Managing expats: no place like home

Moving its top execs around the globe is key to talent management at technology giant Hewlett-Packard, according to the company’s new people director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Jane Keith.

And a recent BBC survey found that expatriates tend to feel healthier and happier about life. Nine in 10 of expats surveyed said they had a better quality of life and six out of 10 did not plan to return.

But managing executives on global assignments is not without its problems. A 2006 study of around 3,500 international assignees by Cranfield School of Management found that, on average, 15% of them resign within 12 months of completing their posting.

While the practical and cultural concerns involved in supporting and motivating staff living thousands of miles away can be intense, the benefits for firms that keep a ‘weather eye’ on assignees rather than adopting an out of sight, out of mind approach can be immense, says Paul Hicks, UK global mobility team leader at business services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).

Culture of mobility

“We foster a culture of mobility here because it’s beneficial to individual careers, and we believe that the broader skills that emerge allow us to offer a more robust service to our clients,” says Hicks, who estimates that around 5% of PwC staff are on international assignment at any one time.

While it is fairly easy for someone to work on an overseas assignment in New York, PwC also encourages staff to choose less well-trodden paths in emerging markets, such as Moscow or Beijing. This involves giving people as much information as possible about the customs of the host country before they go, according to Hicks.

To aid this process, PwC has recently launched a new web-based tool, ‘Virtual Assignment Experience’, which features videos of recent assignees talking candidly about their experiences.

“The attitude of partners and families is crucial in making an overseas assignment work and we give as much help as we can in finding schools for children and work for so-called ‘trailing spouses’, who nowadays are more likely to be male,” says Hicks. “We also encourage people to de-select themselves if they feel they can’t cope with the upheaval.”

For HR departments keen to avoid losing talent, it is vital to know where to go for information about the host country and to spend time ironing out procedures for when the assignment finishes, says Juliet Carp, a solicitor and employment law specialist with Speechly Bircham and formerly part of the expatriate tax team at consulting firm Ernst & Young.

“It’s a mistake for HR to try to learn all the answers about every country because each will have its own peculiarities. You may discover that in Italy, lawyers can get involved in terminations and that you could need permission to dismiss people in France and Spain, but it’s knowing where to go for reliable answers that counts,” she says.

Nitty-gritty details

Carp believes that in contrast to many UK-based employees, expats “like the security of lots of paperwork relating to their contract” and if it is a first posting, they will also require “some nitty-gritty details”, such as how many boxes can they carry and whether they can take pets.

She believes that aside from sorting out local tax, social security, immigration and healthcare, a good HR professional will talk about potential departure – and be aware of termination costs – before an assignee is sent away.

“While, on the whole, expats are less litigious, they do want to know what’s going to happen at the end of the assignment if there is no suitable job for them to come back to,” Carp says.

“Here again, good paperwork and discussions before the contract is finalised are vital if the relationship between employer and employee is going to last.”

Statistics from the specialist website Expatica suggest that as many as 30% of overseas assignments fail. And while selection and training issues are part of the problem, according to business psychologist Carla Shepherd, so is executive burnout.

“The obvious problems for single expats are loneliness, stress and even boredom while for families, the demands of spouses and children unhappy with life overseas can often be overwhelming,” she says.

“Far less obvious is the fact that many assignees are career-obsessed people who work long hours and take few holidays to keep up with perceived demands from the UK. For those people, emotional backing is just as important as professional support.”

Every PwC employee sent overseas is allocated their own ‘assignment-owner’ or business coach, says Hicks – to avoid the problem of being out of touch and isolated in a far-flung post.

“Between them, the assignment-owner and the HR department ensure that regular contact with all expats is maintained and that important issues such as repatriation planning don’t fall through the net.”

And just as many Western multinationals are getting to grips with emerging markets such as China and India, ambitious Asian companies are looking to build a presence in the UK, and the problems are no less intense.

Relaxed attitudes

To Arun Rao, global HR director of the Hydrobad-based Applabs – a quality assurance and testing company with offices in the UK and US – cultural awareness is essential.

“The Indian business model tends to be based on the US experience, but for an Indian travelling to the UK, the English sense of humour and the formalities surrounding a business dinner can be overwhelming.”

“Although we have a shared past with the UK, staff being sent to the UK also need to understand your relaxed attitudes to working hours and holidays to be able to fit in,” says Rao.

The lesson here? Whoever your staff are, familiarise them with the culture and prepare them for the challenges ahead.

Key points

  • To combat ‘workaholism’, ensure that assignees take holidays and consider including health club membership as part of the package.

  • Pressure to perform from the people back home can be intense; companies with reasonable expectations put their expats under less stress than those who adopt a macho, sink-or-swim attitude.

  • Female ‘trailing spouses’ will not be allowed to work in many Middle Eastern countries, but cultural adaptation for the growing number of male spouses without a clearly defined role may be even more problematic.

  • Nobody likes to feel their employer is breathing down their neck, but for expats far from home, regular contact with an HR rep or manager back home is essential.

  • The dark side of international assignments may be marital discord, depression and substance/alcohol abuse, but the problem may be difficult to spot until performance is seriously affected.

Case study: Sarah Randhawa

Sarah Randhawa, an assurance manager at consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, has recently finished a two-year secondment to Los Angeles.

“In the UK, we didn’t work in specialist sectors, but in LA I have been able to build up my expertise in selected areas such as entertainment and media. I’ve also learned a lot about best management practices and my confidence has been boosted.

“I travelled back to the UK a couple of times a year to meet up with UK partners and colleagues, and regular e-mail and phone calls also helped me keep in touch.

“I was given the opportunity to experience a different client base and culture and there was even a committee that organised social events for the expats, so making friends was not an issue.”

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