Issue: Live Abroad and Love It

More multinationals, including Glaxo, are sending executives overseas. Here's how they help families adjust to a new country

Dutchman Herman van Barneveld always wanted to travel. In fact, the 44-year-old Vice President of Finance at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) eagerly told human resources at Glaxo's Netherlands office that he would be more than willing to relocate. Canada was first on his list because of the ease of transition: He says the country is similar to Europe, but different enough to make the relocation exciting. Also, he felt Canada's booming pharma market would also put van Barneveld in a more dynamic environment. Brazil and Italy were next on his list.

The explosion of the global economy means companies are sending more execs abroad for longer periods, rather than merely finding and training new execs within those countries. With this surge of exec expatriates (a GMAC Global Relocation Trends survey reported that 68% of multinational companies expected an increased expat population in 2008) comes increased pressure on companies to help employees adjust to new countries. The challenges range from figuring out how to help execs acclimate themselves to vastly different cultures to ensuring stable productivity levels.

For his move, one of van Barneveld's stipulations was that his family make the move with him. "Without my family, I am not able to perform," he says. And he's not alone: A recent study conducted on Marriott Executive Apartments' behalf by CfK Custom Research North America found that 28% of the surveyed executives stationed abroad cited "staying connected to friends and family" as a major concern.

Kids' Crash Course in English

The biggest issue for van Barneveld, though, was language. Even the switch from languages like English and Dutch (which share more similarities than, say, English and Japanese) can be tough. His three children spoke nary a word of English before the family's move across the pond, a source of stress not only for the kids, but for van Barneveld and his wife as well. So van Barneveld started going in to work early to free up his afternoons to spend with the kids, a maneuver Glaxo encouraged. "The company was very supportive, especially in a situation where burnout is very possible," he says.

Another Glaxo expat, Steve Nechelput, a vice-president for finance, relocated from Britain to Mexico in 1996 with his wife and 1-year-old son. The company paid for language classes for Nechelput and his wife, though he says his wife proved much more adept than he. After five years in Mexico, Glaxo then set up Nechelput and his family in Philadelphia for a six-year stint.

The U.S., incidentally, was harder to adjust to than any of the other countries Nechelput has lived in. "We underestimated the cultural differences," he says. "We didn't properly prepare ourselves, so it took much longer for us to mesh with the community." Part of the difficulty stemmed from a lack of fellow British ex-pats in the area, but everyday processes like getting a Social Security number and passing a driving test also presented challenges. The Nechelputs are now two years into a three-year residency in Singapore. The family has adjusted well—Nechelput says the kids are even doing better in school than they did anywhere else.

Home Again, Home Again

Glaxo put van Barneveld and his family through a counseling program both before and after the move, with advice on transitioning from one market to another and a daylong workshop prepping the family for the cultural differences and similarities.

Nechelput says the most helpful action the company took was not in the pre-move stages, but rather in providing home leave (which allows the family to return to Britain once a year) and with educational support during these extended tours. "My wife is currently studying hypnosis," Nechelput says. "Educational allowances are great, since she can now pursue areas of study she couldn't before."

Both van Barneveld and Nechelput moved with children, which they both assume was trickier than just moving with a spouse would have been. Van Barneveld played up the Canadian winters to his ski- and skate-loving kids. Nechelput had to answer this tough question from one of his daughters: Was it the company that was forcing their family to move, or was it him? It was a question that made Nechelput think, but whether his answer pleased his daughter or not, he did eventually come to a conclusion: "It was me."

Consultant Neil Jacobs explains how to pick the right candidates for foreign assignments and how to keep them happy overseas

The best thing a company can do for the execs it sends abroad is to first choose the kind of employee who can adapt to a challenging new environment, whether it be harsh Canadian winters or a Chinese marketplace. So says Neil Jacobs, head of consulting firm YSC's Organizational Development Practice in the U.S.

While many good candidates for stints abroad are older execs looking to fill the void left by the departure of grown children, Jacobs says plenty of Gen-Y-ers—who've grown up with a global point of view and are eager for jobs requiring travel—are another good bet. But whether you choose a 55-year-old veteran or a fresh-faced 25-year-old, by screening potential transplants for qualities like openness to change and adaptability—even if the relocation is temporary—is half the battle, says Jacobs.

Prepping your exec comes next. Besides flying him (or her) out to get a glimpse of his new office before the big move to help establish an initial connection to the place, Jacobs suggests treating him or her to basic language classes and workshops coaching him on the country's cultural norms. Offending business partners with a traditional American greeting or a pronunciation mixup isn't just bad for business; it can wound your clients' pride, damage your and your company's reputation, and contribute to feelings of frustration and hostility.

A Letdown is Possible

These negative feelings often escalate after an initial period of euphoria, Jacobs says. The initial excitement can last from the employee's first few weeks in his new home to a month or two. Then, the realization that his residence is not home sweet home begins to sink in.

To get your exec out of these doldrums requires knowledge of psychologist Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, according to Jacobs. Maslow postulated that, until a person's basic needs of safety, shelter, and a sense of belonging are met, he cannot function at the top of his game. In this case, he can't perform on the same level as he would have back home.

A company, then, needs to carefully choose its exec's residence. The place should be near the exec's office and, especially when the family has accompanied the relocation, in a safe area. Often, companies try to relocate groups of expat execs together, or find them housing in areas where other companies also have relocated workers.

Making Room for Fun

Jacobs says companies also need to encourage employees to join groups and enjoy hobbies in their host country, be they badminton leagues or bridge clubs. Company counselors can help an exec find an enjoyable activity to fill non-working hours. These groups provide a convenient outlet for stress relief. Even better than these groups, though, is letting family members relocate with execs during long tours of duty or, as Glaxo does, giving execs a home leave allowance to maintain ties to the homeland.

Once an exec has arrived at his new home, companies have to be mindful of not forgetting about the relocated employee, Jacobs says. He recommends keeping tabs on all employees abroad with frequent check-ins, preempting any feelings of abandonment. Out of sight —or out of the country —should not be tantamount to out of mind, he says.

Following these steps doesn't guarantee a well-adjusted executive expat, Jacobs cautions, but not following them can be a recipe for disaster—and a costly one, both in terms of dollars and cents and employee loyalty.

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