How to solve communication problems between HR and expats

August 18, 2020
Research by the SHRM foundation showed expats adjust and perform better when HR management practices, including regular communication, are implemented correctly. 

There are a number of warning signs that may indicate a problem between a HR department and expatriates on assignment including:

  • Expat failure in the form of early repatriations or high levels of post-assignment turnover
  • Inadequate time to answer expat questions, brief new assignees, or co-ordinate with those repatriating 
  • High levels of assignment refusals by candidates without clear reasoning

If your organisation has some or all these issues, it might be time to look into the specific barriers that might be impacting how you communicate with employees living and working abroad.

In general terms barriers to communication fall into three common areas: 


This is the most significant challenge when it comes to managing expats. Set up an expat mentoring programme for new or soon to be expats. For most employees moving abroad having access to people who have been through the process before is invaluable. If possible, empower them to provide practical information on all the elements of expat life from how to use the public transport system to where to live and shop.  

Contact with HR in their home base is still important. Take advantage of technology to stay in contact during assignments. Schedule regular video calls, particularly during the early days, so new expats can share the challenges they may be facing in and outside of work. 


Emotional barriers to communication may be caused by feelings like mistrust, fear or stress. They can cause us to interpret communications in a negative way. If you suspect this may be an issue in your company, provide ways for employees to give anonymous feedback.


Depending on where we are in the world, there are significant differences in how we communicate. Our culture dictates everything from how we greet each other to the volume of our voice and how we discuss topics. From a HR perspective it is important to tailor your communication accordingly where possible.  

There is a lot HR teams can do to improve the lines of communication between head office and expats on assignment:


As mentioned above, how we communicate is impacted by our culture. Learn about the differences in how people communicate in each of the countries your business has a presence. If anyone on the HR team is not confident in their communication style consider taking a course in written or verbal communication skills. 

Non-verbal communication cues 

Even when communicating virtually, our non-verbal cues matter. Using video if available is useful as it helps us to see the other person and build rapport. During a video call be as aware of body language and tone as you would be in person. Sit up straight, maintain eye contact and use a tone appropriate to the topic. An informal chat can be relaxed but once you move on to specific HR policy ensure you are confident and your body language supports what you are saying. 


Improved transparency within an organisation positively impacts emotional barriers to communication. Foster transparency within HR by encouraging two-way communication, ask expats for feedback on how your department has helped them as well as areas for improvement. 

Active Listening

How we listen is really important when it comes to communication. Listen actively, using encouraging verbal comments to show you are paying attention, avoid interrupting a person when they speak, allow them to finish their point before answering and focus on what the person is saying. It can also be useful to summarise what a person has said to you when they have finished to demonstrate you are hearing them clearly. 


Put yourself in the shoes of an expat when communicating with them. They may be feeling overwhelmed and unsure. Acknowledge that things may be difficult, ask how they are feeling, but avoid assuming. Overall, be supportive with any response provided.  


Communication purely by email can become hard to track for busy expats. If your organisation use project management or workflow tools, consider utilising them for HR as well. An effective tool will enable you to share documentation and updates in real time, in a location that expats can access at their convenience. Most also have an instant messaging feature, enabling expats to get in touch with specific queries quickly and easily. 

These are just some of the ways your HR team can improve communication with expats while they are on assignment.

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