3 Major Challenges of Managing Expatriates

What are the biggest challenges of managing expats? We have the 411! ☆ Hiring expatriates gives a company the opportunity to reach minds across the world. With that comes innovation, new skills, ideas, and cultures. There are a multitude of reasons why expatriates make great company investments—but in working with expats inevitably comes unique challenges. 

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The challenges of managing expatriates can seem overwhelming, but understanding them can set a company up for success.

In the international education industry, and particularly as a program provider, you’ll work with students and employees from all over the world. You’d be kidding yourself if you didn’t believe you’d run into problems here and there.

Knowing the greatest challenges of managing expatriates will allow a company to prepare accordingly, and this preparation could be make-or-break between a hefty investment and that investment’s success. So…what are the challenges of managing expatriates?

1. Culture Shock 

The primary challenge of managing expatriates is culture shock. It’s impossible to expect expatriates to acclimate quickly, if at all. Moving across the world and needing to adjust to a new culture, work environment, and social structure with no immediate support system is no small task. 

Place yourself in the expat’s shoes. Can you promise you would fit directly into your new world? That’s an impossible question to answer because it’s unpredictable. However, your company can take steps to help expatriates adjust.

Africa’s first online newspaper, Mail & Guardian, “Managing expatriates,” discusses the importance of a smooth transition for expats, saying, 

 “South Africa ranks ninth for overall expat experience, which looks at an expat’s lifestyle, especially the ease at which expats can set up in their new country and how well they integrate into the local community, and their overall quality of life.”

South Africa hosts over 60% of expatriates from the UK and after a survey they found that former expats had positive experiences because their expectations were met when arriving to South Africa. There are a number of ways to strive to meet expectations and informing expats about what they should expect is crucial. 

Busy street at night
Culture shock can make or break the success of an expatriate.

How can I overcome this challenge?

If you put yourself in the shoes of your expatriate employees, problems with culture shock will be much easier to identify and solve. One solution to help expats integrate into their new lifestyle is providing them with as much information as possible about their new home from the start of the process. 

This will not only vet applicants, but will help with culture shock. Giving information on the country, city, culture, company expectations, photos—LOTS OF PHOTOS—accommodation possibilities, the city, office, and even linking a current employee as a point of reference and guide can help expats make a more well-informed commitment. When they become confident of their decision, their ability to self-manage culture shock will improve.

Providing a surplus of information will also contribute to solving another challenge companies face: the culture shock of families. Whether families such as a spouse and children move with the expat, or if they remain at home, preparing the family is a crucial solution to culture shock. 

Expats face intense pressure from the family’s ability to adjust and it’s easy for companies to overlook this, especially when managing expatriates on international assignments. 

A similar solution to how a company should prepare the expat can be used for families, but this one needs to be geared more specifically towards the family itself. Sending family-specific information with photos and information such as accommodation, nearby grocery stores, parks, recreational activities, and the contact information of other families within the company can put those moving with the expat at ease.

Finally, regardless of whether you’re receiving a solo employee or their entire family, consider providing orientation on arrival. Assign a local employee to give your new hire a tour around town, and to be their point of contact if they have any questions.

Giving your new hire a sense of ease will help tremendously when it comes to combating culture shock. The right way to manage expats? Imagine yourself as one. 

Man behind window
The more information you can offer an expatriate, the higher their chances are to adjusting well.

2. Expatriation costs 

It is a costly investment to fly an employee across the world but the cost of a flight isn’t the main worry. If expatriates don’t become long term employees, the cost of overhead now includes expenses to fill the position.

When managing expatriates on international assignments, expatriation costs can be especially challenging if the expat isn’t able to stay for the required time in order to complete the assignment. 

The costly challenges of managing expatriates can appear in other forms. Visa and health insurance costs should also be taken into consideration. With this comes the cost of time and depending on the country, the process of obtaining a work visa can be long and unforeseeable. 

Other expatriation costs to assess include accommodation for the expat and possible family, transportation, living expenses, and taxation. These, among other unanticipated expenses, can be costly.

The cost of the company’s time should be considered as well. Expect delays ranging from readiness of expat to move, timing and cost of flights, securing a work visa, training when they arrive, and time for the expat and family to adjust. 

Calculator and pen
Companies should prepare for a wide variety of expatriation costs.

How can I overcome this challenge?

Imagine this dilemma comparable to summer storms. They’re unfortunate, and in the moment it will feel like you’re taking a hit, but a rejuvenation and growth of vegetation follows storms. 

Starting with the flight, expatriation expenses might feel like you’re at a loss, but soon you’ll begin to see the benefits. This can be seen in the form of new approaches, expertise, and insights that will contribute to much growth within your company.

To protect your investment, consider requiring a contract for foreign employees, with a clause stating that they must pay back a certain amount if they break their contract or leave early. That way, in case of a turnover disaster, you’ll have the chance to at least break even.

Don’t forget to consider the benefits of your new hire. Hiring expats means companies have far better opportunities and reach for recruitment. That means companies can reach specific and diverse skill sets that might not have been available locally or nationally.

Expertise can now be reached at a global level. Expats bring a new perspective, style of problem solving, motivation and cross-cultural competence. Those are all valuable perks for your business!

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With every great risk, comes the potential for hefty rewards.

3. Language barriers

Depending on where your company is headquartered, or how wide your hiring radius is, language barriers can be a major issue in managing expatriates on international assignments.

Hiring employees who do not have strong skills in speaking the local language can pose a huge challenge to your company. These employees may have a longer adjustment period and take more time to increase their productivity.

If the issue is left unaddressed, they could be left feeling isolated both in and outside of the office, increasing the risk of them breaking their contract early or being uninterested in growing with the company beyond their term.

Language barriers can be difficult to transcend, because overcoming them involves the acquisition of a brand new hard skill—which is no easy feat. However, that’s not to say it’s impossible.

How can I overcome this challenge?

If you’re located in a country where English is not a primarily-spoken language but your company’s business language is English, make sure your current employees know that you are hiring someone who doesn’t speak the local language.

Making your local employees aware that there will be someone new on-site who doesn’t speak the local language will hopefully open them up to the idea of finding common ground and  helping your new hire integrate into the local culture.

Alternatively, if you’re based in an English-speaking country and have just hired a non-native English speaker, the same rule holds true. Ensure that you have employees willing to take your new hire under their wings and help them adjust.

Finally, consider setting up language lessons for your employee (paid for by the company, of course), or assigning them a language exchange buddy from within the country.

Understanding the challenges of managing expatriates will help them (and you!) succeed 

Women laughing
Getting to know the challenges will set you up for success.

The challenges of managing expats should be carefully considered by companies. However, through diligent recruitment and disbursement of information regarding all aspects of the new culture, the risk in managing expatriates can be met with much preparation.  

It’s important to remember: The right way to manage expats is to imagine yourself as one.

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