Beyond Borders: How HR Can Help International Employees Thrive

  • Richard Yarsley
  • June 29, 2023

Today’s business environment operates on a global scale. Sending employees overseas is becoming increasingly common and many organizations can take advantage of the vast benefits of doing so. For companies operating across borders, having staff with an understanding of working internationally is not just an added advantage, but a competitive necessity. In fact, over 65% of multinational companies operate international relocation programs, and guess what? Malt does too.

However, sending employees abroad isn’t always easy. While an overseas assignment can offer benefits for the employee, both them and the organization they work for are likely to face some challenges. Expats could experience cultural differences, language barriers, visa and work permit issues, and also need to adapt to the local way of working, which could be quite different to what they’re used to.

HR Managers will need to address legal and regulatory compliance along with changes in compensation, healthcare scheme and benefits. All of these important topics need to be carefully explained to employees to avoid any confusion or anxiety. Additionally, depending on where the assignment is, security and safety must be considered.

Malt has offices across seven different countries, and as CPO, I’ve had my fair share of experience with employees working overseas. In this article, I’ll use what I’ve learned to provide practical advice for HR managers to ensure their employees thrive while working abroad.

How Difficult is it To Send Employees Overseas?

Many international companies prefer to hire locally and promote from within when it comes to developing future leaders and capturing and retaining markets. In many cases, expats are viewed as temporary local staff due to their lasting connections with the headquarters, and likelihood that they could move back. This can make it hard for them to properly integrate into a new setting. There is also the perception that moving employees abroad is complicated and expensive and companies could question whether the benefits outweigh the costs of sending employees overseas.

However, companies continue to hire expats and transfer employees abroad year after year for a variety of compelling reasons. Global companies are likely to find that assessing promising headquarters employees for leadership roles through international assignments can pay dividends. Additionally, international assignments can help them to transfer specialized skill sets, improve communication between the head office and remote operations, and play an important role in the personal and professional development of staff. At Malt, when we launch in a new country we identify current Malters to kickstart operations there. Their experience of working in a Malt office means they are perfectly placed to get the market and company culture in the new country going successfully.

Are there a few extra steps involved with sending employees overseas? Of course. However, we find that the improved cultural awareness, increased job satisfaction, loyalty and better creativity and innovation are almost always worth it. It’s important to find the right people and ensure the correct best practices are in place in order to make the transition seamless. With proper thought and planning, HR Managers can limit the common challenges of overseas assignments and ensure that expats are thriving.

Help Employees Hit the Ground Running

The success of your employee’s international assignment begins before they reach their destination. HR Managers should have a pre-departure overseas assignment checklist that is executed within the 6 month period before their transition. Focus on the following:

  • Prioritize networking. Help pair expats with colleagues or other contacts that are originally from the new destination. They shouldn’t be afraid to ask for insights on what to expect and information on where to live, what to eat, and so on.
  • Organize a visit beforehand. Where possible, it’s really helpful for employees to get a feel for the place they are relocating to before they actually move there. This can be key in putting their minds at ease and reducing any anxiety about the move.
  • Introduce them to the local team. A face-to-face meeting during a visit is always more personal than an online one. Focus on helping the employee set to move abroad get to know each person and their respective roles and responsibilities. 
  • Encourage honing “taxi-driver” local language skills. “Taxi-driver” language is rudimentary but it is satisfying to jump into a cab with confidence. Employees should brush up on the basic language that they’ll need for navigating their new area and connecting with local employees.

Upon arrival, expats will face unique challenges. This is the phase where individuals complete their move and begin to adapt, which can be difficult to prepare for in advance. Support overseas staff by:

  • Helping them to get settled – and do so quickly. Remember the employee will need to live somewhere and transition all of their “real life” operations. Ensure that expats are able to find a home they feel comfortable in, open a bank account, etc. Feeling secure and settled is critical to an employee’s sense of wellbeing. At Malt, we cover accommodation for the first month of an overseas assignment (or longer if needed) so employees don’t feel overwhelmed by the pressure to find long-term accommodation.
  • Organizing a local onboarding. Even if the employee has already met the local team, going through specific doubts or concerns and training them on all areas of their new role is critical to their success, especially as there could be specific things that vary country to country. By taking the time to train employees properly, they will feel prepared and inspired, ready to take on new challenges.
  • Having a dedicated support contact. Ensuring employees know there is one specific person in HR that they can go to with any questions or concerns can be very reassuring. This person should know about the employee’s individual circumstances and understand the context of their overseas employment to be able to be as helpful as possible. Ironing out any initial confusion is beneficial for both parties, and saves time-consuming corrections further down the line.

After an employee gets settled, they’ll be ready to dive into their new role. Here are some tips on helping them to perform. Encourage international employees by sharing these tips:

  • Be approachable. Don’t make assumptions and take time to learn about the local hierarchy structures. Even if you’re “the boss”, be friendly. It’s really valuable to get to know your new team members on a personal level and enjoy casual conversation.
  • Trust but verify. In a new environment, you may not have a full understanding of a situation. It’s best to articulate your understanding of different scenarios to several team members and take on their advice to get it right. Personnel and business decisions should be made slowly. There’s plenty of time to make changes, and it’s best to make sure you fully understand how things work and have the team’s trust before changing things too much.
  • Embrace cultural differences. Every culture has their own nuances when it comes to communication and feedback. Although it can initially be challenging to learn how different people work, collaboration will run a lot more smoothly once you understand everyone’s unique expectations and working styles.
  • Establish boundaries with company HQ. Employees should make their new working hours clear where there is a time difference or a different working schedule in the new country. For example, the standard working hours in Spain are quite different to those in Germany or France. It’s best to establish clear points of communication and relay the off-hours that you won’t be available to avoid misunderstandings and ensure you get proper time to rest.

Staff should remember that while moving overseas is an exciting adventure, they should still focus on strong performance in their role. While working in a foreign country can be an enriching and impactful experience, it can also pose unique challenges. 

With the right mindset and preparation, these challenges can be easily overcome, allowing staff to forge a successful international career. A clear plan, a willingness to adapt to new cultures, and a commitment to building strong professional relationships are key to achieving success.