Last update on July 12, 2019

Transferees on their first assignments abroad— especially young, single expats—often are unaware of some of the challenges they will face. Michele Bar-Pereg writes.

Transferees on their first assignments abroad — especially young, single expatriates — often are unaware of some of the more challenging effects of life without a support network of friends, family, and colleagues.

I have discovered a general feeling among global mobility professionals that back in the 1980s and even 1990s, ambitious executives clearly did not discuss or influence their career prospects by talking about the separation of work and personal life. It was a far more macho society, where ambition was all that seemed to matter. Today, most singles on the global mobility career path have a far more balanced view of the segregation of work and personal life.

Single transferees often assume that they have a trouble-free paradise in front of them. They not only have their youth, but they are on the first step of the career ladder — often without some of the physical and emotional baggage of their counterparts — and appear to be able to function without the network of home, family, and other social associations. Maybe they’re looking forward to meeting other people to date (perhaps online), as well.

On the surface, it sometimes appears that it is relatively easy for young people to recognize country cultures and deal with life accordingly. Younger people seem to be able to capitalize on similarities without being too bothered by the differences. This is, of course, to the good; however, our younger transferees often are caught off-guard when cultural differences emerge and suddenly get in the way of doing business.

If we imagine that culture is an accumulation of life experiences spanning generations of families, the culture of constantly being on the move across borders has yet to be revealed.

Even though there is better-than-ever access to the Internet and other assorted resources, other than learning common facts and conventional wisdom, young people on the move sometimes do not engage themselves in cultural adjustment. They are driven by their ambition, an eagerness to travel, and the thrill of it all.

Being single usually means that these young people — perhaps on their first international assignments — often lack the emotional and logistical support of a partner. It will be their sole responsibility to handle all the details of relocation, learn the job, and build a social network on their own. It is somewhat of a special category in terms of relocation support, where their challenges are to juggle work, life, and relocation. With intense new cultural exposure — and possibly solitude and loneliness — it is no wonder that these employees are so devoted to their work in the early months after arrival. The workplace is, at first sight, the most comfortable aspect of the relocation process.

However, the combination of working all hours with few other outlets to occupy them away from the workplace can mean that their lifestyle is imbalanced which, in turn, easily can lead to burnout. Being seduced by the idea of a ‘new life’, professional advancement, and business expense accounts, our young mobile expatriates sometimes forgo the needs of a personal life away from the office.

Personal perspective

I recently coached a young woman from Finland who had just arrived in Holland on assignment. The team she managed was a mix of local Dutch employees and European expatriates. She was extremely worried and depressed, dealing on a daily basis with her own perceived inadequacies, her lack of support from the company, and her home life which, as she put it, was a complete mess.

It was obvious that this young woman (32) on her first assignment abroad needed some executive coaching to reinforce the strengths which she was hired for in the first place in the form of some cross-cultural training to understand the needs and values of her team, as well as the country in which she found herself. All this was lacking in her relocation package. In our work together, I tried to re-discover her strengths and determine her cultural values and how to best apply them to the situation at hand.

The young single professional needs to take a long look at the following areas to be certain they are going to get the best out of the position offered.

First, they need to make the right decision. Is this the job they want, the sort of work they are capable of doing, and a position in which they can grow? They should evaluate whether they are truly adaptable and have the ability to operate in a totally new environment and culture and, most important, deal with the unfamiliar on a daily basis. That is real pressure. They will have to leave friends, family, and their support network of trusted resources and advisors, operate independently and live in a place where they may not personally know anyone else.

Often, these young singles are in personal, romantic relationships and the decision is whether to give them up or decide to take a fairly new and undetermined relationship abroad. Carried away with the excitement of it all, they may not examine their situation too closely if they truly have a strong, loving, and long-term relationship that can withstand the stress of moving. Often, these relationships cannot take the sustained tension that such a transfer will require. Those in long-term relationships find it hard enough, so building a life abroad on a new and somewhat unknown relationship is an area for trouble ahead.

To love and lose

Sometimes, even long-term partners do not want to join their counterparts overseas. Probably being more or less the same age, they, too, might be at the start of a career that will not be taking them abroad. They may not perceive any career or education prospects in the new location, and with immigration and labour laws being restrictive for partners in many countries, the ultimate decision will be not to accompany the expatriate on his or her travels. That brings into question long-term relationships, and how to keep love alive from a distance. This causes a great strain on the relationship and also may make it exceedingly difficult for the expatriate to establish roots in the new environment.

Many HR professionals say that they are unaware of the strain on single personnel trying to keep a relationship going from a distance; they often have no idea about the social background of these particular employees. More times than not, the relationships do not work out. The intimacy is lost, as relating to each other across time zones is frustrating.

What is lost is the sense of knowing what the partner is doing; what he or she is experiencing in his or her daily life, and the inability to share new experiences. So when productivity suddenly drops, and complaints start piling up, it may well be because of a broken romance.

We try to prepare our singles in relationships for the realization that things simply may not work out. We also have seen the working partners cling to all that they hold dear in their home countries as a way to keep from becoming overwhelmed by a new job in a vastly different culture. They work all the hours given and more just to keep real life from intruding too much, then return home to find a partner who is getting on with his or her life.

Our younger singles have been relying on an idealized version of their former life to keep them going in the new situation. The reality is that the cost of this reliance on a person far away means not settling in, not gathering resources, and not forming new networks.

I met Thomas when he was doing an internship at my company. Lucky for him, he then went on and got a ‘proper job’ with a large Dutch banking group. He had just asked his girlfriend from Germany to join him. Their love story was straightforward the way he told it. She had to finish her studies as a physiotherapist in order to join him and hopefully they would live happily ever after in a lovely expatriate apartment. After all, he did have a really good job offer. She made the most of her vacation hours to spend time with him, and albeit brief and romantic, they loved each other and she was quite willing to work in Holland. Or was she?

Trouble was that for her, the first step on the career ladder was rather unstable. Re-training for Dutch standards, learning the language, and the loss of independence all hit her hard. His local hire terms, with few extra benefits, meant that he was all but Dutch. The apartment, a fifth-floor walk-up with a view of a canal (if you hung dangerously out of the window) was the best they could afford, and even that cost just under EUR 2,000 per month (USD 3,175)—way more than most Dutch pay for rent.

Most important, their time apart had changed them and it was soon obvious their sights were not set on the same goal. She had to take odd jobs, often babysitting, learn the language, and do some volunteer work to keep up with professional skills. This was not a career choice for two—just for one.

These days, this type of relationship does not always work out, as was the case for Thomas and his girlfriend. Young people want to take on the world, but just as in all relocation decisions, two people have to more or less want the same thing.

Terms of employment

Another important factor for the single expatriate is to negotiate the contract and terms of employment. Much will depend on whether he or she is being hired as a local — which often means a difference of salary, expenses, cash in hand, and status. If taken on as an expatriate, there is an expectation of good things and often there is a presence of a ‘how much can I get’ attitude. In addition, from the company’s point of view, an awareness of the tax implications of the various countries in which they conduct business must be attained.

HR and line managers already have benchmarked the vacant positions with other similar companies. They will account for factors such as the training and opportunities they will offer and the reputation of the company, both of which they assume will attract the very best talent.

Another area of concern is whether the company or the individual is requesting the transfer. A transfer that is company-driven will have an expatriate package more or less in place. This package usually will contain the same net salary received in the home country with a refund for all relocation costs and an adjustment for cost-of-living and hardship allowances, as well as compensation for selling a home or car on short notice, housing and automobile allowances for the new destination, paid schooling for children, a certain number of trips home, and guaranteed assistance with immigration and tax. Hopefully, but not always, there will be destination assistance, including cross-cultural training for differences in business etiquette and language training support.

Being employed as a local hire is a different scenario; often, foreign students pursuing a degree will be in a good place to be hired locally and, therefore, able to immediately get to work, assuming an understanding of the host-country country culture and language. The term ‘localization’ is used when cash compensation is offered for accepting a local living package far more modest than what is offered to long-term expatriates. However, those hired as locals will receive travel expenses, work permits, temporary accommodation (though for far fewer days allowed than long-term expatriates), and some will be offered the shipment of household goods.

Local hires’ biggest difficulties are borne out of being genuinely foreign to the host country. In Europe, they may have crossed just one or two borders, from Luxembourg to Belgium or from France to Spain, and naturally, have all the work and troubles associated with settling in without support from HR—whether from a financial perspective or time-wise.

Marianne, HR manager of an international retail company in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, said that when employing a mix of long-term expatriates and local hires, it would help if they established an analysis of what their living costs in their home country to understand what they will need to allow for the new location. She had witnessed a kind of “breakdown” of local hires who received no assistance; after the first four to six weeks they had not managed to organize their entry paperwork, did not fully understand public transportation, were yet to get their bank account up and running—all things they were supposed to do themselves.

It is fair to say that HR managers, as well as managers of expatriate teams, are not always sympathetic to the enormous overflow of information given to transferees in the first hours or days after arriving at their new workplace. How many times do we hear as relocation professionals—especially from our young single clients—that their first days at work were a whirlpool of information about the job, the team, and the necessary paperwork needed to be completed?

Then they have to remember difficult names, key locations in the office building, extension numbers, and potentially begin to create a work timetable. No wonder they come ‘home’ exhausted to an empty fridge, no telephone connection, and a bad headache.

Getting out in front

One way to get knowledgeable is to ensure that any ‘look and see tour’ focuses on a transferee’s monthly budget breakdown together with an understanding of what life is likely to cost. This often is overlooked on the tour, but many of us in the global workforce mobility industry see time spent on looking at cost of health club memberships, eating out, cinemas, public transportation, TV sets, and CDs. This is in addition to looking at housing, which usually is put forward as the one aim of the preliminary visit.

There is the usual speculation of the price of a fast food meal, a soda, or athletic sneakers. How many relocation consultants have stopped at relevant shops and shopping centers, sports clubs, and electrical stores—usually never mentioned on the official to-do list but so vital for reaching financial cost objectives for the client and even more so for the single transferee on a much tighter budget.

We advise these clients to attempt to separate what likely will to be a one-time expense from the daily cost of living. This might include getting personal financial advice. Often, local accountants cannot help international-bound transferees; therefore, the potential transferee will have to ascertain advice from a financial advisor who has experience managing cross-border tax.

Other one-time expenses may include language classes and furniture purchases. Young people may not always have a large array of work-suitable attire which, again, usually is a one-time expense. These types of one-time payments should be included in a part of any well-prepared single’s negotiating tools—even though it may not always be accepted.

Looking forward

Summing up, we advise our young singles—as eager as they are to move with just their laptops and a backpack—to negotiate well and ensure their new job is secure and they are on the right career path. Once abroad, even with a large company, there is not necessarily anyone following their career and they need to maintain some good contacts at the headquarters location to keep an eye on their progress should they wish to return.

They need to ensure that the package they have is the best they can negotiate, look out for hidden costs in the new environment, and try to get some time off in the first weeks for achieving relocation-oriented tasks. They need to be prepared to work long hours and, when the working day extends to late evening hours, be prepared to say that it is time to take a good look around at the new environment and spend some time learning to fit in so that they can embrace all challenges, both personal and professional.