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The Expat’s Survival Guide: Part 4

How to Manage Transitions in Your International Career and Life Abroad

Tram in Milan
A tram in Milan helps get you around a city that is at once very modern and rich in history.

Whether you work within the confines of a branch office of a major multinational or in an agile quick-moving start-up, in these days of global economic turmoil, no company or employee seems to be untouchable when it comes to an oncoming re-organization, merger or downsizing. 

Experiencing Downsizing or Re-Organization at an International Corporation

Having gone through a merger and been the victim of being made “redundant,” I completely understand the chill that climbs up one’s spine at the smallest mention of an internal restructuring. Today, unexpected change is never welcomed with open arms. Even when change brings about a positive outcome, our initial reaction is one of skepticism. And now having survived change abroad working for an Italian company, I can say the following…It really sucked! I guess I could find more polite words to convey my feelings, but it really did suck.  For over a year, my colleagues and I slugged through numerous re-organizations that did not help business or better yet failed to re-organize the departments or teams of people that needed to be re-organized. (Some needed to be re-organized all the way out the front door!) During this time, we lived in a state of polarized morale and motivation while senior management did everything they could to protect their fat, undeserved salaries. Let me tell you this was no “dolce vita” and on several occasions I found myself saying, “What the f**k am I doing here.” These were the very low periods when I had to remind myself of all the progress I had made in the past and would continue to make in the future.  And while there are still many uncertainties, I can say that I have a much clearer vision of what I want and the necessary next steps to get there.

Let’s face it; very few companies get a gold star for the smooth transition and management of change. I would love to hear from anyone out there who has a story about change that ends with everyone happy, holding hands, and singing, “cumbya my lord…” Ok, so I am exaggerating a bit on the holding hands part, but you get the point. Most organizations are afraid or just lack the know-how of what to do when it comes to communicating an impending organizational change. 

While our superiors are fumbling at managing change, we the subordinates must pick up the reins and manage it ourselves. Yes, this is an injustice; our managers are supposedly managing us because they have the necessary functional expertise as well as the soft management skills to address difficult situations such as change. Well, I hate to disappoint you again…In most cases they do not. Add a weak HR department to the mix and you get a gossip mill instead of a place of work, resulting in a great mess which only generates inefficiency.

Handling Chaos at Your Workplace Abroad

If that does not seem bad enough, you could be going through all of this in a foreign country. Along with the distance and a completely different mindset on how things should be handled, a country’s culture can definitely make the situation even worse. There are a multitude of reasons for this: you could be working within the confines of a bureaucratic culture where you are on a “need-to-know” basis even when the daily newspapers know before you, where there is a significant power gap between executive management and middle management and thus communication between the two is always weak, or it is completely acceptable to disregard the personal well-being of those beneath you because this is culturally accepted.

The upside of working in some foreign markets is the presence of an extensive set of laws protecting employees and labor unions that extend beyond the factory floors to the corporate corridors and offices of employees at non-executive levels. However, this protection seems to be fading as well… In the end if a company decides to close (or must close) a part or all of its operations, there is no stopping the inevitable. Just take a look at Alitalia airlines — granted this is an extreme case — but even with the infusion of 100s of millions of euros, it continued to teeter on the verge of bankruptcy. At one point, the jobs of nearly 20,000 employees were at stake. Fortunately, at the time of this writing, a group of investors have signed on to save the fledgling airline. While Alitalia lives yet another day, we cannot overlook the fact that the people on the inside have been agonizing over their professional fate.  It is not easy to see your company’s name and its ongoing losses splashed all over the headlines on a daily basis. And while psychological torture is unacceptable, in today’s workforce it is just business as usual.

In the end, no matter what continent you find yourself on, it boils down to this: you must find a way to survive and prosper regardless of the outcome.

Surviving Change Overseas

And what does it mean to survive? You still have a job and are receiving a paycheck; you have not checked yourself into a mental hospital; your family, friends and partner are still speaking to you on a regular basis; or you have not experienced a significant weight gain/loss. In reality, these only deliver short-term satisfaction. In my opinion, survival is not losing self respect and confidence in yourself and those around you – regardless of whether or not you are still employed. In the end, if you are still holding on to your job and paycheck, you will be mobilizing a job search anyways. During difficult periods such as these, you will see the true colors of your colleagues and managers. If the situation was handled poorly then you know it is time to go.

Some pointers for those of you living through organizational change far from home:

1) What’s the next move?  In both good times and in bad, you should always try to stay one step ahead of the game. This is especially true when your fate is in the hands of someone else. And if you find yourself in a nice set up and comfortable surroundings... then thinking about the next move becomes particularly difficult. After being downsized from a merger, a career counselor from an outplacement firm gave me excellent advice. The career counselor told me that from day one on a new job you should be thinking about your internal (inside your current company) and external strategy. Meaning you should have some idea of how long you want or can stay in a particular work situation. Today, three to four years in a position is long enough, and you should not be judged negatively for doing so. Do not fool yourself though. There are no more safe, lifetime jobs in any establishment. 

Survival tip: This is not something you need to obsess over on a daily basis. However, if you establish some key milestones (i.e., a number of people to meet inside and outside your company, networking groups to join, career research to conduct, opportunities to pursue, additional education or training courses to complete, etc.) within a designated timeframe, this will allow you to make strides forward in a way that offers some balance, periods when you will need to dedicate time to your career, and time to relax and enjoy yourself. Here, it will be helpful to write down your plan and keep a journal as I mention in an earlier article, The Expat’s Survival Guide – Searching for International Jobs. If you want to return home with the same company, it will be necessary to establish and maintain contact with the appropriate colleagues and senior executives in your home country.

2) Turn off the radar. We all grow rabbit ears during periods of change. Our hearing reaches the level of Superman. Miraculously, we can hear colleagues down the hall who are undoubtedly discussing our own personal fate. Let’s face it, we tend to hang on to every word and give value to every piece of gossip that comes our way. Like a rabbit who hears an oncoming predator, we start twitching and dash off in fear without thinking first.  In times of difficulty, I have been told time and time again by my own mentor to tune out the rumors. Let me tell you, that is far easier said than done.

Survival tip: Remember that a rumor is a rumor until proven true. Facts or updates about change will, or should, be communicated to you through official channels and usually come in the form of an official correspondence – on company stationary. Generally, in times of change a select group of high-level executives are the only ones privy to the outcome and fate of the employees, therefore it is imperative that you disregard the insights and assumptions of your intern, the newly hired graduate, your fellow colleagues, the cleaning staff, or anyone else. The fact of the matter is — unless you are in the upper echelons of your company — you are not in the know! I don’t wish to bruise your ego. Just let the gossip go in one ear and out the other. In the event that you hear some alarming news that involves you in any way, shape or form; take it up with your boss or HR immediately. (Obviously, approach them in a professional manner.) And for the record, it is completely unacceptable behavior on the part of your employer if you learn your fate via gossip at the coffee machine. But unfortunately, this does happen. I learned of an upcoming layoff — of which I was a part — through a colleague who sent me email expressing his sympathy for my situation. If you have questions, try to find out who you can turn to for dependable answers. I have learned that in Italy, HR tends work in the best interest of the senior management team, making it very difficult for employees who have problems with their supervisors.  

3) Move forwardone step at a time. Our initial reaction is one of paralysis. We don’t know what to do. Should we focus on our job even though the end seems near or transform ourselves into the Rambo of job searchers? The fact of the matter is that if your employer is still paying you then you must do your job – no more, no less. However, have a plan in place that allows you to always move yourself forward and use your free time efficiently. How fast you move will depend on the coming change. And how do you determine the speed of the coming change? It will include a mix of the facts (those coming from official corporate channels) and your instincts.

Survival tip:  If you find yourself in a situation where it is evident that a negative change is coming your way, try not to panic. If you have been moving your career forward from the start, you are probably in a good position.  Also, be sure to review the terms of your contract as there is usually a section that is dedicated to early termination. If your company owes you a lot of money or the form of severance, due to your contract, or as a company policy — this could buy you more time. Regardless, put some concrete deadlines in place and inform your close contacts that your future with your current employer is uncertain. Continue your search and try to dedicate the maximum time to it. Do not appear desperate. Remember, that a job search is a numbers game. You must only find one position that is right for you.  However finding that one position; requires lots of work – research, networking, and good interviewing skills.  This means following every lead until the end. For example, if you interview with a potential employer and they say that they will be in touch with you in a week’s time and you do not hear from them, let it go.  If you have done everything you should do (with the necessary thank yous and follow ups) then that particular lead is dead for the time being — there is no need to dwell upon it. Come back to it down the line. You should be working on the next lead. If job searching within a foreign country, make sure your legal documents are up to date and you understand your rights. For example, you might have the legal right only to work for a specific employer. Explore your options and understand your limitations.

4) Positive thinking and support are crucial. These will be difficult times when almost any comment or gesture can set you off and when dead ends will make you want to throw in the towel and go home. You will need a support network for encouragement and venting. This is especially true when you are far from home. Loneliness — a common side effect — is a natural feeling even when times are good, and then add to that the difficulties and the cost of getting in touch with family and friends and the situation can become immediately a lot worse. So make sure you have some local friends with whom you can laugh and who can help ease the pain.

Survival tip: From the beginning of your time abroad, it will be important to develop your network outside the office. The reasons for this are innumerable. As most people will tell you, your personal relationships and friendships will be just as important as your professional ones. 

5) Don’t fear change. In the end whether you like it or not if change is coming and there is little you can do about it. What you can control are your own actions. 

Survival tip: Instead of listening to rumors and cursing out your boss, use your time wisely. This means, review your career plan and take steps forward to change your situation: make a phone call, send an email, research a particular opportunity, prepare for an interview, etc. Every step forward will bring you one step closer to the right opportunity.

So once again, what does it mean to survive change? It means staying healthy, keeping to your normal routine, enjoying life, staying true to who you are (becoming the world champion of kissing ass, will not help), and above all maintaining your sanity.

Do not let change take away from your overseas experience. Your time abroad will include ups and downs. Do not focus only on the negative. Look at everything you have accomplished and think about the future achievements to come.

Leslie Strazzullo
For more by Leslie in this series, see:
Expat's Survival Guide Part 1: How to Go From Expatriate to Compatriot
Expat's Survival Guide Part 2: How to Search for International Jobs
Expat's Survival Guide Part 3: Women and International Jobs
Expat's Survival Guide Part 5: How I Found an International Job After the Financial Crisis

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