Sending an employee overseas can be a great opportunity for everyone involved, but, as Tara Craig discovers, without the right preparation, it can cost an organisation dearly.
As the tabloids whip themselves into a righteous frenzy over immigration, government statistics tell us that an estimated 400,000 people emigrated from the UK for a year or more in 2006 – the highest number since measurements were introduced in 1991. While a growing proportion are retirees hoping to top up their tans, more and more of our workforce are heading overseas to develop new skills and expand their, and their families’, horizons.
But for the HR teams working to send them abroad, booking the plane tickets and hiring removal companies is just the beginning. Research by psychometrics company SHL has revealed that 20% to 50% of workers posted overseas return early, at a cost to their employers of £250,000 each, so there is no margin for error.
Who to send
When sending a member of staff abroad, the first question will be ‘Who should I send?’ This may be a difficult one to answer – it’s often the case that the shy member of staff may thrive in foreign climes, while their brasher colleague may be unexpectedly reluctant to stray far from home and familiarity. Much will depend on the length and location of the posting, and whether applicants have dependants.
Language skills and overseas experience will be key factors – as will track records. Rather than sending someone who will see only the opportunity for an extended holiday at the company’s expense, organisations need to fill overseas gaps with people who will both give professional value to their new team, and be able to share new experiences and knowledge on their return.
Deciding on how to reward those that move overseas is another challenge, and it’s very much a case of striking a balance where the person involved feels they are being well taken care of while abroad within existing benefit structures.
Julia Watts, of benefits experts Alston HR, points out that adhering to local laws and offering a package consistent with the expat population can be a difficult juggling act.
“Communication is key for all benefits being offered during an assignment, particularly if some, such as accommodation or education costs, decrease over the years,” she says.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that staff may expect a quick trip there beforehand to get a feel for their new home, preferably with their spouse.
However beautiful a home you provide, and however stimulating a workplace, there remains the thorny issue of cultural differences. We like to think we are all global players these days, but – especially for women – there are countries where what we see as normal everyday life is very different. Staff considering an overseas posting need to be very clear as to what to expect.
Daniel Griggs, director of global resourcing at recruiters BBT, says: “Speaking to people who have had the same experience can also ease integration.” He stresses the importance of post-move support services, including social networks and expat communities. Many cities offer ‘virtual’ tours online, for example, which may help staff to acclimatise themselves.
It’s not a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ once you’ve shipped someone off to foreign climes. Jane Keith, people development director at Hewlett-Packard (HP) Europe, Middle East and Africa, believes it’s up to HR to demonstrate the benefits of moving staff around a global organisation.
“It is in the interest of an international company to move staff around geographically and across business units so as to have a pool of experienced, talented employees,” she says.
“It is a way of transferring knowledge and experience from one region to another and, at the same time, developing the skills of employees. These individuals will then, in turn, increase their breadth of knowledge and leadership capabilities and be well placed to make a significantly greater contribution at higher levels in the organisation in the future. “
To benefit from new skills and market knowledge picked up, organisations need to set measurable objectives and implement streams of communication between offices. Having a mentor at head office, or within the employee’s permanent team, is a great way of keeping them in the loop.
Dave Pye, chief executive of recruiters Highams Group, employs homeworkers both in the UK and Europe, and goes to some lengths to keep all of them equally engaged, providing guides to living and working overseas, and asking employees to submit weekly activity reports.
Popular belief has it that moving house is one of the three greatest sources of stress, after divorce and bereavement. Multiply its impact by 10 and you’ll have some idea of the upheaval caused by an overseas move.
According to Natascha Clark of relocation experts HCR: “Employers must respect that every relocation is unique. If softer issues such as children’s education, cross-cultural training, spousal employment and work-life balance are not addressed, failed assignments are more likely.”
And while the actual move may seem like the biggest part of the process, people will often find settling in more difficult. They will be away from friends, colleagues and extended family, in a new place with sometimes perplexing customs – and often bewildering working habits and means of communication.
The length of stay abroad will be a key factor – someone who has signed up for five years abroad won’t mind taking six months to find their feet and build a new circle of friends, but someone who has been posted overseas for months rather than years won’t benefit from spending the duration of their stay looking for friends, rather than exploring a new culture.
Employees taking their families abroad face as many difficulties as opportunities. While younger children especially may adjust quickly to new schools and even new languages, their mothers may struggle with being uprooted and suddenly relegated to ‘trailing spouse’ status. While the employee themselves will have a ready-made social circle at work, their partner may struggle to adapt and create a new life for themselves. However happy the employee is, an unhappy spouse could signal a failed posting.
Katie Slater, of career coaches A Brave New World, insists the spouse must have the support of their partner’s company, whether these means the provision of an expat coach, cultural training, employment opportunities or even personal introductions to locals, expats or other spouses.
Languages are the most obvious example of new skills to be developed – not just by the employee, but by their family.
According to Chris Moore, head of language training at Cactus Worldwide: “It’s too easy to fall into the expatriate trap of only socialising with other people from the UK. Learning a language can dramatically enhance your experience of life in a new country, helping you to take part in local life, soak up the culture and make friends.”
As Moore points out, learning the local language can also help seconded employees work more closely with new local colleagues.
Time to come home
Often overlooked in the excitement of moving somewhere new, the move home will require as much attention, if not more. Reverse culture shock is an all too real phenomenon – is Slough going to look quite as quaint after a couple of years in Singapore? Employees may struggle to readjust to their former way of working, and their families may have problems being uprooted yet again. There are financial implications too, such as the loss of credit rating for the long-term expats.
Consultants at professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers speak of the ‘career wobble’, when returners experience doubt about their careers. Unless contact with the ‘motherland’ has been regular and in-depth, the returners will experience a considerable period of transition – poorly planned, this may impact on the employee’s work. And they may find that while they have developed and moved on, former colleagues and working methods have not, which will only add to their frustration.
While sending someone overseas can be a fantastic opportunity for both the individual and the employer, without the right preparation it can cost a company dear, in both financial and human capital terms.
Top tips for employers
- The location: brief the member of staff on where they’ll be living and working. Help them anticipate any possible challenges.
- Preparation: make sure you have file copies of any legal documents needed – passports, visas, work and residence permits. Think about registering your employee with the local British embassy.
- Arrival: new arrivals may feel vulnerable – make sure they understand that it is a natural reaction to being somewhere unfamiliar.
- Family: families of staff will be without the ready-made social circle provided by the office, so, particularly at the beginning, include them in invitations.
- Money: give any help needed with understanding local financial habits, setting up local bank accounts, arranging money transfers and so on.
- Meeting the locals: the location will define how difficult it is for expats to meet locals. Where appropriate, introduce them.
- Health and safety: brief staff on the local issues before they set off. Make them aware of any local threats.
- Access to advice: being away from home can make even the smallest problems seem huge. Make sure that staff and their families have someone to talk to if they need advice or just a shoulder to cry on.
- Staying in touch: maintain regular contact – both formal and informal – with staff posted overseas.
- Fun: take responsibility for the administrative side of the posting, and allow the person involved to enjoy the experience without unnecessary worry.
- Source: Robert Fletcher, client services director, Sterling Relocation