I just attended the SHRM Global Forum Conference in Los Angeles, with more
than 600 attendees from around the world.
During a session I taught, a young lady asked what to do with an expatriate
who had been in a host country for eight years with no plans to come home. I
suggested that she simply tell him the assignment is over, full stop.
It is a common question: how do we get an expat out of their comfy lifestyle
in Singapore or Brussels? Why don’t we have local staff ready to step into the
I hear this question far too often. Expatriate management is an essential
part of our jobs. We must look more closely at our strategies for managing our
most expensive employees. Any expat leaving your shores for an assignment must
have a clear, bespoke agenda, and an equally clear exit strategy.
We need to start addressing this when the first line manager says: "I
want to send Joe Bloggs to Kuala Lumpur." HR’s immediate question must be:
"To do what, and for how long?" Without that vital question, the
assignment is likely to go wildly astray.
I believe it is vital that we set an agenda and tell employees why they are
going somewhere, what they are expected to accomplish, and how long they are
expected to stay. We also have an obligation to begin discussing repatriation
before they have even left their home country.
A key component is working out why the person is heading out on an
assignment. Typically, I’d expect the reason to be either development for the
expatriate, knowledge transference, development/training of a local national,
or ‘firefighting’ a particular problem. In some cases, a single assignment
could include all of these.
Pre-assignment discussions of repatriation should include a strong dose of
expectation-setting. Even if your company isn’t ready to commit to a new role
for the person, it is just as important to tell them so.
For an exit strategy to be effective, we must reconsider the initial agenda
that sent the expat out. Whether we localise the role, determine the project is
complete, or declare victory in the transferral of knowledge to local staff, it
is essential that there is a pre-determined view of what the end game should
look like. Failure to have one will cause a supposedly valuable asset to be
underutilised or ill-deployed.
Make a checklist of all your expats worldwide. If you and their line manager
cannot articulate what the person is doing and when they will be back, you may
have potentially failed your business. If you are currently an expat without an
agenda and an exit strategy, you need to create one yourself – or one will have
to be created for you.
Put simply, an expat without an agenda and an exit strategy is an example of
bad HR and bad business. If you are an HR person, you must work with your line
managers to ensure these factors are established.
By Lance Richards, Board director, SHRM Global Forum