Evaluating Your International Contract & Employment Opportunity: Questions For Your Potential Employer

Evaluating contracts and employment positions overseas is much like evaluating these things in the States, with a few unique issues that should be discussed prior to signing. 

Here are a few of the questions you should ask any international employer prior to agreeing to a contract.

1. Transportation

If you take a position in another country, by definition you’ll be traveling to another place for your work.  A good question to ask your employer is who will be paying your relocation expenses. 

Some companies will employ you once you arrive at their facility overseas but require you to foot the bill for airplane flights and shipment of your personal items.  Other companies will cover your plane tickets and help cover the costs of shipping your personal items, but will require you to cover anyone in your family who is traveling with you.  The best arrangement for you, of course, is if the company agrees to cover the airfare for you and your family plus the shipment and/or storage of your personal belongings.  It’s important that you ask about this issue up front since you want to be sure to budget for any necessary expenses.

Once on the ground in your new “home,” be sure to ask how you’ll be traveling from home to work and around town.  Can you take public transportation?  Does the company provide a vehicle or do you need to provide your own?  If you are responsible for your own transportation, are there options to rent a vehicle or do most employees buy? 

If you will be driving yourself, be sure to ask about driving laws and restrictions.  Driving regulations can differ significantly from country to country and in some nations, driving may not be allowed.  For instance, in Bermuda, visitors are not allowed to rents cars (only scooters) while in Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive.  Always remember that when you are in a foreign country, you are under the laws of that country.  As strange or unfair as some of the regulations might appear to you, the “that’s not how we do it back home” defense rarely flies when stopped by local authorities.

2.  Housing

An important aspect of your new employment will be discussing where you will live.  Good questions to ask your future employer are whether housing will be provided and if so, will you be given a certain house to use or a housing allowance? 

The house versus housing allowance issue is more than simply semantics.  A housing allowance gives you more flexibility, but a house protects you from rising house rental prices and other possible uncertainties.  For instance, if you are given a housing allowance you can shop around for accommodations that fit you better—a larger home for a family with children or maybe a flat in the city if you’re single.  However, if you are given a house, you are protected somewhat from the rising cost of rent or the uncertainty of where you will live once you arrive.  Regardless, this is a good conversation to have with your employer from the outset.

Another housing question to be considered is how far the housing is from your work site.  A home across the street from work is a big difference than one located out of town.  I have friends, for example, who actually live in the country of Bahrain and commute into the country of Saudi Arabia each day for work.  Yet another question is whether you have veto power over where you live.  If you arrive and the home you are given seems unsafe or unclean, can you move to another location or are you stuck with what’s been given?  Last, an often overlooked aspect of housing is who pays the utilities.  In a country with temperature extremes, this could make a significant difference with your monthly bills.  Find out in advance who is responsible for the utilities as well as who to call in case of maintenance issues (and who pays for any repair bills). 

3. Salary and Cost of Living Issues

Obviously, when you are negotiating a contract with any employer, salary needs to be discussed.  However, when working in a foreign country it is important to ask in what currency you will be paid.  It makes a big difference whether you are paid 80,000 US dollars or 80,000 pesos, for example.  Also, remember that since you are living in a foreign country, international exchange rates now affect your monthly income and purchasing power in obvious ways.  With the falling US dollar, many expatriates I know who are paid in USD’s have seen their relative income drop every year.  The flip side of this equation is that if you are paid in a foreign currency that is rising against the US dollar, you are in affect getting a raise each year relative to your income back in the States.

Be sure to accurately estimate your living expenses each month.  We’ve already discussed transportation and housing costs, but be sure to look into such monthly expenses as food and the cost of standard household items like toothpaste, soap, cleaning supplies, etc…  In some countries these things will be extremely cheap, but in others they could be very high.  Just make sure you know what you’re getting into.

4.  Other Issues to Consider

There are always lots of little loose ends to consider when making a move to work overseas.  There’s no way to cover everything, but a few more things to keep in mind and ask about prior to departure:

  • What about education for children?  Are there educational opportunities for your kids and if so, who pays.  I know certain Oil executives who have their children’s school tuitions written into their contract as part of their benefits package.  In some countries, the price of an English-speaking school is very high.  In other countries, it simply isn’t available.
  • Have a plan to deal with any chronic medical issues you or your family may have.  Try to pack a few months worth of any necessary meds and be sure to ask about healthcare in the region.  If you’re the only medical professional within 100 miles, you need to know this going in and plan accordingly.
  • Who actually is your employer?  This sounds like a silly question except sometimes it’s a difficult one to answer.  Depending on how your contract is structured, you might be an employee of the hospital, or a placement company, or some other entity.  If you sign a contract with an American company that then places you overseas, you in theory have more protections (due to American labor laws) than if you sign directly with a foreign company or government.  Foreign contracts are subject to foreign law, which may differ significantly from American law. For instance, in some countries, an employer can fire an employee for any reason without any notice whatsoever, without appeal.  If your contract is with an American employer, however, you should be given due process during any contract issues and at least have the security of knowing that you are protected under US state and federal labor laws.
  • Be sure to ask about health insurance and whether you have American health insurance, health insurance applicable to your employment country, or both (or neither).  I know many expats who have had difficulty with this issue.  In some cases, the expat gets sick in the foreign country only to find out their health insurance only applies to American healthcare.  In other cases, an expat back home on leave gets sick and finds out their health insurance does not cover American healthcare, only healthcare in their country of employment.  Be sure to look into this issue prior to signing your contract and plan accordingly.
  • The issue of pets is another one that can be very difficult.  Are pets allowed where you will be living?  Are your pets even allowed in the country in which you’ll be working?  In the Middle East, for instance, many breeds of dogs (specifically certain bulldog breeds) are not allowed into the country.  Exotic pets such as snakes and other unique animals are often difficult to bring into another country for any reason.  If you cannot bear the thought of leaving FiFi behind with friends or family while you’re away, make sure this issue is discussed before you sign a contract.

Working overseas can be a very rewarding experience.  Use these tips to avoid some common pitfalls and you’ll make your overseas experience a lot more enjoyable.