Employee Relations

Expatriate Adjustment to New Environments

In today’s global economy, organizations are spreading talent across borders by asking professionals to spend time working at international locations. Individuals sent abroad, called expatriates, are generally on a short-term assignment to complete an organizational goal. The benefits of such practices can be far reaching, from unifying different company locations to increasing the organizational acumen of a rising star in the company.

Downfalls of Sending Talent Abroad

While the prospect of being an expatriate may sound exciting, many individuals have difficulty adjusting to their new environment. Expatriates can become lonely if they know very few people in the host country, and this can be compounded as they often do not speak the native language very well. This should be monitored closely, as an expatriate who does not like his or her overseas assignment may begin looking for a job elsewhere. There are three specific aspects of adjusting to the assignment expatriates can struggle with:
  • Work adjustment refers to the expatriate’s level of comfort with his or her work environment
  • Interaction adjustment involves the extent to which an expatriate is comfortable with his or her interpersonal contact with host country nationals
  • General adjustment encompasses the comfort of an expatriate with the cultural environment in the host country

Minimizing Adjustment Problems

The most obvious way to minimize adjustment issues is to integrate expatriates to their new environment before they step foot in a different country. Individuals who are given expatriate assignments should be trained on the language and culture of the host country long before they begin the assignment. In addition to learning about the host country’s language and culture, expatriates should be immersed in the work environment of the host location before they actually travel to the location. This can be accomplished through videoconferencing which will allow the soon-to-be expatriate to learn more about whom she will be working with and help her to gain exposure to projects she will be working on abroad.

Additional Factors Affecting Adjustment

Interestingly, other factors can affect the adjustment of expatriates, such as the amount of decision autonomy they have (the level of freedom granted to an individual to make decisions that affect the company) and the level of global integration pressure that exists (the expatriate’s perception that his organization’s business strategy is global in nature). The more decision autonomy afforded to expatriates, the more easily they will adjust to the new environment; however, this is not true when global integration pressure is high. Global integration plays an integral part in this relationship because global integration pressure often leads a company to standardize their procedures internationally. A strategy of standardization can have negative consequences when the cultural differences of the host country are not accounted for, which causes additional stress for the expatriate.


Expatriates working abroad can have problems with adjustment in general, as well as with interaction with host country citizens and with the new work environment. These problems can be mitigated through a number of activities, such as language and cultural education, assimilation with host country employees prior to departure from the home country, and by affording the expatriate with more decision autonomy, when possible. Implementing these strategies for minimizing the difficulties for expatriates can help lead to a more unified and productive international company.

Interpretation by:

David Daly

DeGarmo Group

This was a summary of the research and practice implications from: Takeuchi, R., Shay, J. P., & Li, J. (2008). When does decision autonomy increase expatriate managers’ adjustment? An empirical test. Academy of Management Journal, 51, 45-60.