6 red flags to note before taking on an overseas job

by John Burfitt
20 January 2017

john burfitt

As 2017 kicks off, I’m taking a moment to pack up a career experience of 2016 that should be stored away (but not forgotten). It provided the best – and toughest – professional lesson in years. Late last year, I accepted an academic position teaching media at an international university in Thailand. I packed up my house, sold the car, gave up my Australian contracts and took off. I was excited. I hoped this would be the overseas job of my dreams.

But it went terribly wrong from the moment the plane landed in Bangkok. To cut an unpleasant story down to Twitter length, I got sick, ended up in hospital and needed the first two weeks off to recover. The uni responded by withdrawing the job offer. After the initial shock wore off, I realised there had been red flags all along – and as someone who coaches others on trusting their instincts, I clearly had not followed my own. I had charged on, determined to make this new opportunity a winner, too blinded by possibility to see the truth.

What follows is a cautionary tale and the red flags to look out for if you’re considering embarking on an expat career change.

RED FLAG 1: Your first impressions aren’t great.

When an initial job opportunity is discussed but then you get radio silence, don’t go back for more and launch a new round of attempting to impress them. That’s what I did – I thought if I pushed a little harder on their door, it might open. Which it finally did, only to realise later there was a good reason why I should have left it closed in the first place, and walked away.

RED FLAG 2: You’re not happy with how they operate.

If these prospective new employers rarely follow through and are unpredictable in how they communicate, then pay attention. This is not a case of cultural differences, it’s a sign of how they do business. Then imagine what that would be like once you’re on the inside, dealing with them every day. If you have decades of experience under your belt, you know the absolute fundamentals you expect from a boss and a workplace. And if your potential new boss’s response to everything is, ‘I’m busy, put it in an email’, keep moving.

RED FLAG 3: The job spec is unreasonable.

Never assume just because you have done a job in one place, it will be the same in another. I discovered an Australian uni teaching schedule was a world away from Thailand when I was requested to complete unpaid preparation work before I had started (I refused), and then discovered their schedule offered twice the number of classes than expected. They wanted bang for their buck – and then some. Asking detailed questions and checking current schedule early would have revealed all I needed to know.

RED FLAG 4: The contract doesn’t cover basic essentials.

Pick up a highlighter while reading the contract, and mark ALL the fine print that concerns you. Who is paying for the flights? What is the standard of accommodation on offer and are pics available? Who pays for equipment shipping, etc? The cost of this adventure might run into the thousands, of which you carry the expenses. And if it all goes wrong and you find yourself without a job, what then? If everything seems skewed in their favour, then don’t sign over your valuable expertise.

RED FLAG 5: You can’t get answers to tough questions.

Make the adage, “expect the best but prepare for the worst” your mantra. So, you MUST ask tough questions well beforehand, rather than being concerned about offending them – as I was warned not to do. What happens if you get sick or if doesn’t work out – what then? Once you get your response, have all that included in an amendment contract. You’re moving countries – this is no time for dancing around cultural sensibilities.

RED FLAG 6: You want to ignore all the above red flags and focus on the thrill factor.

A new job overseas sounds all very exciting, but what excites you more – the job or the adventure of working in a foreign land? If it is the latter, do not sign that contract. This requires far more commitment and life changes than you can imagine. If the destination thrills you more than the job, keep looking for another gig that will thrill you equally, or instead book a long holiday and get that city out of your system.

I know, I know, so much of this now reads like basic, common sense, but how easily that was so overshadowed by the excitement of a career opportunity offering new prospects. Look beyond the excitement and remember the sage words of Arthur Miller, “Attention must be paid”. In 2017, I’m paying attention, now more than ever.

Have you ever taken up an overseas job? What’s the biggest lesson you learnt?

4 responses on "6 red flags to note before taking on an overseas job"

  1. Nic says:

    Great advice John, thanks for sharing. PS: Glad you’re back #theresnothinglikeaustralia

    1. John says:

      Thanks Nic for the welcome home, and glad you liked this. Fascinating revelations are made when you are so out of your comfort zone, and have to run by your wits.

  2. Leo Wiles says:

    Thank you for sharing John. A lot of these great tips, such as a less than enthusiastic welcome, are great advice for approaching ANY client. I know I for one have been so carried away with the idea of working for a particular client that I have kept going when like you I should have walked away and put my energy into an appreciative client.

    1. John says:

      Thanks Leo. The less than enthusiastic welcome, where you initially think you have to make more of an effort, was the tough one for me to get my head around. I believe in that adage, “If you want a door to open, then open it yourself”. But that proved not to be the best way forward on this occasion.

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