignment. Although assessment for cultural knowledge and skills gaps, training, and pretrips are common, this phase also should include deliberate identification of the direct and extended connections the candidate has related to the host country and culture. This could be accomplished through simple questions such as:
- What do you know about this country?
- What are your impressions of it?
- Have you traveled there before?
- Who do you know who has traveled or lived in this country?
- Do any of your friends, family members, or colleagues have experiences with or friends from this country?
This inquiry process uncovers and nurtures the expatriate's connections to the assignment location.
Because candidates may not know all the individuals in their organization who have ties to the location, human resources and talent development professionals play important roles in cultivating these connections. For example, create a master list of organization members and the countries with which they have experience and invite relevant organization members to the expatriate preparation process as mentors. Mentors should share their experiences with candidates, both to create realistic expectations and foster the candidates' positive impressions of the host country.
The expatriates I spoke with shared that talking with people who live in the host country helped them develop knowledge and liking of the culture, and they considered this positive attitude integral to their adaptation and success. Reflecting on his time arriving for a U.S. assignment, one U.K. national commented, "I've always had the impression that how you arrive in a place will affect your experience. I arrived in the U.S. feeling very positive, very excited, and very open to being in the U.S. And because I was like that, people were more open to me."
Assignment phase strategies
Expatriates I asked stressed that once on assignment, expatriates should deliberately connect with others socially, attend events and other activities, and get to know people inside and outside of work. They explained that they did so even when they had to push themselves and even if the activity did not seem interesting on the surface—because getting out helped them avoid feeling isolated and aided their adaptation to the host culture.
Relationships formed in the preparation phase can be helpful in this phase because home-country contacts can serve as remote mentors and facilitate in-country connections. Meanwhile, on-site connections can help expatriates get their bearings.
Expatriates who lack in-country connections should be encouraged to find contacts in the host country who share some sort of membership with the expatriate (for example, an Australian expatriate might seek to find other Australian expatriates; alternatively, an expatriate who enjoys running may join a running group). Local charitable or religious organizations may be places to find like-minded communities. Online social networks, such as InterNations or Link Expats, also can be helpful for connecting people with common interests.
Making an effort to develop these direct and extended cross-group friendships can result in having a cultural liaison at work, sparking expatriates' interest in the host country and its culture, enhancing their cultural intelligence, improving their experiences in the host country, easing their acculturation, and promoting their personal and professional success.
Managers and talent development professionals wishing to support expatriates in this phase could help them by identifying mentors and on-site buddies to facilitate their transition. Inquire about expatriates' hobbies and interests to help them create an action plan for accessing and connecting to in-country social resources inside and outside the organization. This information can be valuable for an on-site mentor who could gather information about an expatriate's lifestyle and pastimes and assemble suggestions for her to plug into the community.
The expatriates I interviewed also emphasized that experiencing kindness and hospitality from host-country nationals and having other positive experiences in the country contributed to an overall optimistic outlook that fed their motivation to engage with the culture. Therefore, it is in the interest of the on-site team to help manufacture positive experiences for expatriates through social events and outings—even if only at the beginning—to promote a positive cycle of perception and engagement with the culture. Sharing stories about positive experiences in the country—whether with host-country nationals, other expatriates on assignment, or expatriates who have already returned home—also may serve the same purpose.
The postassignment phase is perhaps one of the most neglected phases of expatriation. However, this time of reintegration and passing of the baton to future assignees is an essential element of supporting future expatriates' success through social connections.
Talent development professionals can facilitate this process by scheduling debriefing sessions where expatriates share their experiences and contacts with other employees. In doing so, other employees gain extended contact to the host country and a potential mentor during future cross-cultural interactions. Such debriefs could occur through one-on-one lunches, presentations, or informal conversations.
Connecting expatriates to social resources is an indispensable strategy for easing their cultural adaptation and supporting their effectiveness. Talent development professionals can apply strategies during each phase of an expatriate's experience to promote social connections. Delivery can occur one-on-one or in a group and could begin with assessment and education, followed by a personal development plan and ongoing coaching support. This type of program encourages and supports expatriates in identifying and developing cross-group friendships both inside and outside the organization.
Facilitating such relationships not only helps expatriates but also can lead to greater success for the organization that is sending employees on international assignments.
Relationship-Building in Action
Sean is an Irish national who has accrued more than three decades of international work experience across multiple countries. He is now chief executive of an international company based in Asia.
Through the course of his experiences, he recalled several ways that the openness and positive expectations he developed during the preparation phase fostered relationships with host-country nationals and promoted success. For example, he recalled that when he moved to New York as a young self-initiated expatriate, he had many positive impressions and expectations based on his exposure to U.S. culture through books, media, and other contacts. As a result, he displayed an openness to experiences and opportunities once he arrived.
"I was staying with a friend in Connecticut for my first few weeks," he explains. "I met a guy on the train back from New York to Connecticut who was a stockbroker. He hired me as his cold caller because I was this upbeat young Irish guy who thought the U.S. was wonderful and was up for anything."
Across his assignments, Sean also leveraged his relationships with host-country nationals to learn the local language, understand the nuances of doing business in the host country, and explore whatever country he was in. For example, while on assignment in Hong Kong, he explained how he built his language ability through his friendship with a host-country national in another department. He shared, "I would go to her at lunch time and say, 'What does this word mean?' She'd explain the word to me, and I'd be able to take that back out and use it plus another word."
Coaches and other talent development practitioners working with expatriates on assignment can help them deliberately develop similar strategies for engaging with host-country nationals, the location, and the culture to promote their adaptation and success.