Is Expat Living in San Francisco Considered Hardship to Deserve an Allowance?

A hardship allowance is the monetary compensation given to expatriates assigned by their organizations to relocate and work in a very challenging and tough environment.

Veterans in the HR and global mobility business tend to think of these places as ones that will require a very severe and radical form of adjustment from the expatriate and their families. Adverse conditions that tax not just their skills but their character can include the lack of infrastructure and a reduction in the quality of the living conditions from the one that the assignee is used to.

To put it bluntly, the creature comforts that many expatriate professionals may be used to may not apply in their relocated area. The best accommodations in town may suffer power failure and water shortage. The expatriate neighborhood may not be close to a hospital or a school. The locals may not be familiar with the language of the assignee, making casual conversation difficult. Some people may not be as welcoming.

This is where hardship allowance comes in. On top of the compensation package, these added funds are designed to make things sweeter for the embattled expatriate, and encourage them to stay for the long haul. They can be used to provide a more potable source of water or even a mini-electric generator. They can also help provide for the expatriate’s tutorial lessons or education lessons.

Given that the adjustment comes to the expatriate who usually moves from a more developed country to an emerging one, it is difficult to think why a hardship allowance should be provided for assignees who might be relocating from so-called Third World economies to countries like the United States, for example.

The global mobility manager might as well ask, aside from job pressures and the challenge to adjust, what “hardships” can an assignee expect to experience in a tech haven like San Francisco?

Quite a lot and don’t be quick to rush to judgment. That’s what some analysts of immigration, global mobility, and foreign employment might advise. As Expatica describes the predicament of the assignee this way: “A Malaysian family would face many of the same challenges of language, climate, and culture in a move to the United States as would an American family transferring to Kuala Lumpur.”

A foreign assignee, for example, would probably spend his weekends on the beach or take their kids on a tour to the state amusement parks every month. They and their spouse might look like a perfect role model for an assimilated family. The entire family might look totally happy and exuberant in making the move to the United States. But hardship can be relative and vary with each individual.

This Malaysian assignee, for example, might find climbing three flights of stairs every day in an elevator-less office building a walk in the park compared to the secret pain they feel in seeing their children, who belong to a religious minority, struggle with the traditions, culture and language of their predominantly Caucasian neighbors.

A Mercer report on expatriate hardship also counts the well-being of the assignee’s spouse as another point of their mutual adjustment. If the partner is happy and feels fulfilled in the United States, then the assignee will have less difficulty adjusting.

The reverse is also true, however. Partners who relocated with their spouse experience anxiety, depression, and low morale if they cannot continue their chosen career in their new country.

The current administration’s plans to rescind an Obama-era program that allowed spouses to work by June are already causing some stress among family members. While this family may be living in classy apartments, an isolated spouse can affect the assignee’s performance — and can be seen as a hardship.

How can a hardship allowance help? Possibly by enrolling the spouse in classes that can let them learn a new skill that they can parlay into a new profession, if they’re allowed to work in the U.S. Another way is to use the allowance as travel money to ethnic communities where they can find kindred spirits to bond with and discover activities that they might actively enjoy doing.

Not all that glitters is gold. Relocation will always remain a challenge for any expatriate, regardless of they environment they transfer to. Global mobility managers must resist the impulse to think that a compensation package and a move to a perceived greener pasture is enough.

Instead, they must open their eyes, dig deep into their assignee’s situation, and recognize the difficulties they themselves do not see — and then apply a means of course correction, with funding to back up any sudden changes in their status.