International HRM: how to communicate with expatriates 

  December 5, 2019

Employees are more mobile than ever before and working on assignment abroad is becoming more common. Businesses are using time working abroad for:

  • talent development
  • filling talent gaps 
  • senior strategic positions to drive expansion

As an international HR manager, you understand how difficult it is to manage an international workforce. There is a lot of complexity and you must have great relationships with HR teams and multiple managers, at home and in host countries.

Successful communication with expat colleagues and your counterparts in other countries is an important part of assignment success. Studies show that one of the primary causes of expat failure is culture shock and family issues. Effective communication from your HR team can really assist expat candidates, their spouse and family to anticipate and deal with common difficulties associated with moving abroad.  

When your team are contacting expats, cultural differences, time zones and communication style all have to be taken into consideration.  

Preparing a candidate for life abroad and managing them after they leave is one of the most difficult parts of international HR.  

Pre-departure training

You and your team will prevent a lot of potential misunderstandings or assumptions by setting very clear expectations in the candidate’s pre-departure training:

Communication skills 

Ensure pre-departure training provides the soon to be expat with information on the communication style in their host country.

It is also a good idea to cover expectations around communication with HR and head office so expats know exactly what is required before they leave. This could involve outlining:

  • formal check-in process with HR while on assignment
  • any paperwork that must be completed
  • pre or post assignment meetings or feedback 

There was a time when an expat assignment came with a generous suite of benefits like a housing allowance, education allowance for children and other financial supports. With the amount of talent mobility that happens in business today and the varying reasons for it, this level of support is not always available. It is important to make the supports that are available very clear to expats before they leave on assignment, so no assumptions are made. Also highlight all of the benefits you do provide like international health insurance cover and don’t forget the services that may be included like expat health insurance apps or expat assistance programmes so they understand the full value of what is available. 

Misunderstanding around benefits may cause expats to become frustrated so this is an important area to communicate clearly early in the process.  

In all communication, try to stand in your audience’s shoes. They may be new to a particular country and trying to find their feet with their family. Try to inject warmth and understanding into individual messages and the overall statement so that the recipient knows you understand the challenges they are having. 
Although a considerable amount of responsibility for communication with expat employees is likely to sit with HR, try to involve other people too. The department the employee moved from and management in their new department abroad should also be encouraged to help them find their feet abroad.
It is helpful to check in with expats on a semi-regular basis. This may be a weekly call initially, reducing to a quarterly catch up once the employee and their family are settled. These catch ups are an opportunity to discuss what they are enjoying about their experience and what can be improved. If the same areas for improvement are coming up all the time, there may be a gap in policy that needs to be filled.