“We have seen the enemy and it is us.” So concluded a particularly dissatisfied British employee on overseas assignment in interviews with organizational researchers. The individual went on to describe a “blatant disregard and disrespect that the company shows its expatriates.” This was characterized as a sharp contrast from the positive relationship experienced when at the home office.
This may sound extreme. Yet this highlights the high standards that staff on international assignment have for their organizations, which have, after all, asked them to move their lives (and possibly families) for the sake of work. Perceived organizational support (POS) is the extent to which an employee feels supported by their organization. It is one of the most well-studied and consequential phenomena in management research. Workers on overseas assignment, heavily reliant on their organizations to manage personal and professional challenges, rank POS as even more important than local employees.
Yet not all support is created equal. Foreign-assigned staff have very specific concerns that organizations must address. In this article, therefore, we discuss what leads to POS among expats and how HR staff can contribute to this feeling of support. In so doing, we discuss the fundamentals of managing and supporting on-the-ground staff on assignment.
Of course, organizational support comes even before employees are on location abroad. HR must also appropriately select and prepare staff prior to their move abroad.
Perceived Organizational Support
Scholars argue that employees form a psychological contract with their employers when accepting assignments abroad. This contract holds each side to mutual obligations. POS is a measure of how well the employee thinks the organization is living up to its side of the bargain.
Research shows that as POS increases, so too does the staff member’s commitment to their organization. Committed employees, in turn, have higher performance, lower absenteeism, and are less likely to leave their employers for other jobs. Assignees satisfied with their support reported in one study a “significant strengthening” of trust, while another said that the organization had “created a loyalty bond.”
By contrast, unsatisfied employees described declining trust and commitment. One explained, “I am less trusting that my employer will follow through with what they say they are going to do.” Another dissatisfied staffer explained that while “prior to this experience I was…looking forward to a continuing relationship with my company,” now, “I will not remain in this company.”
What then distinguishes the satisfied from the dissatisfied employee on assignment? It’s worth noting that POS is from the perspective of the staffer. Two employees receiving the same support may therefore evaluate their support quite differently. Nonetheless, we know that actual organizational support is the strongest predictor of perceived support.
But not just any support, rather, the right kind of support. In the expat context, this means providing support that staff members most expect and need for their specific situations.
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A Rising Star: Expat Promotion Expectations
Many employees expect their international assignment to improve their professional outlook. They are interested in opportunities for promotion, raises, and increased influence. After all, they are often paying a heavy price to relocate.
Instead, many feel forgotten in their new homes – and the more resentful for it given the sacrifices they are making for their employers. As one staffer explained to researchers, “I am far removed from the strategic core of the company. I was a star performer…in the home office. Now I am a forgotten man, with no career track. I work more for the money now, rather than blind devotion to the company.” Others reported feeling “removed” from senior management, “out of the loop,” or with “reduced influence.”
By contrast, the most satisfied employees on overseas assignment reported improved high-level contacts, broader authority, and increased visibility. Consistent with the POS theme, these employees were less likely to quit their jobs and performed at higher levels.
It is somewhat paradoxical that employees expect increased visibility at a time when they are geographically further away. One possible solution to this problem is to establish mentoring relationships between the assignee and senior management. HQ mentors keep the staff member connected and committed to the broader organization. Research suggests that these mentors provide the biggest boost to perceived organizational support when they are seen as high-status, thus representing the organization’s values and strategy.
Many scholars also suggest a host country mentor. These mentors improve the employee’s cultural adjustment and help improve their performance.
Expatriate Performance Management
Clear expectations about roles and responsibilities are key predictors of overall performance. Put simply, unclear expectations result in lower performance and contribute to less perceived organizational support.
Yet, performance evaluations are a tricky business in the foreign worker environment. For instance, performance expectations in the home country may not match those in the host country. Growth may be much higher or lower. The immigrant employee may require extra time to adjust to the new assignment, especially if the assignment involves significant interaction with host country nationals. Even work dynamics may resonate differently, with more or less teamwork, rates of turnover, and even vacation time.
Consequently, scholars recommend that performance goals follow the well-known SMART principles by providing specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely objectives. Yet, those same principles are best customized to the specific assignment.
All of these unknown variables also increase the importance of providing regular feedback to the international staffer. As Wharton scholar Adam Grant writes, “If you’re surprised by the feedback you get at a performance review, your boss has failed. Good managers don’t wait for formal meetings to help you grow. They make it a daily priority. The sooner you get feedback, the sooner you can break bad habits and learn better ones.”
Performance can also be linked to reward systems. Scholars, for instance, recommend linking international assignments with the organization’s formal career development systems. Organizations thus can clearly establish two key points prior to the international staffer’s departure. The first is that international experience is valued, and the second is that accepting the assignment will tangibly benefit the employee. This messaging supports expatriate expectations for career improvement.
HCN Citizenship Behaviors are Key to Perceived Organizational Support
Host country nationals’ (HCNs) helpful, voluntary behaviors towards foreign employees may serve to ease their adjustment. Even among domestic employees, the research shows that these so-called “citizenship behaviors” tend to improve overall organizational performance.
The benefits are even higher in the context of employees on overseas assignment. HCNs can tell the foreigner where to get fresh groceries, highlight the best schools for children, and recommend the best neighborhoods in which to live. They can, in short, provide much of the support that international employees require from their organizations.
And yet, most Western organizations fail to reward citizenship behaviors. In fact, helpful employees may see their performance ratings decline, as they have less time for their assigned responsibilities, even if their overall contributions to the organizations are high.
Organizations may consider linking HCN support of international employees to their own reward systems, for instance, by providing access to bonus pools. This recognizes and rewards the most helpful host country nationals for their outreach.
These rewards may also encourage reluctant HCN’s to engage with their visitors (or at least discourage unhelpful HCN’s from harmful behaviors). For instance, differences in religion, ethnicity and nationality all risk leaving foreign employees isolated and stigmatized in their host country. (For more information on this important topic, read more about Expat Stigmatization and HR Responses.)
HCNs may also resent foreign employees sent from HQ for signaling (rightly or wrongly) a lack of trust in the skills of local staff. By linking citizenship behaviors to rewards, however, the home office signals that it values HCN contributions while at the same time increasing support for their international staff.
From Departure to Repatriation
While this article has focused on support during the assignment, employee expectations really begin at the moment of selection and continue through to home country repatriation.
For instance, adequate financial packages are often foremost on the minds of employees recently selected for international assignments. Relatedly, the home office may provide their expat employees with membership in social clubs to improve personal outcomes. Extra vacation time and paid flights home to remain connected with family are also the norm.
In addition, repatriation support is key. In one study, only 23% of employees on foreign assignment felt that their expectations on return were met. As many international employees fret over possible career opportunities lost during their assignments, others worry whether a job will await them when their assignment abroad concludes. In that same study, nearly two-thirds reported problems with their career status on return, while 37% complained of reduced status.
Organizations ought to put this concern to rest by clearly establishing the (favorable) terms of repatriation. Perhaps the very best way to signal this commitment is by consistently doing it. When employees on international assignment see their colleagues returning home to favorable conditions, they trust that similar benefits await them.
Furthermore, a rather astounding 60% of expats experienced reverse culture shock in one study (the number was around 50% in another study). Organizations can prepare a soft landing for returning employees by providing time to adjust and initially limiting heavy work responsibilities.
In addition, the company also needs policies that support the return of the expatriate’s family. This may mean assisting the children with re-enrollment in local schools and spouses seeking to return to the workforce.
Too many employees on international assignment feel like the one quoted in the opening to this article – that “we have seen the enemy and it is us.” With this overview of POS, we hope that the expats in your organization will never feel they are the enemy. Instead, let them feel the solid foundation of organizational support – of your support – even as they embark on uncertain journeys abroad.
- Family Support: Underestimated, but Essential
- Understanding and Preventing Expat Failure
- The 5 Best Countries to Work in for Expats
About the Author
Dr. Thomas J. Bussen, with a Doctorate of Business Administration, JD, and MBA, is an Assistant Teaching Professor at Miami University’s Farmer School of Business, and a former professor at the African Leadership University and the American University of Central Asia. He is the author of several books, including Shaping the Global Leader and Compliance Management: A How-to Guide. His latest book, Enlightened Self-Interest: Individualism, Community and the Common Good, makes the case for a more inclusive and equitable professional mindset and is expected for release in 2023 with Georgetown University Press.
Sources and Further Reading
Grant, A. (2022). Verified Twitter Account. https://twitter.com/adammgrant
Guzzo, R. A., Noonan, K. A., & Elron, E. (1994). Expatriate managers and the psychological contract. Journal of Applied psychology, 79(4), 617.
Harzing, A., & Christensen, C. “Expatriate failure: time to abandon the concept?.” Career Development International (2004).
Rhoades, L., & Eisenberger, R. (2002). Perceived organizational support: a review of the literature. Journal of applied psychology, 87(4), 698.
Takeuchi, R. (2010). A critical review of expatriate adjustment research through a multiple stakeholder view: Progress, emerging trends, and prospects. Journal of management, 36(4), 1040-1064.
Wang, C. H., & Varma, A. (2019). Cultural distance and expatriate failure rates: the moderating role of expatriate management practices. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 30(15), 2211-2230.