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Low-Cost Tips for Successful Inpatriation

August 12, 2001
Related Topics: Expatriate Management, Featured Article
Companies that send their employees to work in foreign countries typically helpthem get oriented to a new culture, customs, and language. But when U.S. companiesrelocate employees here from other countries, it's often a different story.

    Although 78 percent of the companies surveyed by Relocation Resources International(RRI) transferred employees to the United States, only 50 percent of them offeredunique relocation policies for these "inpatriates" or "inpats,"as they're called. They're often plunked into a strange land without even thesupport of an expatriate community that Americans often have to soften the cross-culturallanding.

    "There's an American on practically every corner in Paris," saysLaura Herring, president and CEO of The IMPACT Group. "There is not someonefrom Dusseldorf on every corner in Clayton, Missouri."

    The companies in the survey acknowledged that inpats needed assistance withsuch issues as child care and schooling, but they didn't offer the services,typically citing the need to save money, according to RRI.

    It may be that companies also are suffering from a touch of ethnocentrism,says Michael S. Schell, CEO of, a global online community forfamilies transferred abroad by their employers. "America perceives itselfas the best place to be, and we think everyone wants to be here," Schellsays. "There's the idea that you're lucky to have this assignment."

    But global relocation experts say that adjusting to life in the United Statesis not a snap. For the first time since 1995, the United States was listed asone of the most challenging foreign assignments in the Global Relocation Trends2000 Survey Report, sponsored by GMAC Global Relocation Services/Windham International,the National Foreign Trade Council, and SHRM Global Forum.

    Fortunately, there are a number of things that HR people in charge of inboundrelocations can do to ease the transition for inpatriated employees and theirfamilies. Many of the strategies are not expensive, and they can make all thedifference between a productive work assignment and a costly failure.

Conduct a Needs Assessment
    As soon as HR knows there is going to be a relocationfrom a foreign country, a representative should contact the family and conducta needs assessment, says Diane McIntire, director of career and family servicesfor Cornerstone Relocation Group, a relocation company based in Warren, NewJersey. Cornerstone's four-page form covers basic contact information, movedates, descriptions of the family's needs, and housing preferences. Once theform has been completed, a counselor calls to discuss the
assessment with the family.

    The process gives HR a picture of the family and any special needs it mighthave. It's good to know at the outset about a family's plans to bring a 150-pounddog to a Manhattan apartment, or that a spouse has a chronic medical problemthat will make establishing health-care contacts a top priority for HR.

    A commercial marketing specialist for a pharmaceutical company had a particularlychallenging family situation. The woman was relocating to the East Coast fromSwitzerland and needed help finding the right day care for her four-year-olddaughter. The little girl speaks Chinese and German, but no English. The employer'srelocation consultants helped the employee, a single mom, find a family day-caresetting that would be a good fit for her daughter. The company also arrangedfor English instruction for mother and daughter. Finding such resources by herselfwould have been very, very difficult, the mother notes.

    Since arriving in the United States at the end of March, the little girl hasbecome more comfortable with day care and is quickly picking up English phrases,including "OK" and "I love you." "She sings a lot oflove songs," her mother says.

Do Your Homework
    While the inpat family is compiling its list of needsand wishes, it's time for you to anticipate the difficulties your inpatriatedemployee and family will face, says Tara Brabazon, director of interculturalservices for GMAC Global Relocation Services. A quick Internet search to gatherinformation on the home country's culture can be a useful starting point, shesays.

    The Internet can also help you research good neighborhoods or areas for thetransplanted family, she says. "If you're involved in making a housingrecommendation, it's good to know where the ethnic communities are. If you'rein Kansas City, Kansas, and you have an Indian family inbound, it's good toknow where the Indian community is -- and there's a huge one in Kansas City,for instance. But if you're putting them way across town from it, you're nothelping. You're separating them from stores, schools," and other culturalanchors that would help them feel at home.

Address Expectations
    When you have the completed needs assessment, you canuse it to help the family get an accurate picture of life in the United Statesand understand the differences they're going to encounter, global relocationexperts say.

    "So many people inbound to the U.S. think they know it through moviesand TV," Brabazon says. "But they're not a good representation ofwhat life is like here."

    Crime, for instance, is a big issue with relocating employees, she says. "Inthe past year, the majority of inbound families have been concerned that theirchildren are going to get shot at," she says. Having crime statistics athand for the city of relocation can help counter the impression that life inthe U.S. is just like a Schwarzenegger movie.

    Some inpat spouses might hope to continue their careers in the United States.The assessment process gives HR an opportunity to explain that the U.S. is verystrict about its work permits and that most spouses probably will not be allowedto work at a paying job, Schell says. At the same time, the U.S. has ample volunteeropportunities that HR can scout for a spouse who wants to find meaningful workand a way to hone her skills for work when she returns home.

    It's a good idea to prepare families for some rental price shock. In many countries,housing isn't nearly as expensive as it is here. In addition to giving familiesan idea of what to expect, it's wise to guide their rental shopping wheneverpossible. Some inpats, in an effort to keep costs down, rent in unsafe neighborhoods,or in suburbs that are too far from the office for a reasonable commute. Thatkind of housing also might isolate a non-driving spouse.

    Now also is the time to talk about lifestyle in the United States. In manyforeign countries, families have access to low-cost domestic help, and lotsof it. McIntire says that one client, a Brazilian chemist, was used to havingthree domestic workers. In the United States, she discovered that the threedomestics she could afford were "me, myself, and I."

Gather Resources for the Family
    Because there might be pressure on the employee andhis family not to ask for help, it's important to give them resources they canuse on their own, global relocation experts say. That might include providinghelpful Web sites and building a list of contacts with social, professional,or recreation groups with shared interests. It could mean that you've scoutedout services -- everything from medical professionals to plumbers to dry cleaners-- that can work with them in their own language, or at least are willing totry.

    Another resource you can provide is to identify someone in the inpat's homecountry who has worked here and returned home, Brabazon says. "You canask that person to be a mentor, someone that's a safe person to ask questionsof. That person can also help in the readjustment when the employee is repatriated."

Tipsfor Coping
HRcan help inpats manage their culture shock with some basic strategies. Youcan suggest they:
  • Talk about theirfeelings.
  • Avoid constantcomparisons with home.
  • Search for remediesto problems.
  • Gain a basic knowledgeof the language so they can speak and read comfortably.
  • Identify and adopta local community.
  • Use local products.
  • Attend local festivalsand concerts.
  • Subscribe to thelocal paper.
  • Associate withpositive minded people.
  • Make friends withthose expatriates who are enjoying the new environment.
  • Spend leisuretime together; travel.
  • Maintain familyvalues and adhere to established rules.
  • Develop a newinterest or hobby that would not be possible at home.
  • Keep in touchwith home and friends.
  • Share their ownculture with friends and locals.

Set Up an In-Depth Briefing
    A thoroughly researched inpat briefing session thatcovers key issues is critical for a family's relocation success, Schell says.Ideally, the briefing would be done before the family leaves its home country.But realistically, he says, "that's not going to happen." So it shouldtake place as soon after the family's arrival as possible.

    Who should be there? Not just the employee, but the employee and the spouse.You can't assume that the employee will convey all the information presentedin the briefing to his spouse. Furthermore, Schell says, "It is not reasonableto assume that you can tell an employee's spouse, 'Call me if you have problems,'and they will. Their husbands will tell them: 'Don't you pick up that phoneand embarrass me.' That's why self-help tools are so important."

    Schell describes the outcome of one such husband edict: a Spanish woman, relocatedto England with her husband, wound up doing laundry and dishes by hand becauseshe didn't know how to use the washing machine, and the dishwasher wasn't functioning.Her husband forbade her to call his company for help. She didn't know whom tocall, and her husband's promises that he would take care of it went unmet. Thatcould just as easily happen here, Schell says.

Address These Three Briefing Basics: Credit, Housing, Schools
    Credit: Most inpatriates have no U.S.-based credit history.Without it, they'll be hard-pressed to buy a car, get a credit card, or evenrent an apartment. They will need the help of the company and a cooperativebank in order to apply for, receive, use, and make payments on a credit cardimmediately, so they have a credit history. This is an issue that doesn't requiremoney from the company, but it does require "focused attention to finda solution, because there isn't a ready-made solution," Schell says. "Thecompany has to grease the skids for the inpatriate at the bank and at the creditcard company."

    Housing: HR also can help inpats with housing by making a connection for themwith a real estate broker who is willing (probably for a fee) to help them findappropriate housing. "Ideally, you could identify, do a little training,and sensitize the real estate brokers you would want to be using," he says.That real estate professional also would be linked to you and your company,so that if the inpat was unsure about a decision, the broker would know thatyou could be contacted to help work it out. The company might also have to bewilling to stand behind the employee in order for him to secure a lease on ahome, Schell says. Many landlords are leery of renting to inpatriates. Knowingthat there's recourse to the company if something goes wrong will make themmore comfortable.

    Schools: Making decisions about where the family'schildren will go to school might precede the housing relocation, according toa Prudential Relocation white paper, "The United States as a Foreign Destination."It cites the example of a Swiss executive relocating to Manhattan. He examinedthe relocation consultant's research on schools and opted for a German schoolin a commuter suburb, and then found housing in that area.
Here are some key questions to ask about schools in preparation for passingon the
information to the inpat, according to Prudential:

  • Is an international baccalaureate program available in the district inwhich the child might be located?

  • How much freedom do teachers have in planning curriculum? In countrieswith national standards, the government requires teachers to follow a prescribedcurriculum.

  • Is an English-as-a-second-language program available? Not every schooldistrict has ESL classes or even teachers who understand the needs of asecond-language learner. The company should not assume that the inpat'schildren will go to public school, Schell says.

     "If I'm being relocated to France, there's noquestion that the company will let me send my kids to the American school there.If inpats are coming here, they have to negotiate a school allowance. It's ahuge issue to drop a foreign child into a public school. There are issues ofdress, manner of addressing teachers...everything is different."

Prepare Them for Culture Shock
    Inpats (and expats) go through a predictable cycle whenthey relocate, Brabazon says. There's a honeymoon phase, when everything aboutthe new country is great, exciting, and wonderful.

    Pretty quickly, though, they hit "crisis mode," a major dip downward,when everything about the new country is annoying and difficult. This is thepoint, Herring says, when relocation counselors often get teary phone callsfrom spouses, who in trying to do something that was so easy at home -- cooka special dish, for instance -- can't find what they need, and decide they'vebeen relegated to a circle of hell. It's not really about the lack of a certainmustard , Herring says. It's culture shock.

    With help, things get easier as time passes, the experts say, until the familyis about to return home, when they realize that they like it here. Then it'stime for another adjustment. Once they return home, there's the honeymoon, andthe cycle repeats. Then it's time for repatriation counseling, Brabazon says.

Symptomsof Shock
Thereare certain symptoms HR might observe as inpatriates adjust to their livesin a new country. HR might also consider giving inpats this list, so they'llrecognize what's happening.
  • Boredom
  • Withdrawal (avoidingcontact with the local nationals, spending much time at home readingor writing, speaking only to a few other expatriates)
  • Needing excessiveamounts of sleep
  • Eating or drinkingtoo much
  • Unexplainableemotional outbursts or crying jags
  • Excessive cleanliness
  • Physical distresssuch as recurrent stomach-aches, headaches, or other ailments
  • Blaming localnationals (repeated discussions that begin with, "The people areso ..." or "This would never happen at home!")
  • Blaming the company
  • Blaming one'sspouse
  • Family tensionand conflict
  • Excessive involvementin outside activities (overextending oneself)
  • Being extremelyimpatient and quick to criticize

Build a Case for Return on Investment
    If you think your budget is inadequate and you wantto secure funds for such services as cross-cultural classes or spousal languagetraining, you can try a technique that Herring developed as she worked to repaira relocation gone awry.

    An inpatriated Chinese employee and his wife were relocated from Los Angeles,which has a huge Chinese population, to corporate headquarters in Dallas. Itmade little difference to the employee, who spent 75 percent of his time travelingto China on sales calls.

    But his wife, who spoke no English, found herself stranded in suburban Plano,without other Chinese-speakers, markets, or friends. She was miserable, andafter several months, the executive pleaded for a return to Los Angeles. Management'sfirst answer was no, Herring says, because the L.A.-to-Dallas move had cost$57,000. The company wasn't willing to spend that amount again.

The HR person who received the case sought Herring's help because she had heardher talk about return on investment in a relocation. Together the two gatheredinformation, and learned that the executive produced sales of $2 million a monthduring his overseas trips. Given his sales abilities, his facility in five Chinesedialects, and his willingness to spend 75 percent of his time traveling, itwas estimated that it would take 18 months to replace him.

    "If they had to replace him, they would have a loss of $36 million inrevenue," Herring says. For $57,000, they could move him back and keephim. The HR person took Herring's one sheet of data to the company's management.The return to L.A. was promptly approved.

    "It's become a model that I use for inpats all the time," Herringsays. "What is the value this individual is bringing to you? Does the companythink it can't afford to spend money for a good relocation? It's really, 'Canyou afford not to?' The cost needs to be measured in terms of return on investmentfor the growth of the entire company, not just this solitary relocation."

Workforce, August 2001, pp. 42-47-- SubscribeNow!

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