Tell your friends that you are moving overseas and they’ll picture you sitting on the sand of an exotic beach, sipping cocktails while the rest of the world slaves away in drab offices.
Even if you are heading off to a warm, tropical climate the cruel realities of grown up life aren’t washed away by the warm azure waters. You’ll still have to go to work.For most of us, we need a job to pay the bills and put a roof over our heads, and most countries won’t extend you the right to stay long term without a source of income. So it’s highly unlikely that your expat future doesn’t include a new boss, a new desk and some form of work.
Many expat employers are very good at helping their staff make the move to a new, strange country. If you work for a government agency or a big corporation, chances are they will be well-versed in getting their staff settled and happy overseas.
But everyone is different, and you may have concerns that nobody else has. You may find your own needs taken care of, but your family forgotten about. It’s just like the old adage: ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get.’
Expats need to have a firm understanding of their situation and all the conditions that they have to stick to in order to stay. Make sure you ask questions when negotiating for your overseas position. The answers may reveal hidden advantages to your employer’s offer, or fatal flaws.
As exciting as a life overseas may seem, it can all come crashing to a horrific end if you don’t get the right deal for you. So think carefully before you take the dive, and be sure to quiz your employer fully.
Here are ten questions you might want to ask your employer before you agree to make the move.
How did this position become available?
This is a smart question to ask in any job interview. It’ll reveal how the company operates and how they picture your career there.
If the role is a brand new one, created because of a specific need, it shows the company is forward thinking and not afraid to invest in people when it sees an opportunity. It also means you should have a little scope to shape the job into what works best for you. If nobody was in the role before you, you don’t have to keep doing anything a predecessor did.
If your forerunner left the job, try to find out why. It’s ok if they got headhunted and offered a mighty salary at a competitor, but what if they left because they just couldn’t stand it any more? Your employer is unlikely to tell you the exact details, but reading between the lines should tell you if there was anything untoward in their departure.
Try searching online to find out if the company, and specifically the region in which you work, has been subject of any disputes. There are also websites in some countries in which employees can review and rate their employers, giving others a valuable insight into the business before they arrive.
What language do you work in?
This will probably be stated in the first ad you see for the position, but it’s worth double-checking. It may be that you’re working for an English-speaking company in Malaysia and most of the office work is done in English, but when you go to meet clients, are you working in Malay, Tamil, Mandarin or the ‘Manglish’ mix of all of them?
If your language skills are rusty or even non-existent your employer may be happy to fund you through a crash-course before you arrive and a more business-centric course after arrival.
It’s highly unlikely that a company will hire you if they don’t think you’ll be able to communicate effectively. Interpreters are common in many businesses, but you will be streets ahead with a grasp of the local lingo.
What exactly is the job and how will you measure my success?
Grand sounding job titles might make for great business cards, but they might not tell you much about what the job entails. Today’s networking events are packed with Digital Strategy Managers, Chief Visionary Officers and Social Media Ninjas, all of whom then need to spend 10 minutes explaining their value to the business.
As with any job you apply for, do as much research as you can, but come the interview, make sure you ask about your specific responsibilities and who you report to. Make sure you know which departments you will need to work with and who you may be in charge of.
Make sure you also know how your performance will be measured. Some companies will name specific targets for you to hit in order to stay with the business, others may be a little more abstract. Knowing these ahead of time just means you know what the boss is looking for when she has to decide whether to give you a bonus or the boot.
Where will I be based?
You may be in charge of an entire region, or several different projects at the same time. Whilst your office is in one city, you could be spending a lot of time commuting to other locations in order to keep on top of everything that’s going on.
Even if you fly around the world to have a formal interview in one city, it may be that your day-to-day work happens in an entirely different place; one that may not be so suited to your needs.
Find out if your destination makes sense for you. Are you going to face a hammering from two countries’ tax systems? Is this a good place for your family to live? Is it a good place to do the kind of business you do?
Safety has to be a prime concern too. While much of the world is safe aside from some low-level crime, there are parts of the world in which being a foreigner puts you at greater risk. Make sure your employer is prepared to offer you the right kind of security to protect you in countries of increased risk.
Can we visit before I start?
Larger companies will often offer a pre-visit: an opportunity for you and your family to become acquainted with your prospective home. Push for this valuable chance to reconnoitre your new life.
This isn’t a holiday, but it is a way to get a sense of the country before the stress of moving and starting work kicks in. Check out the neighbourhood in which you’ll live and meet the neighbours. Visit the schools your children will attend and test-drive your new commute.
Not only is this a great chance to try out your new life, but it’s a good way to combat homesickness after the move. Having already made a few friends, met the kids’ teachers and found the nearest supermarket, the change won’t feel so abrupt. You’ll also have started to establish the support network that will help you conquer the troubles ahead.
Your employer may offer accommodation as part of your package, and this visit would be a great chance to inspect it. If not, arrange to see a few properties through an agent and get an idea of what you can expect.
You may also consider hiring a local expert to handle your visa, legal and tax situation. A face-to-face meeting will put your mind at ease in trusting this person with your affairs.
How long is the contract going to last?
Rachel Yates, who offers advice to roving expats on definingmoves.com, didn’t plan on being overseas for so long. “Ten years and 5 relocations ago, we were offered a one-year temporary assignment to Kenya,” she writes. “I have yet to return home, and all of our wedding photographs, birth certificates, photographs of our children as babies and furniture are still in a house in Wales.”
As Yates explains, the first assignment can often be extended, roles transferred and entire offices moved across continents. But things can also move the other way too.
Read the fine print and find out what clauses exist for early termination. Should it all go wrong, you don’t want to be suddenly jobless and in violation of a visa, needing to ship home in short order at great expense.
Knowing how long things are planned for is also essential for keeping a strong frame of mind. If moving with a family, it may be that one of the family is putting their career on hold to ‘tag along’. It’s only fair that they know how long they are expected to do this.
Which currency am I being paid in?
So, you’ll be the regional sales manager, based in Hong Kong, managing the teams in Singapore and Taiwan, reporting up to Beijing and the whole company is headquartered in the US. How much do you get paid and when and how? Life isn’t all about money, but there are some questions that you need to know the answers to, and this is a big one.
It may be that your salary is paid in the local currency, pegged to another, more stable currency. Whatever the setup, you need to know if it works for you. Being paid a generous salary in a volatile currency like the Russian Ruble leaves you one hiccup away from being flat broke.
Whatever currency you’re being paid in, there will be expenses involved in transferring it back home or converting it to yet another. Smart expats set up international bank accounts to limit the amount of their income lost to fees.
Always remember, your money may stretch a long way overseas, but may not go so far back home. Crunch the numbers and make sure that the money you earn overseas can stretch to setting you up again when you return home.
Are you offering to assist with schooling?
Moving overseas is a massive change for anyone, but for the young it can be even more of a challenge. Expat kids are giving up their friends and extended family at a time when they are trying to make sense of the world.
With the right support youngsters tend to adapt fairly quickly to new cultures, but without this they can struggle to settle down. The right school environment is an important part of this process.
Many employers offer to pay the cost of education for expat kids where the state school system doesn’t match expectations. International schools offer the chance to study alongside children from other cultures and to sit exams that may be recognized back home. These schools are often well attuned to the needs of expat kids and offer support to those struggling to adjust.
Ask also about college places for older offspring. The cost of tertiary education varies greatly around the world, but there may be schemes in place to help them access further studies.
Does my package include health cover for the whole family?
Healthcare provision varies greatly around the world. In some countries a national service offers top quality healthcare for next to nothing. In others, breaking a leg can also break the bank.
Make sure your employer covers you and your family for all eventualities you are likely to encounter, from normal childhood illnesses to serious injury.
Hospital treatment is only part of what you should be looking for. If the worst should happen, make sure the policy also covers repatriation of critically ill or deceased family members.
Also ask about the coverage offered for mental health issues. Expats are more likely to suffer from emotional or mental difficulties, and without the right insurance plan helpful therapy may be inaccessible.
What other support is available?
It has been reported that 34% of expatriates return from assignment
prematurely because of family concerns. So it’s in your employer’s interest to make sure you and your tribe are happily settled in your new home.
This isn’t just about financial help, but helping with the logistics of moving, arranging visas and setting up the right bank accounts. Your employer can’t sort all for this for you, but they can certainly point you in the right direction.
Are you offered a number of return flights home every year? What about extra leave allowance? There’s no point taking your family overseas if you are too busy in the office to see them or to fly back and see the extended family at home.
Partners travelling abroad often suffer when trying to adapt to their new role. Often unable to work due to visa restrictions, ‘suitcase spouses’ can benefit from volunteering programmes, networking opportunities and socials laid on by the employer.
Article by Andy Scofield, Expat Focus International Features Writer