The Expat Dilemma Case Study Analysis For Education

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Harvard Business Publishing (2011)
in "Harvard Business Review"
This HBR Case Study includes both the case and the commentary. For teaching purposes, this reprint is also available in two other versions: case study-only and commentary-only. When Ana Lobato was transferred from Streuvels Chemicals' Brazilian operations to the company's Brussels headquarters, she was eager to apply her considerable expertise in this foreign assignment and to expose her children to another culture. Her husband, Oswald, a doctor, seemed up for the adventure. But just over a year after their arrival in Brussels, Oswald is increasingly unhappy. He is not able to practice medicine in Belgium, and the research position that Ana's company helped him find is not all he hoped it would be. Anton Danois, the head of Streuvels's international mobility program, fears that Oswald's unhappiness will prompt Ana to consider moving back home to Brazil before the end of her assignment. In fact, Anton, who's been in HR only a few years, wonders about the logic of an international mobility program that is expensive, does not necessarily provide clear-cut returns, and poses problems not just for spouses but also for the employees who need to be reintegrated after their stints abroad. Experts John Bollman and Ann Judge comment on this fictional case study.
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In one of my recent posts, I discussed the cases of expats visiting home, missing the familiarity of it and trying to balance between the ‘new’ (even if temporary) and ‘old’ homes. Continuing on this topic of this double expat life, today I would like to focus on expats’ relationships, and more specifically, their friendships. A couple of years ago, I have written about expat friendships already, highlighting the dilemma of making new friends either with local people in the host country or other expats. However, coming back to the notion of a double expat life, we can also assume a double set of relationships, and thus define the dilemma as choosing between friends in the ‘new’ home and the ‘old’ home. In other words, should expats focus more on building new friendships in the destination country or maintaining old friendships back home?

I am putting it intentionally as a matter of either/or, as I believe that during the initial stages of expatriation the required investments into relationships are higher and the allocation of time and energy resources becomes very demanding.

Indeed, if we speak about creating a new friendship network in the host destination, I think we can all agree that it is a time and energy consuming process. ‘Making new friends is not that easy’ is one of the most common anecdotal expat experiences, isn’t it? To overcome this difficulty, as a recently arrived expat, you would be advised to communicate a lot, make some extra concessions of your free time to bond with people, join interest clubs and associations and so on. To put it simply, in order to make new friends in the host location you need to work on establishing and developing these relationships. Naturally, this takes time and energy.

Now, on the other hand, most probably there are friends back home, who expect their share of your attention too. Especially during the initial time of expatriation, your closest friends might want to catch up on a regular basis as they may feel excited about your move, curious about your new life, adventures and overall well-being. Most probably as an expat, you would also look for this contact to remain involved in your friends’ lives and feel the comfort of familiar relationships. As such, keeping in touch with friends from home is important, but as easy as the expression of ‘keep in touch’ might sound, in reality it also needs planning and investment of one’s time and energy.

Naturally, making this dilemma a purely either/or matter is an exaggeration. Both building new and maintaining old friendships are important for expatriates’ well-being and can be combined to an extent. Yet, the point I would like to make is that managing both processes equally well can be challenging and may pose extra demands upon the initial relocation. Moreover, this challenge seems to be rarely spoken about, which makes it even more unexpected and thus more difficult to cope with. For example, ‘old’ friends might feel left out and offended by the expat’s lack of time due to engaging in different activities with ‘new’ friends. On the more practical side, it might be even difficult just to find convenient time to skype, for instance due to time zone differences.

All in all, I believe that although the expat dilemma of balancing ‘new’ and ‘old’ friendships can only be partly solved, being prepared for the challenge, as well as managing one’s own and others’ expectations in terms of availability may be a good start for coping with this situation.

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