Overseas relocations well worth the trip

Three personal accounts highlight alluring mix of rewards and challenges
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/25/2008

When employees relocate overseas, many employers provide considerable support and services, such as housing searches, disposal of principal residence, moving of household effects, private medical coverage, allowances, financial advice or medical assessments. Plus there are the perks, such as a company car, furnished accommodation or round trips to the home country. But when it comes to the cultural adjustment, employees often find they’re on their own. And it’s the little things that can make a big difference in how smoothly the relocation goes, especially in the early days.

Danielle Bibas
Director of health and beauty care Canada
Procter & Gamble


Danielle Bibas certainly knows her way around relocations. The marketing director has worked for Procter & Gamble (P&G) for 14 years, starting with six years in Sao Paulo, Brazil, three years in Brussels, five years in Geneva and, most recently, Toronto.

“I have a diverse family, with relatives across the world, and a curiosity to understand how to work in different markets with people from different backgrounds,” she says, citing variations such as southern versus northern markets, special trade environments and consumer reactions. “It’s a fantastic growth opportunity.”

Relocations are “absolutely” a career advantage and working for a global company such as P&G is an asset, she says.

“It believes in international relocations as a means to drive the business forward and grow managers. There’s a fairly structured team that supports relocations,” she says.

P&G provides a relocation manager who acts as a contact to help the employee get her life up and running. There is also a real estate agent who helps employees find a home, based on budget, family needs and preferences. And welcoming colleagues take the new employee to different parts of town to help her get oriented, such as finding a nearby synagogue.

Three months before she leaves, Biba goes to all her doctors for a check-up. She also obtains a letter of recommendation from her car insurance and health insurance companies, because “if they have no record of you, you get much higher quotes,” she says.

In her first week, she prefers not to work and instead puts personal things in order, because once the work starts, it’s hard to find that time again. She has also developed an extensive to-do list for the initial arrival in a new location.

“The first few months are hectic and it helps you plan,” she says.

But the biggest challenge is setting up your personal life, says Biba. For example, she arrived in Brussels on her own for the first time, unable to speak French, and had to buy many different appliances with cryptic manuals. And in Geneva, the shortened work hours of businesses meant most errands had to be done on the weekend.

“That means a big shift in my personal routine,” she says.

When she decided to move to Canada, looking for a bigger city and a location somewhat closer to Brazil, the move was not wrinkle-free, she says, as the scarcity of doctors became apparent and the banking system is “not very friendly” to international banking.

And while a three-year assignment is the base plan, Biba prefers to go with the flow.

“My plan for Europe was two-and-a-half (years) and ended up being eight.”

Jacqueline DeGagne
Vice-president of legal affairs
Bayer Canada


As a patent agent and lawyer for Bayer in Canada, Jacqueline DeGagne set off for a two-to-three-year stint in Germany to expand her global knowledge — she ended up staying five.

“The overall experience, from a personal and professional perspective, was well beyond my expectations,” she says. “The key thing I brought back was a much deeper understanding of the organization, how it works, how information is communicated and to have a network of people well beyond my organization. I draw on that weekly.”

Bayer is experienced in relocations so the physical move, including visa, processing and house changes, were all co-ordinated by the company, first in Toronto, then Germany. Preparation by DeGagne took about six months and largely involved cultural-sensitivity training and learning German. She also visited Germany and was assigned a relocation specialist to help with paperwork, a car, training and accommodation. And a person in her department was assigned to help with any loose ends.

Despite the prep work, there were a few hiccups.

“The initial move and the whole experience didn’t go as I had expected, there were speed bumps in place that I didn’t expect,” she says.

One of the biggest hurdles was the cultural difference. While DeGagne had worked for five years at Bayer and done considerable traveling, she didn’t realize how “true” the cross-cultural training would be, she says, particularly as she’d worked with German colleagues over the years.

“Nuances and differences between the culture in Canada and Germany were much more challenging than I had expected. Of course, many things are the same, it’s the fine tuning that can be challenging,” she says.

But after the first three months, DeGagne successfully adapted.

“The key to my success was learning German and understanding the culture,” she says. “I was given projects that as a Canadian, going into a global organization, I never could have been exposed to in Canada alone.”

When she finally returned to Canada, the speed bumps weren’t completely gone.

“It wasn’t a challenge but I had to remind myself of those business-place cultural nuances that are different at home. I had to remember Canadians are different.”

And for those considering a relocation overseas, DeGagne recommends learning the country’s language ahead of time and taking cultural sensitivity training.

“Be ready for challenges least expected. But absolutely do it, because it’s a rare event when we get to take the blinders off that we grow up with and see things from a very different perspective and once you’ve changed that perspective, it’s yours forever, so you get to continue to learn.”

Stefan Sarazen
Vice-president, national accounts


The first time Stefan Sarazen went to Paris was for a job interview — he ended up staying three years. The vice-president of national accounts at ADP in Toronto, he speaks highly of his relocation, from a personal and professional perspective, but also recalls the trials.

He first decided to take the assignment in the spring of 2003 because it had always been a career goal and the timing was perfect.

“I saw it as a big benefit to be able to do it with the same company because often you have to think about going outside to do this,” he says. “There’s a level of comfort, you feel you’re taken care of because there are always risks.”

ADP’s head office needed someone who understood the company’s corporate environment, such as reporting, information and processes, and was comfortable dealing with other countries.

“They needed someone to go in there and run with it, who’s able to work with many different cultures,” he says. “Canadians are well-regarded in that respect, our society is quite diverse and we have a certain tolerance and always try to seek consensus when we work.”

He and his wife moved to Paris in November, with significant help from ADP in handling all the logistics, insurance policies, legal aspects and other details. Sarazen rented out their house while away and in Paris, ADP hired a service to help them find an apartment, open a bank account, locate temporary furniture and connect the phone.

While ADP did a very good job handling the logistics, Sarazen later told the company a culture coach would have been a big help in explaining business and social customs. For example, how to manage people, such as the custom of kissing on the cheeks or “if people yell and scream, don’t worry,” he says. “Even though I’m French, the France culture is very different — that’s something I underestimated.”

There can also be resentment from the local office to start, about bringing in someone from overseas, and Sarazen was considered relatively young for a senior position in France.

“I was not (as aware of that) to the degree I should have been,” he says. “There were some tough days there in the beginning.”

Sarazen returned home in March 2006, largely to be with family as his wife had their first baby in Paris and was pregnant again. And he had originally wanted only two years, but for an employer, “the longer the better because it’s a costly exercise to move people across the ocean and they have to find a replacement.”

If he does it again, Sarazen says he would be a lot more selective about the type of role and ask more questions about the people he would be working with, “to make sure it’s a good fit for everyone. When you’re younger, you don’t see it, you just see ‘Paris, France, a great opportunity,’ but some of the stress early on was caused by the environment.”

Once his kids are older, he hopes to put his name in for another overseas gig.

“To end your career in an ex-pat assignment would be a pretty nice way to do it,” he says.

Canadian HR Reporter’s relocation survey

Adjusting to culture biggest issue for overseas relocations

When it comes to overseas assignments, employees need the most help adjusting to the local culture or lifestyle, according to more than one-half (52 per cent) of employers in a survey conducted in August and September by

Canadian HR Reporter.

Employers cited being in a foreign world with little support from friends and family, learning unfamiliar business practices and understanding local customs as challenges of relocations. To help employees make the move, the majority of respondents who relocate employees overseas provide training that is on target — covering culture (75 per cent), language (56 per cent) and customs (44 per cent).

Employers also provide a range of services such as housing searches, disposal of principal residence, moving of household effects, private medical coverage, allowances, financial advice and medical assessments. They also offer perks, such as a company car, furnished accommodation or round trips to the home country. About one-half (48 per cent) provide family services, such as spousal job assistance or school search services.

The packages vary depending on the assignment and employee level and often a relocation specialist is assigned to the employee, to help with issues such as local taxation, health care, accommodation, area orientation and banking.

“We also try to partner them with a co-worker in the area who takes a leadership role in helping them to get acquainted with their new community,” said one respondent.

When asked about the challenges of overseas assignments, respondents had numerous answers:

• inadequate lead times;

• obtaining visas;

• transitioning into the new role;

• possible blockage of career development;

• employee safety;

• fit into local organization’s hierarchy;

• maintaining an effective employee-employer relationship long distance;

• increased cost of living;

• moving to a third-world country;

• stress levels;

• poor work-life balance;

• family presence;

• cost of health-care benefits;

• reintegrating into the home country; and

• hard-to-measure return on investment.

Another challenge is “forging effective relationships between the ex-pat and local workers, often caused by differentiation in payment package issues,” said another respondent. “Different working ethics cause severe problems at times. Misunderstanding speech and humour (are) often an issue.”

And there are many companies that don’t do overseas relocations, for various reasons.

“My understanding is that it is more cost effective to use local talent, which can be available, than send employees overseas,” said one respondent.

But on the plus side, the survey of 299 employers finds overseas relocations allow employees to gain a better understanding of how the company as a whole operates and acquire a global perspective. They can build new contacts and networks and bring new techniques back home. There is also an opportunity to share best practices and the company is spared from hiring short-term recruits through expensive international agencies.

The overseas gig can help with job rotation and job enrichment and help develop the next generation of leaders, said another respondent, and enhance a company’s reputation as an employer of choice.

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