What Keeps Expats Awake at Night? Nagging Challenges despite Increased Support

hThroughout my blog posts, I aim to raise concerns, challenges, ideas, and possible solutions that relate to expat populations. Speaking about company-initiated assignments, so far the most pronounced expat challenges at the individual level have been family concerns, such as family adjustment and dual-career issues; assignee adjustment in the host country, such as lack of cross-cultural competencies; and repatriation difficulties, such as feelings of misplacement and career dissatisfaction.

The latest industry surveys of global mobility professionals, namely KPMG’s Global Assignment Policies and Practices Survey (GAPP, 2013) and Brookfield Global Relocation Trends Survey (2014), indicate that discussions over the expat population continue to be very pertinent as the number of expat assignments are predicted to either remain the same or even further increase. As such, it is still important to speak about the predominant expat challenges, and it is about time to take a look at the current stats and trends in these areas.

Family issues and family solutions

According to Brookfield survey data, family related issues continue to present serious challenges and the list of critical family issues consists of children’s education, spouse/partner resistance to relocate, family adjustment, location difficulties and spouse/partner career. Although the Brookfield professionals suggest that many of these challenges may be worsened by organizational pressures for cost reduction, the fact that these challenges have remained stable over time implies a general need for more organizational support in these areas.

Despite the Brookfield stats that about 49% of expat spouses are employed before expatriation and only 5% during expatriation, the KPMG data on measures taken to address these issues appear quite promising. Specifically, only 32% of KMPG respondents did not indicate any assistance provided to trailing spouses, while a majority of 68% does provide assistance, such as dealing with work visa (33%) and covering job search and educational expenses (28%). Similarly positive numbers are shown in the Brookfield survey, where 71% of respondents cited language training, 55% offer intercultural training, 40% provide assistance with education/training, 37% offer career-planning assistance, 29% offer a lump sum allowance for spousal/partner support, and 28% offer employment search or job-finding fees.

Adjustment: Expats struggle but companies assist

Adjustment of the assignee and his/her family is another repeatedly reported challenge. Among the KPMG survey respondents, 29% of companies provide language training for assignees and their spouses, and 41% of companies also include children in the process. Moreover, 64% of companies offer formal cross-cultural training either to the whole family including children or limited to the assignee and spouse (21%). Similarly, 83% of Brookfield survey participants provide cross-cultural training either for all or some assignments, with 57% of them including the whole family with kids in the training. Encouraging is the fact that almost all of the organizations (89% in the Brookfield survey), which provide cross-cultural training, find the process to be of good or great value.

Repatriates want to leave, organizations want to keep them

Finally, organizations and expats continue to struggle with the repatriation difficulties. KPMG data suggests that expat dissatisfaction and turnover upon repatriation is related to such push factors as having no appropriate job in the home country, and such pull factors as better job offers in other organizations. Although, according to Brookfield, the majority of companies do not have any formal repatriation strategy in place, companies still try to minimize expat turnover. For example, of the KPMG respondents 29% provide repatriation counseling at the end of the assignment, 30% look into internal career planning/job placement toward the end of the assignment, 9% provide formalized mentoring programs throughout the assignment, and 21% sponsor pre-repatriation visits to the home country. In the same vein, Brookfield respondents reported a greater opportunity to use international experience as the top initiative, followed by guaranteeing a position upon completion of an international assignment, offering repatriation career support for international assignees and offering greater choices of positions upon return, and greater recognition during/after an international assignment. Moreover, these companies offered repatriation support for the family too.

The paradox: Helping more while ever more help is needed?

All in all, there seems to be evidence of positive trends, good signs of development, and initiatives with great potential towards supporting expats and their families during and after their international assignments. At the same time, the challenges have remained paradoxically stable and critical over the years. In other words, companies seem to be supporting more and more, while expats seem to continue to need support with the same intensity. One possible explanation is the changing expat environment, namely the growth of emerging expat destinations and continuous pressures to be cost efficient. Indeed, it is possible that with the growth in global competition, expat numbers and expat destinations, international assignments are simply getting more challenging, which is balanced out by increasing organizational support. A more disturbing explanation however would be that the type of support that companies offer still does not entirely meet expats’ and their family’s needs…

2 thoughts on “What Keeps Expats Awake at Night? Nagging Challenges despite Increased Support

  1. Thanks for bringing up a great topic Sebastian. It would be interesting to see in the data that is provided for surveys such as those you mention is uptake rates on some of the services offered, We would echo your last statement regrading needs. In our work with expat partners, we often see that assistance is offered on a one size fits all basis rather than on a needs basis so partners are being offered help that they don’t need and are on their own for other issues where they really could do with some help. This leads to frustration from the partners’ perspective and a feeling on the part of the companies that support for partners is a waste of money. Take visa assistance for instance. Whilst it can be a great help to some partners, others find that getting a visa is only a small part of the battle to be able to work and that there are all kinds of additional barriers (language fluency, qualification equivalence, compensation issues, family logistics) that prevent them from working. Our view is that, until companies start tailoring their support to meet specific needs, there will be frustration on both sides and companies will continue to find it experience challenges in meeting their assignment and talent management objectives.

  2. one of the main challenges that prevents partners from being employed when they move is the problem of getting work permits and also the fact that maybe your skills wont be that in demand in the new country

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