Establishing an expat mentoring programme


March 26, 2020

The cost of sending an employee to work in another country are high. It can cost up to three times the employees compensation for the year when all expenses are considered. Unfortunately, for many global businesses, expat failure rates are also high. Research indicates 40% of expatriate assignments end in failure of some kind, either early repatriation of the employee or failure to achieve the goal of the assignment. 

The good news is, global HR best practice can improve the expat experience and reduce failure rates. One of the recommended methods to improve an employee’s chances of success is to assign them a mentor.

Expat mentoring is a formalised process where a more experienced employee works with an expat employee to help them succeed on assignment. Expat mentoring is particularly helpful to first time expats, especially if they can be mentored by someone who has previously worked overseas. The expat and mentor meet on an agreed basis to discuss solutions to any difficulties the expat may be having professionally or personally. The other option is for employees at different levels and roles in the host country to mentor a newly arrived expat. This has been shown to help with relationship building as the newly arrived employee has a warm introduction to the office. 
Common causes of expat failure include an inability to adapt to the culture in their host country, lack of social support, and isolation from their home country. Having a mentor who has successfully completed an expat assignment and understands the challenges of doing so is invaluable. Coupled with a reliable expat assistance programme, mentoring can enable an employee to thrive in their new role
While every organisation will have to take their own existing processes into consideration when establishing an expat mentoring programme, there are five key steps every business will have to undertake:

These are likely to vary depending on the size of your business, the number of expat employees and your history of sending employees overseas. For example, if you have a long history of expat success to draw from you may be able to assign a mentor to every expat on assignment. If previous experience is limited or you only have a small number of employees to draw from, consider developing a pilot programme for first time expats. If you don’t have experienced expats to match as mentors then consider an expat support team, assigning an expat:

  • a member of HR in head office,
  • an experienced manager in their home office, and
  • an experienced manager in their new location

Flaws in mentoring programme design and a lack of participant direction are two of the reasons many standard mentoring programmes fail. Set your programme up for success by establishing what mentors and mentees should do with their time together. Allow participants the freedom to agree frequency of contact however having a framework to follow is often useful, Leadership Development Services suggest:

preparation: participants get to know each other and outline what they hope to gain from the relationship.

establishing agreements: identifying the work participants want to complete during the mentorship.

enabling: this is where the actual work takes place, this phase is likely to last a long time, possibly the length of an assignment. 

closure: this is a time to reflect on the mentorship, what succeeded and what they would do differently. In an expat on a short-term assignment this may take place on the employees return. 

It might be useful to have some documentation for each stage to formalise the process and make step 4 much easier. The key to success with HR documentation is to make it as simple and accessible as possible. See if this is something your HR software can facilitate so it can be updated easily online. 

Once guidelines have been established and agreed, it’s time to recruit participants. It’s useful to have a two-step process for this:

general communication plan: this should inform employees at large about the expat mentor programme and eligibility criteria for participation. Staff meetings, intranets and internal newsletters are great ways to get the word out.

targeted communication: this communication is to individuals you would like to consider taking part, those who have successfully completed expat assignments in the past and those who are likely to go on an expat assignment soon. 

This step can be most difficult and organisations approach it in different ways. Again, the size of your organisation and number of expats is likely to impact how this is completed. Some suggestions from Chronus include:

  • self-matching: where participants choose their own mentor/mentee. This might work well if numbers are small and programme owners do not have specific goals in mind for each relationship. 
  • admin matching: programme owners match participants, this is particularly effective when you know certain employees have experience that their mentee could benefit from. 
  • bulk matching: this may be the best option if you work with a large multinational organisation. You may have HR software that willing participants input information into, they are then matched based on various criteria.
  • hybrid matching: for many businesses a combination of the above options may work best. 

Essential to the overall success of an expat mentorship programme is evaluation. Use a mix of hard and soft goals for this. Ultimately for an expat mentoring programme, you should see a decrease in expat failure and more successful assignments. However, it is also worth tracking the careers of those who have participated, do they have higher promotion or retention rates once they repatriate than those who did not? 

There is no doubt setting up a mentoring program is a lot of work for Human Resources and participants alike but if executed correctly the bottom-line results make it worthwhile.