Insights for Global Employers
Volume 1 of 5
we know expats
An employer's guide to a successful assignment
we know expats
An employer's guide to a successful assignment
Preparing employees to live in the U.S.
Employees who are assigned overseas often report problems with money, culture shock, homesickness and feeling forgotten by their home office. As an employer, there are a few simple things you can do to make their transition easier.
Assess your employee thoroughly

U.S. immigration is nearly impossible because of the government's efforts to preserve jobs for American citizens. Work visas are now scrutinized more closely and take longer to get than they once did. To make the process easier, start with the strongest possible candidate - ensure that they are the right fit for the job because their qualifications will be scrutinized.

For example, if your employee earned a degree in French while in college but has since become an auditor, the U.S. government may focus more on the credential than the recent experience. Consider all possible roadblocks before assigning an employee to the U.S.

Start the visa process early

Once you've established your employee is right for the job, make a documentation checklist for the employee.

  • Employees will need a temporary worker visa, as will their spouse and any minor children accompanying the family.
  • Employees will be required to show that they can financially support their families in the U.S. Employers can help by providing documentation to prove this.

If your employee is traveling without his family, help set up communication tools so he can stay in touch - home Internet, cellphone service, Skype instructions. Employers can also help schedule trips home by providing a clear vacation schedule and tips for booking economical travel.

Reprioritize your employee's time

As a supervisor, you'll be focused on how your office will function after your employee leaves. But an employee who's leaving the country will need time to plan. Be mindful of their well-being and give them the necessary time to speak with their destination service provider. Instead of asking them to spend more time wrapping things up in the office, reprioritize their work temporarily so they can focus on a successful transition.

Talk to your employee about schools.

Employees with school-age children have a lot of decisions to make. The destination service provider can counsel them on the schools available to their children, which will usually determine the area where they'll live, so they should tackle this question before they make housing decisions.

While the U.S. has a very large public school system, many employees prefer private schooling if the public schools don't meet their children's needs. Employers should consider providing financial aid for private school because many employees will see it as a necessity for their children, not a luxury.

No matter what school the children will be attending, encourage your employee to start collecting records as soon as possible: transcripts, report cards, test scores, etc. Having everything organized and in one place will make the process easier.

Plan a pre-trip.

Offer your assignee a 3-5 day preassignment trip to their destination before the job begins. If possible, provide that trip to the family as well, especially when there are schoolage children involved. This gives the assignee a chance to experience the culture, the people, and the feel of being in their new home city.

Consider culture shock, even for English-speakers

If the person coming into the U.S. speaks English, employers often assume they won't have to deal with acclimation challenges because they don't have a language barrier. But even English speakers face a cultural shift. An employee from Sydney, Australia will still feel like a foreigner in San Francisco, California, for example. In some cases, even speaking the language does not mean they will understand others or be understood. Prepare your employee for this and point them toward a person or other resources they can consult with questions.

It's not enough to have the services available, the employee also needs to know about them and understand how to access them. One of the most surprising results of the 2013 Expatriate Trends Study showed a significant gap in the perspectives of companies and employees. More than 80 percent of companies responded that they provide cultural training for employees going on assignment. Yet only 40 percent of expat employees at those companies said that their company offered language or cultural training.

One possible reason for the gap: companies offer cultural training, but only for select assignment locations. That policy should be reconsidered, even when there seems to be little surface difference between the home country and the assignment destination. Any move to another country will be unsettling without preparation.

Research weather & transportation

Climate and transportation will vary by location, but you can help your employee by doing research and connecting them with knowledgeable people. If someone in your company has lived in the assigned city in the past, introduce them so the assignee can ask questions. If not, the destination service provider should be able to offer basic information.

Weather should be fairly straightfoward to research online. You can also provide packing tips from employees who have worked overseas before. When considering transportation, determine whether your employee will need to drive or if public transportation will be sufficient. Consider the needs of their family as well. If they will be driving, they'll need to obtain a driver's license, and requirements will vary by state. If they won't, provide information on the safest and most efficient public transportation in the city.

Tell employees how to travel with pets

If your employee is taking a pet, they will need to be micro chipped and have a Pet Passport, both of which can be obtained at the vet. If the employee is coming from a rabies-free nation, the pet won't need a vaccination to enter the U.S. However many states insist on a vaccination after arrival, so employees should make arrangements with a local vet for care. Vet-supervised flea and tick treatment may also be required.

When it comes to booking travel for a pet, employees should purchase a pet ticket at the same time they purchase their own. They should also consider whether or not they will be traveling during warm months. Most pets travel in the cargo hold, which can get too hot during the summer.

Educate employees about medical care

Getting medical care in a foreign country can be confusing and intimidating. One of the best ways to limit surprises in this area is with a pre-assignment health risk assessment or physical exam. This will not only ensure that they are fit for travel, but also offer the opportunity to plan for any conditions that may need care once overseas — such as filling prescriptions for medications or finding a specialist in that region.

Work with your health insurance professional to create a healthcare guide that addresses all of the following:

  • Where to go for emergency care
  • How to find a primary care doctor
  • Whether the employee or the healthcare professional will pay outof- pocket expenses at the time of service
  • How to file a claim

Knowing where to go and what to do before a health issue arises will empower the employee and keep healthcare costs and claims issues to a minimum. Employers can also provide contact information for the health insurance company so employees can get their questions answered quickly and directly.

As the United States continues to be a primary destination for globally mobile employees, it's increasingly important for multinational employers to remain cognizant of the many challenges for their employees embarking on an assignment here. While a U.S.-based assignment represents an exciting opportunity for most, often, complexities that can potentially compromise success are overlooked.

It is widely recognized that the U.S. healthcare system is among the most complex in the world. Health care reform has added to that complexity significantly and contributes to difficulties for employees to understand the choices available to them, and how to achieve better healthcare outcomes for themselves and their families. Global mobility managers need to be as nimble as possible to help their employees on assignment in the United States navigate this increasingly complicated healthcare landscape.

Better understanding the key issues and anticipating the evolving needs of their companies' most highly valued assets will enable global mobility managers to protect the considerable investment they make toward expatriate assignments.
David Maltby
President, Cigna Global Health Benefits