Relocating career development

A look at what happens after an international assignment

Once an international assignment was a promotion. Now it’s a lateral move. And some firms aren’t even guaranteeing jobs upon return from a posting.

Repatriated employees can expect to be slotted into whatever position is available while the organization searches for the next challenge. It’s a frustrating time for the employee who is eager to use the experience gained abroad.

The first year after repatriation is critical because the employee is unsettled and dissatisfied. During this time HR’s ability to partner with international assignees is put to the test. Successful HR support means preparing employees before assignments start, encouraging them to be proactive about their careers while away and assisting them on return.

Many people have an image of expat homecomings that includes the possibility of a promotion and co-workers grouped at the office door, eagerly awaiting a colleague’s return. Sadly, for most returning expatriates, such images are not the reality.

The majority of employers (70 per cent, according to GMAC’s renowned Global Relocation Trends Survey 2002, released this March) provide no post-assignment guarantees of employment. And unfortunately, many expatriates who do return to their home-country organization feel their overseas experience is not valued. Many feel as though their careers have in some ways come to a standstill while they were away. However, with the right education and planning in place, career development issues can be effectively addressed.

The risk of losing expats

Unfortunately, most companies pay less attention to repatriation than they do to exit interviews for departing employees. This leaves returning employees, who have gained extensive business knowledge during their stints overseas, at risk of being underutilized.

People returning from assignment often find themselves out of the loop in terms of networking with the right people, business objectives and sometimes even technology. They may feel they are at a disadvantage in many arenas, particularly that of career development. They may also feel that they have lost much of the autonomy they had while on assignment, and as a result, experience a perceived loss of status. Often, those who become increasingly frustrated leave the very employers who made their international business experience possible.

For the organization, losing an employee with valuable global experience — usually to the competition –— represents immense recruitment and training costs, as well as the loss of someone who could contribute to the global mindset of an organization. These employees are extremely valuable in that they have gained transcultural competencies, meaning that they can now reconcile cultural differences with ease. They are also highly adaptable, and for companies that operate within global markets, these employees are their true global players. They are, on many levels, extremely difficult to replace.

Have a plan in place

To prevent this needless disappointment and waste of talent, career development must begin even before an expatriate leaves for international assignment. While much of the responsibility should be that of the expatriate employee, HR professionals can help by establishing an action plan before departure. This includes:

•connecting expatriates with mentors that can provide advice in terms of goal-setting, as well as a much-needed link to the organization’s corporate culture;

•regular trips back to the home office;

•providing expatriates with company newsletters electronically so that they are aware of changes in policy as well as other company updates;

•for important networking purposes, establishing a process for staying in contact with the boss and providing a point of contact for matching available jobs with returning expats; and

•establishing a formal reporting system whereby the expat employee reports on learning in terms of working cross-culturally and within the global business arena. This will give the expat a sense of transferring their knowledge and therefore contributing to the organization “at home.” It also provides the company with a formal channel for disseminating the expat’s knowledge base and broadening its own global talent pool.

Employees readying for international assignment should also be made aware of the realities of career pathing while abroad. While HR can be a helpful partner and a key link that keeps expats abreast of developments at the home office, relocated employees must realize they need to look after their own interests.

Sharing responsibility for career development while on assignment

Sponsors and mentors may leave an organization, change divisions or drop responsibilities for expats, and HR ultimately won’t be able to safeguard an international assignee’s interests. Hence, encouraging employees to be proactive about networking is an essential part of HR’s relocation message.

Expats have to stay connected and network with home office while away. Sponsors and mentors should be arranged. Having a few people with whom an expats exchanges e-mails on a weekly basis is a good way of staying in touch with the right people and receiving intelligence about corporate changes and initiatives.

The truth of the matter is that job security in general has disappeared, whether an employee is a repatriate or a high-performing executive who has never left the company’s headquarters. It is therefore largely up to individuals to be proactive and manage their own careers.

Prior to an international assignment, employees need to think about what skills they can develop while they are gone. An expatriate employee intent on career development needs to consider the question, “What is my ideal job scenario and how can I groom myself to ensure I fit into that role?” While on assignment, an employee should partner with HR to stay on top of the company’s strategic requirements to ensure the ability to fulfil them upon return. Communicating with HR about accomplishments and the new perspectives gained is also a wise investment of the expatriate’s time.

HR should be concerned about what the employee is coming back to, and become a sounding board for the expat employee planning to return. “What are the new changes and insights in the organization? What are the opportunities that exist? How can HR and the employee partner to ensure the expat fits in?”

The expatriate’s former department head in the home office might also want to play a role in ensuring the returning employee has a means of leveraging new skill sets within that department.

Coming home

HR should provide an orientation program for returning employees just as it does for newcomers to an organization. This includes updating them on employer policies, coverage and offerings in benefits and pensions, new corporate initiatives and even reviewing organizational charts.

Ask expats about the skills they developed and their interests and goals. What type of project appeals to them?

HR can connect expats with other employees who’ve returned from international assignment. This helps create an internal support network.

Another element is “repatriation training” which involves the “debriefing” of expats, spouses and family members by a relocation consultant. This is different than the business debriefing an HR department conducts with returning staff. It is an opportunity for expats to discuss the homecoming experience in confidential sessions with a consultant exterior to the organization.

Sessions are conducted individually with family members, as well as with the family group. Expats and families are asked about what has surprised them about home. What are their career concerns? The intent is to help them resettle and address issues before they turn into reasons to leave the firm. Employees are encouraged to speak up about career concerns.

Repatriation training has grown in use over the last decade. Providing business repatriation services demonstrates to repatriating employees that the company values their knowledge gained on the assignment.

Growing HR experience

HR should debrief returning expats about their experiences. The more HR professionals can learn about the expat experience, the more HR practitioners can help assist the organization in being responsive to expat needs.

Companies new to relocation will need to grow experience in their HR departments. Employee debriefings will help this growth.

HR practitioners can learn from their colleagues, and professional associations such as the Canadian Employee Relocation Council can help develop relocation expertise.

A well-tuned relocation strategy will also address the company-wide perception of international assignments to ensure they are viewed as career-enhancers.

An organization can maximize its expatriate return-on-investment by placing emphasis on shared responsibility, providing education and support around professional and personal challenges, and facilitating reintegration and career self-management.

Pam Pappas Stanoch is vice-president, Global Initiatives USA, for FGI, a Toronto-based international provider of repatriation services, cross-cultural training programs and employee assistance programs. She can be reached at (612) 730-3971 or [email protected]. Gaye Reynolds-Gooch is a repatriation consultant working with FGI’s Minneapolis office. She may be reached at (612) 338-3690 or [email protected].

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