Intercultural theorists supported by expat testimony testify to the fact that, regardless of the unique nature of each overseas assignment, there is a predictable cycle of ups and downs that families tend to go through. The four phases of the adjustment cycle, symptoms and suggested coping strategies relating to each, are well documented and are often presented to transferees during a pre-departure cross-cultural orientation. Yet, IHR expat policies and programs rarely reflect the realities of the adjustment lifecycle.

The bottom line is, international transferees and their family members who do not feel supported both professionally and personally by their sponsoring organization throughout the entire assignment may start to feel isolated and resentful. This can lead to failed assignments, early repatriation, high incidents of attrition upon reentry, and bad PR for the company -- both at home and overseas.

The financial and emotional ROI at stake for all involved should lead IHR to one conclusion: design policies and programs that support the entire family unit throughout the adjustment lifecycle. An awareness of the specific challenges posed by each distinct phase of the adjustment lifecycle can help HR develop flexible, proactive support programs that anticipate and address specific needs without adding dollars or manpower to the equation.


The typical phases of adaptation are Preparation, Honeymoon, Culture Shock, and Adaptation. At RW³, we also include Repatriation because it is an important yet often overlooked component of a successful assignment experience. The first step is to understand the stages and the implications of the adjustment lifecycle.


The predeparture period is a time of mixed emotions. Usually, there is excitement at the prospect of "starting over" and experiencing a different country, culture, and lifestyle.

This is often tempered by the anxiety produced by moving into unfamiliar territory -- both literally and figuratively. Very often, roles and responsibilities tend to be polarized -- especially if the employee is expected to assume the new position and be "in-country" immediately, leaving the spouse to organize the logistics of the move.

Compounding this is the fact that, while the spouse is trying to manage the process, the information needed may only be communicated through the employee. The HR department then becomes the faceless "gatekeeper", the jet-lagged and overwhelmed employee acts as the informational filter, and the spouse is left with all the responsibility but none of the information -- and therefore authority -- to make decisions and move the process forward. Factor in time zones, an unforgiving bureaucracy, and the assignment experience -- and positive regard for HR -- has already started to sour for the family.


Rather like a traditional honeymoon, this is the time when the expatriate family's relationship to the new environment is viewed through rose-tinted glasses. Everything seems new, exciting, and exotic. However expatriates commonly report that initially they adopt the more temporary and sheltered mindset of a tourist: happy to sample the delights of the local environment to the extent to which they're comfortable -- but not having to interface with the locals directly, at least, not as long as they're staying in temporary hotel accommodation.

Also, to continue the analogy with the start of married life, after the relocating family has been in the spotlight and been swept along by a wave of support and good wishes -- they can suddenly feel isolated, cast adrift, and "stuck": unable to move their life forward in this new environment.

Culture Shock

Once the family emerges from the cocoon of the honeymoon state, the rosy hue fades and the reality of life in the new environment sets in. The downward slide that this precipitates in the adjustment cycle is usually referred to as "culture shock." Causes can include feelings of isolation, communication issues, and discomfort with some aspect of the culture or local environment.

These may be the root causes of culture shock, but they can trigger the type of physical or emotional symptoms that are normally associated with stress, or even mild depression. It is important for professionals who support international staff and their family members to be aware that expats can be so overwhelmed by the experience of culture shock that they often fail to recognize the onset or cause of symptoms, or know when and how they should seek help.

In terms of circumventing or at least minimizing Culture Shock, it is also important to note that there is usually a correlation between the amount of realistic information, and informed support received during the phases and the degree of severity with which "culture shock" hits.


Six to twelve months into the assignment, the dramatic "ups and downs" start to diminish and the expatriate family tends to reach a "recovery plateau" in their adjustment experience. This does not look or feel like the euphoric "high" of the honeymoon period, nor is it exempt from some occasional backsliding. Rather, this should be the most comfortable, productive phase of the assignment when the family as a whole should reap the rewards for navigating the cultural and emotional challenges of the previous phases.

However, rather than being a time for everyone to relax, this is the optimal time for HR to remind families of ongoing support resources, support programs or policies that have not yet been utilized, in short, take the pulse of the assignment.


For families who have been overseas for an extended period or on successive international assignments, the process of returning home can be as challenging and traumatic as the initial relocation. Children, in particular, may have spent a significant amount of their lives overseas -- or may never have lived in the home country. In short, even though by HR standards the repatriation is to "home base", the repatriating family may feel culturally, socially and professionally out of sync with their new environment.


Armed with the knowledge of the realities and challenges of each distinct phase of the expatriate lifecycle, how should IHR respond?

Firstly, by designing assignment policies and programs that are flexible and afford transferees and their families control and support throughout the lifetime of an expatriate assignment.

In her article "Myths of Expatriate Life", Barbara Fitzgerald-Turner advocates providing a budget with a menu of choices rather than an absolute policy that cannot respond to unique family needs. She suggests that this approach is more cost effective and sets the assignment off on a positive footing for all concerned.

Carrie Shearer, former Manager of International Human Resources at Caltex, agrees with the notion of flexible assignment guidelines. During her tenure at Caltex, they experimented with paying housing and home leave allowances in monthly sums rather than paying specific costs. This allowed the expatriate family control and choice over how to use the money.

As an expat veteran of several hardship postings herself, Ms. Shearer feels strongly that:
"…Exemplary policies never lose sight of what it was that they were meant to do so they can be administered in the best interests of the employee."


A flexible approach may be reflected in a policy of offering the entire family the opportunity to go on a homefinding trip to the destination country early on in the process. The ability to visualize what the new home or school will be like can greatly reduce anxiety levels. Experiencing first-hand the challenges -- and perks -- of the new lifestyle also allows the family to prepare on both a practical and emotional level for the assignment ahead.

A cross-cultural program can provide all relocating family members with an opportunity to receive information, have concerns addressed and develop coping strategies to support them through the personal and professional transition ahead.

However, again, timing, together with the perceived value of the service, is critical. The transferee and accompanying family members may not perceive the need -- or feel they have the time -- to devote an entire day (or days) to a pre-departure cross-cultural orientation.

Flexible alternatives can include dividing the program into 2 halves. The first session can be effective in raising everyone's comfort level pre-departure by providing country and culture specific information, guidelines on protocol and etiquette, and establishing realistic expectations in terms of both business behaviors and practical daily living challenges.

In the follow-up "post-arrival" session, once the participants have been exposed to the new culture, they have a better sense of "what they don't know", and will come armed with specific questions. This session, then, can focus more on analysis, strategy building, and cross cultural skill development.

Web-based interactive tutorials exist as an affordable supplement to traditional face-to-face counseling to provide support for the relocating family through the business and social cultural adjustment process. While this information cannot achieve the degree of personalization of traditional coaching sessions, they raise awareness of the challenges ahead, and allow the family to self-manage the process. With follow-up online coaching options, this is a flexible, affordable option to provide initial learning and ongoing support.


In addressing the spouse's career situation, a flexible approach which offers long term support is preferable. Companies typically offer assistance with career counseling, outplacement, or work permit application as part of the pre-departure program. However, spouses may be too busy coping with logistical arrangements or supporting their family through the transition to focus on their own career or job search plans. Others may defer career-related decisions until they feel settled and have an opportunity to appraise how they feel about working -- and the opportunities and challenges that exist in the new locale.

For this reason, shorter interventions (possibly including online or telephone career counseling and job search coaching) starting pre-departure and lasting several months into the assignment will be most effective. This should be preceded pre-departure by a meeting with the HR manager to clarify the spouse's work visa situation, and to outline other available forms of support such as an education allowance, assistance with work permit application or a job search, career counseling, or a loss of income stipend.

As details can get lost during the pre-departure bombardment of information and priorities will shift throughout the assignment, a quarterly programmed electronic reminder of available support options is a cost effective way of reminding spouses that the support is ongoing, and that they haven't dropped off of HR's radar screen! This may be particularly important during the "culture shock" phase when the spouse may be experiencing feelings of isolation, loss of self-worth, or a sense of feeling "stuck" in the adjustment process.

In addition to designing flexible assignments tailored to each family's needs,
Ove Munch Ovesen, former VP of International Human Resources at Novo
Nordisk, a Danish pharmaceutical company, contends that companies should support the whole family throughout the relocation entire process -- from their initial consideration of an international assignment through their return.

Many view the life of an expatriate spouse as one with little responsibility and numerous perks. However, while the working partner benefits from the structure, continuity, and sense of purpose provided by the new professional environment, spouses often find themselves cast adrift; struggling to rebuild a sense of direction and confidence as they support their family through adjustment challenges.

The spouse also has to interface directly with the culture to accomplish day to day tasks. While ultimately rewarding, the initial struggles with language, local bureaucracy, and different cultural expectations can be exhausting and demoralizing. It is no surprise that numerous studies indicate spousal and/or family unhappiness is the number one reason for assignment failure .

HR can support expat families though these initial emotional and physical challenges by making on the ground support available, starting with the homefinding visit and extending well into the lifetime of the assignment. A professional relocation counselor can anticipate the specific challenges the family will face, and provide the information, resources, and support they need. This is essential in helping the spouse to expedite setting up a new home , and sets the tone for the type of ongoing support and response they will receive from HR.

Companies can sponsor -- by themselves or in partnership with other multinationals -- a spouse support group and/or network. This is a win-win proposition that requires minimal investment of a company's resources, yet is pays great dividends in terms of providing a lifeline to newcomers and ongoing support to longer term expats.

Spouses who received assistance from a company sponsored support group are usually only too willing to reciprocate and be a "buddy" to a newcomer. Further, serving as a resource on how to navigate the local culture can be a powerful validation of the relocation experience for the spouse, and can translate into material for a reentry resume!

Sally Lipscomb, former expat and President of The Rainier Group, an International EAP provider, commenting on the impact of culture shock reports that:

"Higher stress levels often result in the activation of an individual's physical or emotional "Achilles heel": For some, it's their ulcer or headaches, and for others, it's allergies. Often the new environment can exacerbate a pre-existing condition. An allergy-caused respiratory problem may escalate into asthma, due to the heavy pollution level in the new city."

Sally underscored that it is vitally important that expat families are fully familiarized with their international health care plans and global network providers, and that they understand how to access the services available to them.

"Emotional support is needed as well", Sally continues. "A friendly, supportive counselor who speaks the expat's language may provide the crucial link to support when the 7 year old absolutely refuses to go to the new school or the college-age son has adjustment issues back home. The Global EAP can provide an immediate helpful voice and assistance, 24 hours a day, by telephone, with a referral to a local counselor who speaks the expat's language.”


Susan, a spouse whose husband was transferred to London 2 years ago, initially heard that she was not entitled to a work permit in the U.K. Having taken a career hiatus for what she describes as "two, long, frustrating years", Susan learned that the information she had received was incorrect: she had been entitled to work all along. Her frustration and anger was directed, rightly or wrongly, at the sponsoring organization that had moved them to the U.K.

Given the potential impact that an unhappy spouse or other family members can have on the ultimate success of an assignment, it makes sense for HR to make the spouse/partner feel included and consulted throughout every step of the assignment, starting with initial conversations about a potential move.

This involves ensuring that details of policies and programs are communicated to all family members -- and not turning the already overwhelmed and often "in-country" employee into a filter for information for the spouse who oftentimes is managing every aspect of the move.

While the relocating family must bear most of the responsibility for getting the information and support they need -- many report that they don't want to a be a burden on the Human Resource Department, or simply that they "don't know what they don't know".

A simple sit-down meeting involving Susan, her husband, and IHR manager(s) knowledgeable about immigration and work visa issues pertaining to their circumstances could have avoided this unfortunate situation.


An organization that wishes to retain its returned expats should not underestimate the impact of repatriation. A flexible range of support options should be offered to support all family members through the reentry adjustment process -- which can last up to one year after repatriation. This should mirror the type of support offered to outward bound employees, and should include a repatriation orientation, career reentry support for the spouse, and on-the-ground-support (particularly for families who are not returning to their city of departure).

Finally, as a constant grievance articulated by returned expats in exit interviews is that their experiences and international and cultural experience were neither validated nor utilized by the company, an enlightened IHR department will develop creative strategies for utilizing their skills and knowledge, in international projects, preparation or mentoring of future expatriates.

The overall benefit to providing more flexible IHR support programs, staggered throughout the entire duration an overseas assignment--and in particular linking them to the specific stages of the adjustment lifecycle (including repatriation)--will be a more rational use of HR resources, more effective, strategic interventions for expat families. More importantly, such policies should lead to improved morale and retention of valued international staff and an acknowledgement of the supportive role family members play in ensuring a successful overseas assignment.