How to Engage and Retain Expat Employees: An Uncomfortably Honest Guide

We need to talk about how you’re engaging and retaining your fresh expat employees. Because you might be doing it all wrong.

If you’re reading this, hiring people from abroad is probably at least part of your day job. And statistically speaking, there’s a good chance you’re bad at getting your expat team members engaged from day one.

#sorrynotsorry

Disclaimer: Maybe you’re amazing at onboarding, in which case, well done, you. But read this anyway, just to say you did.

Never stop onboarding

It’s as straightforward as this: Onboarding programs that last under a month bring down retention rates. Companies with a strong onboarding process improve new hire retention by 82 percent and boost productivity by over 70 percent. And yet, only 12 percent of employees believe their employers do a great job onboarding newbies.

Talk about low-hanging fruit!

Onboarding your new expat hire starts as soon as they accept your offer. And then it goes on…

… and on.

You might think you’ve hired a superstar who can learn on the fly and can just figure it all out on their own.

Wrong.

Well, you may well have hired a superstar for all we know. But being a quick learner does not equal “no handholding needed”.

From the moment you start arranging their relocation and immigration, it’s up to you to keep this person excited, engaged, and feeling safe.

Before they arrive

  • Keep expectations aligned. Benefits, perks, everything. They need to know what you can and can’t do for them.
  • Be transparent about the immigration and relocation process and timelines. Give estimates where you can, as accurately as you can. Communicate any changes as soon as you know about them.
  • Keep communication clear and cut the confusing jargon.
  • Be responsive. If you’re working with immigration and/or relocation service providers, make sure your definition of “responsive” matches theirs. We’re talking hours, not days, in response times. People tend to worry before big moves, and worry = not good. Help them manage it.
  • Make sure that everyone in touch with the talent treats them with empathy and that messaging is consistent across the board. Needless to say that any conflicting information from different sources is going to cause unnecessary confusion.
  • Prepare them for life in your country. That’s gonna be a long conversation, so if you have a written guide handy, all the better. Don’t forget to cover things like religious tolerance, diversity, LGBTQ+ rights, the political environment, etc.
  • Start sharing your culture deck or any other relevant foundational materials that will take a while to digest. Give them a head start on getting settled in.
  • Prep the rest of your team. Onboarding isn’t just something that HR does in isolation. Get everyone excited and encourage them to support and engage with their new colleague.

Once they’ve arrived

If you think you’re being terribly clever by throwing your new hires in the deep end and leaving them to their own devices, you’re really just being disorganized with your onboarding.

So get your head in the game and go for maximum effort. It’s worth it.

  • Meet them at the airport if you can, or get a relocation service provider who’ll do it on your behalf. Have their workspace ready, get them a SIM card, stock their fridge… Any little thing you can take off your new hire’s plate will be one less distraction from absolutely killing it at their new job from day one.
  • Conduct an entry interview. This makes them feel valued and helps you get on the same page about how you’ll work together.
  • Help them with names and faces, and make sure they know it’s cool if they don’t immediately remember who’s who. Let’s face it, in an international environment, some names are probably going to sound unfamiliar and exotic. Tall people with glasses will be mistaken for other tall people with glasses, etc. And that’s fine.
  • Have a realistic plan for information sharing and training. Overwhelming a new hire with too much information at once is counterproductive. They’re not going to retain it all at once. And then you’ll wonder why they don’t remember all the house rules.
  • Hang out with them, but not as just a formality. A welcome lunch is great, but if they go back to being ignored afterwards, it’s not going to do much good. Just take the time to communicate on a human level.
  • Give them as much clarity in their role as humanly possible. The one thing you really don’t want them thinking is “I have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing”. That is some serious workplace poison.
  • Crucially, at this point, the reality of their job had better match the expectations you set in the interview process. Otherwise, you’re, in a word, screwed.
  • Increase their workload gradually. Those first-week info dumps are a lot for one person to take. Be reasonable. Even your biggest superstars only have the same human brain to work with as everyone else. There are limits to what can be done with that.
  • Check. In. A lot. Even if it looks like they’re really taking off and living their best life, keep checking in at regular intervals.
  • As they start nearing the six-month point, pay extra close attention. Around six months in the expat lifecycle is the cutaway—the novelty of the new job starts wearing off and job satisfaction can easily start sliding downward.
  • Even after that, don’t stop checking in. Give them feedback and, crucially, ask for theirs!
  • Did we already say “check in”?
  • Seriously, check in.

Get up close and personal with your support

People who are moving to a new country might be the curious, self-sufficient, independent types by default, but they’ll also have a million questions, countless moving parts to manage, and zero familiar things to hold on to as they make their transition.

In short, relocation is an anxious time.

One of your biggest tasks in this balancing act is maximizing your new hire’s excitement and engagement while bringing their anxiety to a minimum. And because everyone reacts to new environments differently, there’s a lot of room for customization in what kind of support you can offer. Find out what their biggest pain points are and be realistic about what you can do to help.

  • Make sure they have networking opportunities, socially and professionally. Making friends as an adult is really challenging for a lot of people. Making friends as an adult in a strange country is a nightmare.
  • Support their family. If your new hire is moving with a partner, their spouse will likely be unemployed for at least some time after the move. That’s a tricky time for any relationship, doubly so in an unfamiliar environment. Encouraging expat spouses to hang out with each other is a bit of a cliché, but it’s the best place to start.
  • If they have kids, help them find schools, introduce them to other people with children, and try, if possible, to implement a child-friendly office policy.
  • Ditto for pets.
  • Offer language classes. If you don’t have the resources for that, at least point them in the right direction.
  • Be flexible. Since you flew this person over, you probably want them to be onsite most of the time. But if you can spare them, offer them the opportunity to fly back home and work remotely for a while.

Whatever support you end up offering, make sure you’re not wasting your resources on stuff they don’t need.

Anchor them to your culture

Quite annoyingly, even with all our technological advancements, people are still only human. This is pretty trite, but you can’t automate the way people feel about you and the work environment you’re creating.

Every new hire is going to arrive with their own set of emotions, assumptions, cultural quirks, expectations, and everything else that humanity entails.

So you’re just going to have to take the time to deal with it.

But we’ve seen that it can be done, so you’re good. You got this.

  • Educate yourself on your new hire’s cultural background and map out how that’ll fit into the fabric of your organization. Read up on decoding cultures: Erin Meyer’s book The Culture Map is a great place to start.
  • Make sure your company culture and core values are documented, actionable, and adhered to across the organization. Make them part of your new hire’s training.
  • What’s obvious to you isn’t necessarily obvious to everyone else. Don’t be afraid to overcommunicate. It’s better than letting things get lost in translation.
  • Celebrate your differences and use them to your advantage: share experiences and perspectives, learn about each other’s cultures. Make your new hire feel included in shaping a company culture that is unique to you.

When you're focusing your energy on optimizing and automating what you can—and we all do it—it becomes way too easy to distance yourself from the H in HR. Don’t fall into that trap.

When your employees lose their drive, “disengaged workforce” is just a neat way of talking about people who’ve had it up to their ears with your nonsense. “Trailing dependents” is an unemotional way to refer to real humans who have uprooted their lives for one family member’s career.

And “employee experience”? Just another way of saying that deep down, everyone just wants to be happy, even at work. With a brilliant oboarding process, you can make that happen.

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