Your Foreign Employees’ Well-Being Doesn’t Stop At Finding A Nice Apartment

A successful relocation depends on many factors. Many of these are soft factors that your foreign employees need which are not always easy to consider, simply because they are either not so easy to grasp, or the resources and tools are limited.

Many HR departments find themselves in a situation in which they are not provided with the sufficient resources, and they feel that their experience and knowledge does not match their limited possibilities. This combined with pressure on global mobility budgets as part of inevitable cost-cutting exercises, results in many cases in policies whereby anyone below VP-level executives often do not get any relocation support at all.

By this I do not mean financial incentives, which of course are helpful. But throwing money at an individual to hire a relocation agent or removals company does not solve the inherent problem of ensuring a valued employee (or new hire, whom they have probably paid a headhunting company a handsome sum to recruit) settles seamlessly into the job, working culture and lifestyle of their host country.

For this to stand a good chance of happening is dependent upon some important key factors, and these fall into 2 distinct categories:

Firstly, there are areas where the individual must strive and be proactive and take accountability to ensure the integration process is aided by his/her actions and attitude.

But there is another category where, with the best will in the world, the individual requires professional, third-party help to understand, adapt and thrive in a new country with laws, processes, cultural and social norms which will be completely alien to them as a newcomer. An employer can’t provide this in-house and an employee cannot be expected to figure all of this out for themselves.

Personal Accountability – How Foreign Employees Can Smooth The Process Themselves

There are two things that the new employee can do that can really make his/her adaptation to the new country much easier -learning the language, and making friends.

Why Learning The Local Language Matters

Now, for foreign employees on a 12-month secondment, there is a case to make that learning the language is a nice-to-have. However, for permanent hires, it is a must. Sadly many expats, especially native English speakers, just don’t bother.

Learning the language of your host country will make other tasks inherently easier: It’s a means to an end. Nobody expects you to be fluent within a few months, but the individual must take accountability and persevere to achieve this as an ultimate goal. As you become less dependent upon colleagues, friends or professional service providers to solve life’s everyday problems, your confidence will grow and you will begin to feel more at home.

Eliminate an hour of your day which you’re spending on social media or watching TV and set it aside for striving to learn the language. You can get to intermediate level these days without having to spend time and money commuting to evening classes at a local college. There are apps, podcasts and YouTube channels you can utilise to get to a level where you can hold a basic conversation far beyond phrasebook stuff like “I have 2 cats” or “I like watching football”.

Let’s take the simple benchmark of knowing 6,000 words. This gives you a pretty comprehensive vocabulary. Forget about grammar and idioms for a second, this is all about being understood, not about speaking flawlessly. It’s not THAT hard to get there within a year with discipline and focus. Break it down, and it’s 20 words a day, with one day off per week. Tough, but possible. It all goes back to the cliche of eating an elephant in bite sized pieces.

Why Making Friends In The New Country Is Important – And How To Do Itpriscilla-du-preez-234138-unsplash

Making contacts and settling in is the logical next step once a newcomer in a foreign country has dealt with all of the immediate bureaucratic and administrative necessities one has to deal with as part of a relocation. Again, this is something which is inherently the responsibility of the individual. Sure, it helps if there is a sociable working environment encompassing regular team-building events or nights out, but this cannot be seen as the responsibility of the employer.

There are several ways that a newcomer can make social contacts, even if they have no natural or existing network in the country they are moving to. Nowadays, with smartphones and the internet, it is easy to find events which match a person’s interests. Going to meet-ups is the easiest way to make friends. Many of these events are focussed on the expat community and ergo, many attendees will be in a similar situation. Dedicated platforms such as meetup.com, internations.org as well as a simple Facebook Groups search for “expats in X” or “new in Y” can yield endless possibilities to meet new people and make friends fast.

But what if you want to meet locals? Hobbies are a great introduction into the local community, for the obvious reason that you automatically have a common interest. Team sports such as football and rugby in particular have camaraderie and socialising as an integral part of their culture. It doesn’t have to be sport though. Charitable organisations, politics and religion can also lead to like-minded contacts. Helping out at your local animal welfare organisation or homeless shelter, or providing after-school educational support are all great ways to get to know your local community, completely independently of any work-related socialising.

Specialist Services – What Are The Different Aspects To Take Into Account

So what about those aspects of relocation which are not so easy for the individual to take the lead on. Where may a person be reliant on the help of specialists and experts to navigate the bureaucracy, laws, cultural norms and way of life of their new home?

Typically, employers underestimate the magnitude of these seemingly simple tasks for expatriates and foreign hires. HR departments and hiring managers often wrongly assume that once their foreign employee has found an apartment or dealt with the actual logistics of moving from home country to host country, the relocation process is complete. This is simply untrue.

In many ways, the physical relocation is the easy part. The many “soft” factors involved in settling into a new country in the months, and in some instances years, following the actual move can often feel daunting and occupy a disproportionate amount of an individual’s time. Why? Because each country has certain nuances, laws, bureaucratic processes and cultural norms which are not immediately apparent to newcomers.

All it takes is an unsympathetic boss, a particularly stressful working environment or a spouse struggling with their new expat life, and these can easily lead to overwhelm, which in turn leads to unhappiness, despair and in extreme cases the foreign employee resigning from their position and returning home.

Helping Foreign Employees With Bureaucratic Processesrawpixel-682403-unsplash

Dealing with officialdom is a pretty daunting task in any country. When you don’t speak the language and don’t fully understand the processes, it is even more challenging. Whereas employers often help with work permits and anything associated with an employee’s ability to do their job, the jungle of other bureaucratic processes relating to one’s home and personal life are left to the employee themselves.

Understanding how to get a local drivers’ licence or a residents’ parking permit for example usually involves several trips to city hall or other government offices, particularly in countries like Germany, where rigid and inefficient bureaucratic processes which have not really changed since the 1990s are sadly the norm.

It doesn’t stop at dealing with government and municipal offices however. Certain administrative processes such as your annual apartment service charges, cancelling a mobile phone contract, becoming a member of a relevant professional body, or dealing with less than helpful customer service agents can all be stressful experiences in a strange country and in a language you don’t understand. What would take 30 minutes to fix back home can often turn into mammoth tasks consuming weeks of someone’s time in a foreign country.

Help Your Foreign Employees Become Aware Of Legal Differences

From something as simple as not being able to read a notice which says “residents’ parking only” landing you a parking ticket, all the way to disputes with neighbours over what is an acceptable level of noise, or getting in trouble with the tax authorities for not submitting a tax return because you didn’t think you needed to. It’s much easier to get in trouble with the law in a foreign country for the simple reason that you often don’t know what the law is you’re supposed to be abiding.

All of these occur long after the move but despite a foreign employee otherwise feeling settled by this point, an instance such as this can feel like one step forward, two steps back. What would be a relatively straightforward process to deal with in one’s home country can feel like a mountain to climb if you’re not fluent in the language or don’t know who to turn to for help.

Raising Cultural Awareness In The New Country

Dealing with cultures which are very reserved and strive not to offend if you come from a very brash or extrovert culture, or having to deal with small-talk and false politeness when your native culture is very direct and honest, are both great examples of cultural differences which take time, effort and endless observation for foreign employees to adjust and adapt to.

While employers can help with adaptation in relation to the workplace and business culture, social cultural nuances and norms are outside of that realm are not necessarily obvious to the newcomer. Take for example the German obsession with planning and punctuality, which the immigrant from a more laid-back native culture may not fully appreciate. His or her actions may inadvertently offend or come across as inconsiderate. To understand and get to grips with this sooner, the only way is to participate in a more specialist cultural awareness program to make the foreign employees aware of this. A simple, distance-learning course will usually suffice and does not necessarily require expensive, 1:1 coaching.

In a Nutshell

So, how can employers ensure that they get a return on the often not insignificant investment they have made in hiring a foreign candidate, or relocating an existing employee to a new country?

Firstly, managers should check in with their expat employees every now and then on non-professional matters, to ensure that their relocation is successful not only in regards to job satisfaction. Just as companies strive to ensure that they hire and retain minority employees, foreigners who have recently moved to the country to take up a position also may need some additional coaching and mentoring.

Secondly, where HR does not have the necessary resources to assist in softer aspects around relocation and integration, they should have the option to turn to third-party providers who can help provide this support cost-effectively. An employer cannot be expected to provide hand-holding in all aspects of ensuring foreign employees’ well-being. But neither can the company afford to rest on their laurels and expect that foreigners will seamlessly integrate into the culture and lifestyle of their host country, without help in understanding certain aspects of life in their new country which are neither obvious to a non-native, nor can easily be searched for online if you don’t speak the local language.

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James is a British expat who founded Live Work Germany to provide services to the expat community, as well as foreigners who wish to migrate to Germany. Aside from being a knight in shining armour to expats, he also enjoys cycling through the local vineyards with a few stops to sample the Riesling, and has been on a seemingly endless search for a half-decent Indian restaurant in Germany.

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