At a junior level many employees view an expatriate posting as a prize. Without families or dependants to worry about they are often happy to ‘go local’, meaning they are employed on a contract and benefits are broadly comparable to the local workers'. However, staff with families are far more complex to move and getting it wrong can mean significant financial loss to the family as well as company and can often have a negative career impact for the employee.
Most organisations managing expatriate postings offer the usual benefits such as appropriate medical cover, annual flights home, assistance with taxation, and often allowances towards renting a home or cars. However, many miss out the 'softer' benefits that can make all the difference to a smooth transition. What companies also fail to realise is that one size does not fit all when it comes to relocation packages and support.
What relocating families need is knowledge. They need to know about different types of schools (rather than just be dumped in the nearest international school) and how the admissions process works; they need to know academic calendars; where to source medical care; how to open bank accounts and how to convert their driving licences. The list goes on and on. Much of it can be managed with a carefully thought-out information pack, but in some areas the personal touch is definitely required.
Often most of the set-up work when relocating as a family is done by the ‘trailing spouse’ who is not employed by the company, which can be hugely daunting without support. If that person also has a job the task is monumental, as not only will they also be settling into a new role but both parents will have the equally hard task of settling the family into a different country with new schools and unknown childcare systems. Offering support can have a huge impact on the ability of your employee to start performing at a high level as soon as possible.
I spent five years living as an expatriate in Singapore and was lucky that my first child was just a few weeks old when we arrived. I had time to put her on the two-year-plus waiting list for the international school that I wanted but for those arriving with children already of school age this was a real problem. For most of them there was no help at all; they had to rely on whatever advice they could pick up from other expatriates or find online. These problems can often cause otherwise successful expatriate assignments to end early or not start at all.
The key to successfully managing expatriate assignments is never underestimate the impact difficulties resettling family members has on the outcome of the posting. While there are always parameters one must work within, developing a package of flexible relocation benefits that employees can pick and choose from depending on their circumstances is vital. Finding providers that will work with staff on a personal level to help them source what they need – be it a school place, nursery, nanny or even the right doctor – will vastly increase the chance of success for both employees and companies.
Andrea May is the HR manager for Parental Choice, an advice and childcare search service for professionals