Expat communication lacking, study says

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|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/10/2003

O

nly half of Canadian HR executives responsible for international relocations say their companies do a good job of communicating with expatriate employees.

To improve the situation, companies are turning to the Internet, a survey of 72 Canadian multinational corporations found. Individuals participating in the study were HR executives who were most knowledgeable about the overall HR policy for expatriates, including benefits programs.

“The 2003 survey tells us there’s still room for improvement, but that extra efforts are being made, with increased use of e-mail facilitating the process,” said Virginia Hollis, vice-president of Global Markets for Cigna International Expatriate Benefits, co-sponsors of the third annual relocation survey. The study’s sponsors also include International SOS of Canada, Mercer Human Resource Consulting and WorldatWork.

The need to improve communications is key. Surveys of expats generally show they regard communication with their companies back home as a key factor in a successful international work assignment. And failed assignments can be expensive — firms typically invest three to four times an assignee’s salary, usually more than $1 million for a three-year assignment, the survey showed.

Expatriate communications strategies include making an extra effort to keep expats in the loop, using e-mail to a greater extent, screening and customizing information specifically for expats, and establishing dedicated Web sites for expats in different countries.

Almost 60 per cent of survey respondents said Web-based services and medical provider information are key in serving the needs of expats. The Internet is seen as the solution to time and distance constraints, and companies are taking advantage of the Web’s integration into mainstream corporate communication channels.

It’s all part of a greater strategy to keep expats happy and productive.

“Employers need to realize that thorough preparation for all aspects of the expat experience — from navigating cultural shifts, to health and welfare issues, to smoothing the repatriation process — play a crucial role in the outcome of an international assignment and the ultimate return on investment for the employer,” said Hollis.

HR concerned most about the homecoming

In about 80 per cent of companies surveyed, human resources is substantially involved in selecting candidates to fill assignments. The responsibility for expats involved supervision of the entire process of preparation, home office contact during assignment and repatriation. However, expat management is often not HR’s sole focus.

While the majority of those surveyed thought they were doing a good job in preparing employees for departure, nearly four in 10 saw room for improvement — often due to time constraints. Three-quarters of respondents were positive about the assistance provided to expats while on assignment, yet only 52 per cent were equally positive about meeting expats’ needs on their return.

“This finding was not unexpected as our earlier surveys of both employers and expat employees demonstrated that anxiety about what job awaited them upon return weighs heavily, and that many expats ultimately leave their company,” said Hollis. In fact, only 35 per cent have measurement tools in place to assess the success of an assignment.

Compensation, health care deciding factors

In considering whether to accept an expat assignment, compensation and benefits plan as well as the perceived quality of health care were deemed priorities. Companies chose a varied structure of compensation and health care packages to deliver the goods.

Nine in 10 surveyed said it’s important that expat compensation and benefit plan is equal to or better than their home plan. Close to 70 per cent rated the perceived quality of health care in the host country to be important.

Half said access to information on accredited health care providers in the host country, or what to do if there aren’t any, was critical.

Trends include emergency response plans

While economic factors and changes in corporate strategy have had an impact on the current size of expatriation programs, 46 per cent of HR executives surveyed see growth in the expat population of their companies over the next five years.

It would seem that in direct response to concern over global tensions and safety issues overseas, most companies noted having recently updated emergency response plans for expatriate employees.

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