Integrating LGBT Expats

In today’s evolving global economy, organizations are exploring new and emerging markets as a way to drive business growth. With talent mobilization and management essential to a strategic plan to move forward, both employers and employees must be well prepared for challenges when relocating for an overseas assignment.

For those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender — LGBT — the stakes are often higher. Though same-sex marriage is legal in 20 countries, including recently celebrated victories for same-sex marriage in the U.S. and Ireland, this particular fight for equality around the rest of the world has just begun.

It’s ironic that, considering the advances the world has made in technology, medicine and science, the world has yet to reach equilibrium when it comes to acceptance and equality. In May 2015, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association reported that some 75 countries in the world still criminalize homosexuality. Of these, five officially legislate against LGBT individuals, indiscriminately enacting the death penalty.

With such tremendous risks to personal safety, it is imperative for organizations to carefully consider the support they provide to an increasingly diverse employee population, especially those going on international assignments. Companies must realize that certain circumstances require additional corporate support, cultural awareness and training, all of which will contribute significantly to a successful assignment and enriching international experience.

Recognizing that an international assignment might present different challenges for an LGBT assignee is the first step, particularly for an organization sending employees to locations where there is no legal protection or little social acceptance for the LGBT community, much less employees in same-sex relationships. Support from the top down goes a long way to bolster confidence and set an example of tolerance, inclusion and equal opportunity for the entire organization.

Even for the well prepared and experienced, adapting to a new culture takes time. Meeting the highs and lows with balance and perspective requires patience. Intercultural training that goes beyond the do's and don'ts, such as the proper ways to greet associates or what various hand gestures mean in different cultures, help LGBT individuals better adapt and embrace cultural differences on both a personal and professional level. This training also can help to prevent feelings that one is being personally attacked or targeted, and raise awareness regarding what drives cultural beliefs and laws.

Lack of legal recognition, however, does not necessarily mean lack of social acceptance. In Asian cities such as Tokyo, Bangkok, Hong Kong and Seoul, vibrant and growing LGBT communities and businesses are flourishing. One of the best ways to integrate into a new locale is by meeting locals and fellow expatriates in a similar professional and personal situation. With the availability of Internet access worldwide, there’s no shortage of information to guide one safely toward like-minded individuals and social and professional groups.

At least in the U.S., establishing familiarity early in a business relationship is not unusual and is often seen as a way to put others at ease, but in many countries a more formal approach when meeting people is not only appreciated, it’s considered respectful. It also can become a perfect opportunity to minimize the pressure to reveal too much personal information too quickly and allow more time to find a personal comfort zone before exploring boundaries with others in the host location.

Abiding by local immigration laws in the destination location must be part of every corporate mobility policy and diversity and inclusion strategy, regardless of an employee's sexual orientation. But where the risks are high for LGBT, there’s no substitute for awareness and preparedness.

The most successful organizations embrace transparency and work toward a policy of flexible assignee support to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse global workforce. In doing so, these organizations remind us all that global mobility, employee security, and other HR platforms need to be aligned with the well-developed diversity and inclusion strategies that most global companies already have in place.

Lisa Johnson is a global practice leader for consulting services at Crown World Mobility, a global mobility services company. Comment below or email