Equality in access to overseas appointments: what HR needs to know

World map behind business people

HR managers operate in a changing environment of international employment, including more employees who are women or members of disadvantaged social minorities – which means that traditional HR policies are now out of date. Elizabeth Christopher, author of International management: Explorations across cultures – which recently won a Management Book of the Year Award – offers six suggestions to help HR directors bring their polices up to date.

Looking at the current picture of international staffing, HR managers live in a world characterised by advanced communication and distribution technologies, e-commerce, new strategic alliances, organisational restructuring and the internationalisation of operations.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the changing nature of overseas assignments, with increasing workforce diversity and a reduction in the gender gap between men and women.

Taking a strategic approach

HR directors should approach selection for overseas assignments in a strategic way. However, very few track return on investment on what happens to people after their assignments, or in terms of performance and employee retention. Moreover, companies’ mobility teams should be more integrated with their organisation’s talent management to ensure employees’ careers benefit from overseas assignments.

Many firms need to do more to improve diversity and inclusiveness in offering mobility opportunities, especially since working overseas is generally believed to be beneficial for career progression and important in the development of future corporate leaders.

International careers for women

Unfortunately, conservatism in HR policies persists and nowhere is this more evident than when sending women on overseas tours of duty. In 1984, Nancy Adler derided the “myth” that women do not want international careers. In 2013, however, a global mobility survey found that while women make up 23% of worldwide employees in the organisations surveyed, only 15% received overseas assignments and 19% of these were short-term postings.

In 2002, a study of job satisfaction for expatriate female managers in US corporations found four areas to be important. These are: the ways in which organisations design their overseas jobs; the skills and characteristics of the appointees; the company’s international HR policies; and the cultural environment of the host countries.

Thus the achievement and satisfaction of female managers overseas, as well as for their male counterparts, cannot be assessed without taking into account organisational, personal and cultural factors. HR directors need to respond to individuals’ needs and then decide on their assignments and repatriation. This seems sound advice whether the employees are black or white, young or old, disabled or not, or men or women.

Cross-cultural factor

Cultural patterns have changed even more over the years, and further study is needed of professionals on commuter and short-term assignments that often replace traditional expatriation – such as those undertaken by consultants or executives seeking to develop new business in international markets.

In growing numbers, people frequently visit other countries as part of their international responsibilities, and increasingly they are individuals with international backgrounds. These employees form a relatively classless and genderless subculture of shared work experiences in international environments. And these individuals are much more likely to integrate with local cultures because they have lived and worked in many.

Points to consider

Based on the above, the following suggestions seem appropriate for HR managers of overseas appointments to consider:

  1. Travel advice should not be gender specific; it should apply to all personnel about to undertake overseas assignments.
  2. There should be an assumption of sensible personal security and that individuals will take reasonable precautions depending on circumstances. Beyond that, travel advisories should be specific to each country and its culture, based on consolidated information including immigration and diplomatic sources.
  3. There should be different levels of travel support, depending on the corporate view of the risks and challenges to the company and to its travelling employees. Such support might relate to gender, race, religion, or disabilities such as impaired physical mobility.
  4. All employees, including those sent overseas, should complete a business conduct guidelines course at least once a year, and this should contain sections on the importance of foreign transactions. Bribery is a key issue, and other cautions should be set out – such as limitations on technology transfer and rules on the treatment of government institutions.
  5. HR departments should build (or have on record) country profiles for developing countries. Ideally, volunteer teams should be sent to work for local agencies to better understand the local culture and feed information back for anyone who needs to conduct business there.
  6. HR managers should also offer advice for people working from home, much of it directed towards online hazards. In practice, most overseas workers rely heavily on working online from unfamiliar, and therefore less secure, internet connections.
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