The family-related risks of expat assignments and how to lower them

28 May 2024
Multinational organisations send employees on expatriate assignments to expand their business, develop talent, fill critical roles, and for other reasons.

Expatriate assignments come in different forms, including business-traveller and commuter assignments, long- and short-term assignments, developmental rotations and permanent transfers. In addition to benefiting an organisation, expat assignments offer employees valuable exposure to international environments and opportunities for skill development, which can facilitate knowledge transfer within the organisation and help attract and retain top performers.

There are, however, drawbacks to expatriate assignments. They are expensive for an organisation. Relocation expenses, taxes, tax gross-ups and administrative costs typically amount to two to three times an employee’s annual salary.

Expatriate assignments carry other risks, including possible failure. The employee may not have been a good fit for the assignment or may perform poorly for other reasons such as culture shock or because the organisation failed to properly set his or her expectations.

One significant risk that often surprises organisations is the expat’s family and their experience while on assignment. This article lists some important family-related challenges of expatriate assignments and provides strategies organisations can use to protect themselves.

The importance of considering family and common challenges

When an employee with a spouse and/or children accepts an assignment that involves working and living in another country, it’s imperative to consider the needs of the family members as well as the worker. A dissatisfied trailing spouse or children imperils an assignment and may cut it short or create a home environment that leads to poor worker performance. On the other hand, satisfied family members can have decidedly positive short- and long-term effects.

As Anne Copeland, the director of the Interchange Institute in Brookline, Massachusetts, notes in the Harvard Business Review, “If your family feels taken care of, everyone will be happier about the assignment. You will enjoy work and co-workers more, work more efficiently, have fewer cultural complaints, be more loyal and more willing to take another similar assignment.”

To create a positive environment, it’s important to understand and account for the pitfalls of expat assignments. Below are challenges that employees and their family members often encounter when working abroad:

  • Cultural adjustment and related issues: At the highest level, expatriates and their families may face difficulties adapting to a new country because of linguistic and social differences, which can cause stress and detract from worker productivity.
  • Separation from loved ones in the home country: Extended separation from loved ones in the home country can cause significant, sometimes unforeseen levels of stress.
  • Education and healthcare concerns: During assignments, the family members should receive access to education and healthcare services that are at least the equivalent in quality as those in the home country. Problems in this area are common and represent a significant risk.
  • Career sacrifices and spousal employment: When an expat’s spouse can’t sustain their career or find a suitable job in the new location, it can lead to unhappiness, financial strain and family conflicts. These issues can negatively affect the expatriate’s job performance.
Strategies for mitigating family-related risks to expat assignments

"Successful expatriate assignments require addressing the needs and concerns of both the family and spouse,” says Jason Mendelsohn, a global mobility director at Vistra.

Mendelsohn stresses that organisations should proactively communicate with their employees about the challenges of expat assignments.

"Companies must initiate early engagement with expatriates and their families,” he says. “This involves offering thorough information regarding the assignment, destination, cultural expectations, and the support services that are accessible.”

Employers should take the following steps to mitigate the family-related risks of expatriate assignments:

  • Pre-departure communication of expectations: To ensure a smooth transition for expat families, the employer should hold orientation sessions that provide information about their new location, including local customs, health care resources and schooling options and any safety concerns in and around their neighbourhood.
  • Family-friendly policies: Implementing family-friendly workplace and travel policies can help expat families create and maintain a healthy work-life balance. Policies may include flexible work arrangements, parental leave options, and help to secure quality childcare services.
  • Cultural integration programs: Cultural integration programs play a vital role in helping expat families adapt to their new surroundings. Participating in language classes, social events, and cultural activities can build a sense of belonging and aid in creating a support network within the community. This approach can reduce feelings of isolation and lead to a more positive experience overall.
  • Ongoing support: Establishing a sturdy support system that is readily available throughout the assignment is critical. This includes regularly checking in with expats and their families to address any concerns or difficulties they may confront. Providing access to counselling services or support groups can also help expat families adjust to challenges and support their emotional well-being.

There are of course many other steps employers can take to mitigate assignment risks that may not be directly related to the family. For example, designating a senior-level leader to the expat who is accountable for the success of the assignment can lead to a higher return on investment.

To ensure that multinational organisations and their employees benefit from expatriate assignments, it is crucial to prepare, communicate and monitor progress. By following the above steps, organisations can increase their assignment success rates, create a more productive global workforce, and improve the well-being of expatriates and their families.