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360-Degree Onboarding: Why International Hires Need a Different Schedule

With a decade of experience in the expat field and working with international teams, the Head of Business Solutions at InterNations, Theresa Häfner, explains what employers can do to better onboard international hires and illustrates what a well-defined onboarding schedule looks like.


The increasing pressure of filling vacant positions makes many companies concentrate their energy and resources on optimizing their recruiting efforts — focusing only on attracting and selecting the right candidates. However, the talent acquisition process isn’t over once a contract is signed. On the contrary, it is only the first milestone when hiring a new employee and it needs to be followed by onboarding that is structured and well-defined. If not, the risk of losing those new hires in the first weeks increases significantly — and this risk is even higher when employers recruit international talent.

Successful onboarding does not only define a new hire’s first impression of a company, but it also determines the level of identification with and commitment to their new employer. It is a decisive factor for how fast an employee can be productive at work and whether they fully contribute to the company goals in their new position. Any cost of churn and turnover can be reduced significantly by ensuring a smooth internal transition and handover, too.

International Hires Should Feel at Home in the Company and New Country

Based on the aforementioned, it is essential to have a systematic approach to this critical onboarding phase which can easily last six months or longer. A new hire needs to learn everything about the company, internal processes, and what the new position entails. Apart from that, they will have to get to know their new team, colleagues, and the new work environment and culture.

What many employers tend to forget is that an international employee will be confronted with additional challenges when starting in the new position. International hires must organize their relocation, overcome many administrative hurdles, and familiarize themselves with a completely new culture both at work and outside of work, in their private lives.

They have to learn a lot about cultural differences, get a first orientation in the new country, and in many instances also learn a new language. This is even more difficult as those employees leave family and friends back home and need to establish a new social network abroad. Therefore, successful onboarding must also achieve two core goals: that they feel welcome within the company and in their new home country.This makes well-planned onboarding a critical “tool” to ensure a smooth start and effective initial learning phase for any new employee — while for international hires it goes even beyond purely work-related topics. For them, the onboarding plan also needs to cover aspects such as social integration, intercultural intuition and awareness. and easing the settling-in process to ensure long-term retention and employee satisfaction.

So, what can employers practically do to onboard international hires and what do they need to offer them differently to local employees? What does such a well-defined onboarding schedule look like?

To Start, It Is Helpful to Keep the Following 4 Phases in Mind

These can be used to structure the employee onboarding process and match the employee’s learning curve:

  • Expectations versus a lack of knowledge
  • Excitement versus a first basic understanding
  • Reality kicking in versus the realization of how complex things are and how much needs to be learned
  • Integration and onboarding versus development, training, and orientation

The goal of an effective onboarding process is to support these different phases in the best way possible, to offer the respective emotional support, and to alleviate a potential disappointment.

5 Ways to Support the Different Onboarding Phases

  1. Engagement before the first workday: Build relationships and send relevant information upfront

    Studies highlight the need for pre-onboarding — covering the time from the contract signing until the first day at work. According to Haufe, 28% of new hires resign even before their first workday. To increase employee engagement and commitment, it is critical to have a good communication strategy from the start. It can help to address uncertainty by informing a new hire upfront about the onboarding schedule or practical things, such as the parking situation or a go-to-person on the first day. A personalized welcome package can also be a nice way to engage with a new employee — showing them that you are a caring employer.

    For international hires the level of uncertainty will be a lot higher. Therefore, a dedicated HR contact is key to help them overcome administrative hurdles, such as health insurance and visa topics (if this is not already part of a relocation service provided). Furthermore, concerns can be mitigated by offering them access to expat-relevant information about the new country and city and business etiquette, or even by providing a direct contact to other expats to respond to personal questions. Expat communities can be an alternative to internal offers and this offer can be extended to the relocating families, too.

  2.  Introduction to company culture and values: Offer purpose and emotional identification

    A detailed introduction and overview to the company, its culture, and its values is an integral component for a first day at work. We at InterNations, for example, have a monthly Newcomers’ Day, where all new employees receive an in-depth overview about our guiding principles, the vision and mission, and the different departments — by our CEO. They are shown around all offices and receive further introductory sessions on all overarching processes. This creates a personal identification and helps them understand why they are doing what they will be doing in their new role.

    Employers should include dedicated introductory sessions for international employees to inform them about special benefits for them, also to cover local tax or other administrative topics that are important for them to know. As international employer it is important to create an inclusive environment by showing appreciation for cultural differences and diverse backgrounds and to make it part of any onboarding processes. It can be as simple as an intercultural introduction of new hires on the intranet.

  3. Expectations towards the role: Give feedback and discuss personal goals and responsibilities

    It is a must for any new employee to gain a detailed understanding of what is expected from the position, which tasks it involves, and which targets are supposed to be met. Every leader should take the time to discuss this in a personal talk as part of the onboarding process. Especially for newly created positions, a clear responsibility split among colleagues can be important — a discussion that should then involve the whole team.

    For international hires such a first orientation and guidance should address concerns about the new cultural environment and understanding potential challenges related to their different cultural backgrounds or even a potential culture clash. During the first months, regular feedback and awareness for their special situation is helpful and shows that their supervisors and the HR team care about and actively support them.

  4. Training on the job: Introduce processes, tools, and day-to-day operations

    The actual “training on the job” is certainly at the heart of any onboarding plan. Supervisors and HR ideally define a detailed schedule for every new hire — at least for the first days or weeks. It needs to cover introductions and trainings to all relevant tools and internal guidelines and processes. Some might be company-wide, others specific to the role and/or team.

    A detailed training on the job to introduce a new colleague to all day-to-day operations depend on the team and role, but usually takes a couple of weeks to make the new team member feel comfortable and familiar with the main tasks. It should enable them to execute on those independently. International colleagues bring in a new dimension and both the HR team and supervisors should pay special attention to the team dynamics to make sure that issues with intercultural communication are mitigated immediately.

  5. Social integration: Make them feel welcome and supported at work — and beyond

    The practical and operative onboarding is ideally accompanied by social integration that helps a new colleague to get to know their team and other colleagues. By strengthening personal relationships, a basis for a positive work collaboration is established and a new hire feels connected to the company and his new employer more easily. Internal networking offers, team lunches, and after-work drinks should therefore always be part of such a 360-degree onboarding.

    For international hires, though, an employer should also think of offers beyond work. Expats need to find friends and to establish a new social network — not just a good work relationship with their colleagues. Employers benefit if international hires have a positive work-life balance and settle in fast in their new home. Making friends and being part of a community plays a crucial role in this.

Theresa Häfner, Head of InterNations Business SolutionsAbout the Author: Theresa Häfner is Head of Business Solutions at InterNations, which provides personalized solutions to global mobility and HR professionals to ensure successful foreign assignments and improved international talent retention. Theresa played a vital role in building Community Management at InterNations, as well as other key areas since joining the company in 2010. Having lived abroad for long periods of her career, she knows the challenges of relocation first-hand and is an expert in the field of global talent mobility. She holds a degree in international cultural and business studies from the University of Passau.