Skip to content

What most companies don’t consider when hiring expat staff

Today I had to go a bit corporate in the blog, but as you know this is also a really important part of both relocation and migration. With the globalized world we now live in, it’s hardly a surprise that more and more people move countries, regions or cities to find better opportunities for work, study or simply try a different lifestyle for a while.

It’s not easy to find up to date stats on how many expats there actually are in the world, as it all tends to depend a little bit on how you define what an expat is (most often someone migrating to live in another country for between 12 months and up to a few years). Some relatively recent research shows that there were roughly 50.5 million expats globally in 2013, an increase by about 2.4% per year since 2009. That’s a lot of people! 

The majority of these expats in 2013 were individual workers (73.6%) followed by students (8.8%), retired expats (3.7%) and corporate transferees (1.0%), with the balance of other expats (defined as non-employed spouses and children) making up the residual 12.8%. If we were to use these stats conservatively as a basic comparison it means that at least 505,000 people get relocated internationally every year with a company for a specific role or job. Plus maybe their accompanying family as well.

To drill down further into how these people are looked after, only 28% of companies have tools in place to measure if the relocation is successful or not. That means that 72% of companies don’t even measure how well the relocation and integration into the new role and country went! Most relocations of senior staff costs a company at least $100,000, but often way more than that. And the return on this huge investment of time and money is only measured by 28% of companies!

These stats are pretty sad, and they don’t even capture all expats. As more and more people move overseas for a part of their life (much like I did back in 2001, 2007 and again in 2010) I can’t help but notice that many companies who end up hiring expat staff, don’t necessarily support or fully understand how a big move impacts a person and their family.

The three biggest issues I see time and time again when talking to expats who have moved between countries (both with and without the support of a company):

  1. Moving to a new country is much more than just finding a home. If you’re lucky your company will give you a lump sum of money to cover shipping of your most important items and furniture, some help to find a new home and maybe your flights as well. This is part of a big move, but certainly not the whole picture. The success of a big move and the ability to settle after it depends on the level of personal support and coaching someone has received. For many expats there is no support available at all.
  2. The majority of people who relocate don’t get any support with cultural integration or coaching before, during or after their move. From what I can tell there seems to be an expectation for the individual expat to ‘just deal with it‘. According to Ernst and Young’s Global mobility study, 50% of the companies responding to the survey said they had cultural coaching and support in place. Based on what I hear from my network and clients this is actually very rare. It’s basic logic really – the more you know about a place and the more balanced you feel, the more you can contribute. And much faster.
  3. It’s not just about your staff member! Most people relocate with a partner or even a family. They too have to some extent been uprooted and they won’t be able to get active at work or in social circles straight away. The partner going to work everyday often has to deal with the guilt of ‘dragging the family with them‘ whereas the partner at home often struggles socially and culturally to feel like they belong. If companies provide support for the whole family to some extent, the partner (and kids) will be happier and the employee can focus more on work and worry a lot less about how things are at home. I’ve heard of  many failed relocations where the non-working partner simply gave up and went back home. This happens more often than companies like to admit, and it’s costly for everyone involved!

You might be thinking that “If someone decides to move far away, they must surely be prepared to pay for it, both financially and emotionally.” To some extent I do agree, they have to be willing to invest time, money and effort to the big change they are creating. But this willingness should be matched, if not exceeded, by a smart employer. Imagine how much more the staff member can contribute to the company’s growth and mission if the pain points above are covered! Relocation support and coaching is a very small cost to pay to help your investment in the person, their family and your own company grow.

Now I’m keen to hear from you – what’s your experience in this area been? Have you moved yourself, with or without support? Or do you work for a company that regularly employ expat staff?

PS: If you work for a company that regularly relocate people interstate or internationally you might want to share this article with them. This is a huge blind spot for so many companies and for the ones who take action and look after their people there is incredibly much to be gained for everyone involved.

PPS: Our Online Relocation Starter Kit Program is designed by expats for expats to help relocatees prepare before the big move and land smoothly in their new home. It’s a great online tool to help expat staff and start showing them that their experience matters.