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Staying in touch at all times

Plan for the return of staff sent abroad, or you could lose them to competition, says Jennifer Taylor

Companies that send staff on international assignments risk losing them unless they manage the situation appropriately.

Research by Cranfield School of Management and PricewaterhouseCoopers shows that up to 40 per cent of these employees resign within a year of completing the posting.

Companies need to keep in mind the nature of the assignment, says Dr Noeleen Doherty, research fellow at Cranfield. “Is it to go out and drill a hole and come back, or is it to go out and do that job - but you’re also going to have some career development? If the company has been offering them some kind of implicit or explicit development, then individuals are going to expect either to be able to do something with the skills they bring back, or have some opportunities.”

Skills developed abroad tend to be interpersonal, rather then technical. Having been in a different culture and country, people pick up ways of managing others, managing diversity and change, and -dealing with a different place.

Career uncertainty

Dr Doherty says that sometimes people are given a project role when they come back, which “can be almost a death knell career-wise”. They may not get back on track in terms of their career aspirations for about a year, which could cause them to have a ‘career wobble’.

“If you can get over the career wobble in the year of repatriation, those that stay with an organisation longer do better and get promoted faster than their peers,” says George Yeandle, partner and head of international mobility at PwC.

“There is a payback but you’ve got to get over that little first year wobble sometimes in order to get you there. That’s partly because, although there’s a lot of talk about doing all the work to reintegrate and repatriate, actually much more effort goes into getting the deal done and getting the individual to the overseas location to start with.”

Dr Doherty adds: “Our research tends to suggest that the reintegration could be done better, in that it’s managing people’s expectations, it’s managing what happens to them when they come back.”

Often, employees leave the company because their expectations have not been met in terms of the types of roles and the experience they have got while they’re on the assignment. She advises companies to keep career conversations going continually with the expatriate while they’re away, not just immediately prior to their return. It will ensure that you know what they’re doing and what sorts of skills they’re developing. “It’s a subtle -expectations management process,” she says.

Mr Yeandle says companies should steer clear of traditional expatriate policies, which are based on the time spent away. “Just using time as the means for determining a policy is something which is looking increasingly out-of-date.”

Tailoring the support

The support given to a group of engineers going on a construction project for three years will be different to that given to one of your future stars who will be overseas for the same amount of time.

In addition to the length of the assignment, the nature of the job should be considered. How much is it to do with the individual’s own skills and development as opposed to plugging a hole in a local market? And what is the nature of the employee and the location?

Mr Yeandle says expatriate assignments are becoming more about understanding the why and the who of an assignment. He adds the developmental aspects of international assignments are more important now and they are being used as a tool to develop people.

Companies need to be more open and upfront about that, and change the way they handle them. It is less about getting the deal and the process issues right at the start and more about what happens to these employees when they come back, says Mr Yeandle.

Dr Doherty sums it up: “Companies do a lot of up front planning and recruitment in terms of identifying people to go. A lot are quite good at watching them while they’re away. Where they tend to fall down is in the reintegration, the repatriation. It’s completing that expatriation cycle.”

Managing international assignments the atkins way

“When you go away from the ebase at which you consider yourself to be employed…all the normal relationships that you retain and the normal fit you have with that part of the business is disturbed,” says Alun Griffiths, group HR director of Atkins.

When employees return from overseas, they may or may not be regarded positively for the additional skills and experience they’ve gained. Or they may be seen as the same person who went on assignment two or three years ago. “You’ve got a weakening of the emotional ties, and perhaps a failure to regard how far the person has progressed in their development since they went on assignment. And that creates the conditions where people are more likely to leave than they might otherwise have been.”

Atkins approach is to manage international assignments around maintaining those emotional ties.
Line managers continue their career development responsibilities for employees regardless of where they are and for how long. Career development meetings and performance appraisals carry on and the individual continues to be told what’s going on.

Mr Griffiths acknowledges that planning for repatriation is difficult because both the world and the individual have changed. The solution is to maintain a close connection and regular constructive dialogue with the employee throughout their time abroad. The depth of conversation about their role will increase several months before they return.

“If you’ve maintained a dialogue over that period of time, then you have a strong sense of the additional skills somebody has been developing, of the additional experience they’ve gained... therefore you are more likely to be taking that into your calculations when you are slotting the person back into an organisation.”

How to use international assignments as a development tool

“We see international experience as quite important for developing an international organisation and therefore for people coming back, we take an interest in their career development at the centre.”

So says Paul Raby, human resources director at Balfour Beatty, which uses international assignments as a tool for developing its staff.

The key thing “is sitting down early to consider what the person is going to gain in terms of their career development, how that fits in with the individual’s aspirations, and how that person could be best utilised when they return”, he adds.

A three-way understanding of timescales and expectations is needed between the individual, the home employing unit and the receiving employing unit.

Employees should continue to receive general communications from the home location, including team briefings and in-house magazines, so they feel an ongoing link.

Every three months or so there should be contact from the HR department of the home company. And while the host location will lead the employee’s performance and development review, it should liaise with the home location to make sure development needs are discussed and agreed.

Mr Raby advises planning for repatriation six months ahead, by talking to the employee about the experience and skills they have gained, and their aspirations, which may have changed.

If a position is not available in the employee’s home company that will move their career forward, Balfour Beatty looks for a role in one of its other operating companies. It’s an approach that has proved good for retention.

“We have looked quite carefully at the experiences and the training that they’ve gained overseas and we’ve been able to utilise that somewhere in the group to continue their career development,” says Mr Raby.

“They don’t just come back into the same slot or get put somewhere because we’ve got to find a hole. We try to build on it.”