Recent research carried out by Personnel Today and consultancy Penna Sanders
& Sidney provides a fascinating – and at times paradoxical – insight into
the issues surrounding international placements for HR professionals.
You don’t need to know all the words to the Marseillaise to appreciate that
the word "international" is stamped all over the future. And most HR
professionals are gearing up to take part. But as our survey demonstrates,
conducted in conjunction with career consultancy Penna Sanders & Sidney,
there are some interesting paradoxes – not to mention organisational hurdles –
that need to be overcome if UK managers are to take their place successfully on
the world stage. More than 90 UK HR professionals responded to the
questionnaire. Here’s what they had to say:
78 % would like to take on an international role in the future
This optimistic finding finds correlation in the fact that the vast majority
of respondents (95 per cent) believe there will be a growing number of HR jobs
with international responsibility. But one of the main paradoxes highlighted is
the significant percentage who believe taking an international role could lead
to a career cul-de-sac (see below).
The survey shows that people are far more comfortable with the idea of
working internationally if they remain based in the UK. Although 88 per cent
say they would take on the role if they were UK-based, only a tiny 6 per cent
are prepared to uproot from Britain – indicating a remarkable staidness in
outlook, even among those without the ties of children. "Is that down to
our British mentality?" questions Sally Davis at Penna Sanders &
Sidney. Maybe. It may also have something to do with the growing emphasis on
work-life balance "in which relocation may be seen as negative".
Either way, most respondents believe that senior international roles could be
run effectively out of Britain.
32 % believe working abroad would be a risky career move
The fear is that going international could lead to a career dead end. More
worrying is the finding that experience tends to bear this out. A significantly
higher percentage of people who have previously held down an international role
(42 per cent) are convinced of this than those currently performing one (28 per
cent) – although this may mean that the value of international experience is
becoming more recognised. Anecdotal evidence suggests that internationalists
frequently face a degree of disgruntlement from those plugging away at home
(see box). And there is clearly a danger that working abroad can lead to an
"out of sight, out of mind" mentality. To counter this, says Davis at
Penna Sanders & Sidney, "It’s really important to continue networking
in your organisation and consciously manage your career".
Above all, you need to get across some of the unique skills your time abroad
has contributed to your portfolio, "Particularly as the role tends to be
more strategic" says Davis. (See below).
Employers also need to pull up their socks by maintaining strong ties with
those they have posted abroad and educating managers (particularly those with
no foreign experience) of some of the difficulties an international role may
entail. They also need to ensure that returning employees are formally
"reintegrated" and not just left to dangle.
60 % believe they are not as sufficiently equipped to compete for these
roles as their international counterparts
This finding is striking, given the inherent advantages of being a Brit on
the international scene: no real language barriers to overcome in an
international environment where English is the lingua franca, and arguably a
better understanding of the prevailing US business culture than many other
This insecurity about not being properly equipped may spring from our
national weakness as linguists. Sixty-three per cent of respondents echo this
claiming they don’t speak another language fluently enough to work with – and
it was notable from survey returns that those based here, but originally
hailing from other countries, frequently have three or four different languages
in their repertoire.
But one of the most damning aspects of the survey is that UK organisations
are clearly not dedicating enough time and resources to their international
ambassadors. A whopping 44 per cent claim they had received no support at all
on taking up an international role. For those who did receive advice,
relocation topped the list, followed by language training (28 per cent) and
coaching/mentoring (24 per cent ). Although 71 per cent cited the biggest
challenge is learning to work with people from different cultures, only 14 per
cent had received cross-cultural training to help them overcome this.
76 % believe working abroad is more pressurised than the UK
The main contributory factors to the greater pressure of the role includes
wearying travel (49 per cent) language difficulties (56 per cent) and, above
all, juggling family needs. There is clearly some guilt in play here: 88 per
cent of respondents agree that an international role "is hard on the
family". The survey reveals that the hardships the role can entail tend to
be forgotten after the event. While only 58 per cent of those who previously
held an international role believe that working abroad is more pressured than
working in the UK, this figures increases to 83 per cent among those who
currently hold one. Alleviating some of these pressures is clearly something
employers need to work harder at.
68 % thought the greater challenge of the role was one of its most
Being an internationalist may appear more glamorous than staying at home –
and it is certainly judged to be more demanding. But one thing’s for sure: you
won’t be paid any more to support any newly aspirational habits you may have
acquired. Only 7 per cent of survey respondents say they enjoy better pay.
Although only 7 per cent cite greater autonomy away from the UK as perk of the
job, a much higher 27 per cent think it may be a great way to escape "the
workaholic" atmosphere of the UK. That may be true if you’re bound for the
siesta-culture of a Mediterranean operation, but less so if your destination is
the US (average executive annual holiday entitlement 2.5 weeks).
Other factors that appeal include the opportunity to integrate with
different cultures and increased responsibility. It is noteworthy that those
currently in UK roles were more likely to cite "opportunities to
travel" than their clearly journey-weary international peers.
57 % believe that an international role does not require previous
Maybe not, but a sample poll of international veterans are adamant that
previous experience is critical – possibly indicating that there’s more to the
role than may at first be apparent. When it comes to skills, it is clear that
the "softer" ones are key. Cultural awareness is cited as the most
important skill, followed by adaptability, resilience, the ability to think
strategically, drive, the ability to develop/coach people from a distance, and
the ability to speak other languages. Strategic thinking is ranked higher by
those currently in an international role, than those who previously held such a
role, suggesting that this skill is becoming increasingly important.
What’s different about the job?
Old hands attest that if you want to develop your strategic skills then an
international placement is likely to be just the thing for you
Most international veterans claim that one of the best aspects of the role
is a greater freedom from structural constraint. This may be because so many
firms are still expanding, which lends a pioneering quality to the role. One
thing is clear, however. If strategy’s your game you’ll find many more
opportunities to exercise your talents if you take an international role.
– Different responsibilities
International HR roles require a more strategic element than UK roles, with
82 per cent of those sampled believing that this is likely to increase. The
main focus for those in international roles is supporting business decisions
(79 per cent), HR policy (79 per cent), training (72 per cent), culture and
values (72 per cent). In the UK, recruitment, HR policy and training were the
– Different focus
Those in international roles are largely involved in adapting to the
employment legislation of different countries (90 per cent), consulting with
employees about company restructuring (79 per cent) and harmonising HR policies
across borders (79 per cent). In contrast, those in UK roles spend the bulk of
their time managing employee relations (65 per cent), consulting with employees
about company restructuring (61 per cent) and introducing company culture and
values (59 per cent).
Making the most of your international role
– Your biggest challenge is likely to be learning to work with people from
different cultures, so insist on receiving training on cultural awareness
– Be aware that there may be different expectations of the role in different
countries. Some overseas organisations may regard HR as a policies and
procedures watchdog, rather than a strategic business partner
– While other languages are not necessary, it is courteous to have a grasp
of the basics of any foreign language you may come into contact with. Ask for
language skills training to get a command of the basics
– An international position can mean out of sight out of mind. Career
management consultancy can help ensure your international role doesn’t become a
career dead-end. Try and negotiate this support before, during and after the
– Make sure you are as up-to-date as possible on employment legislation in
the different countries your company operates in
– Although you may be asked to relocate abroad, in many circumstances it is
possible to make the role work from your UK base. Be flexible in your approach,
seek advice from a relocation specialist if necessary.
– Consider the impact on your family. Do you have the resilience and energy
to cope with the role? How long could you do it for? Again ask for support to
help you manage this
– Be honest with yourself and know your personal strengths and weaknesses.
Invest as much time in your own health and well being as you do in your people.
Source: Penna Sanders & Sidney
Case Study: Gareth Aldis, international HR managers, UPS
Coming here was a culture shock
Gareth Aldis’ move to the UK shattered a number of preconceptions about HR
practice here and in the US – and about playing an international role
Originally from Sydney, Australia, Gareth Aldis swept into UPS’ London
office two years ago. He came to the UK to experience something completely
different: "Just packed up, sold up and landed here". The company has
put this talent for fast removal to good use: Aldis’ current role involves
supervising HR operations in eastern Europe, the Middle and Far East and Russia
and the CIS states. And he also keeps close tabs with UPS’ Atlanta, Georgia
Landing in the UK was a culture shock in its own right, says Aldis, who cut
his HR teeth with one of Australia’s leading retail banks, St George.
He is not the first antipodean to draw unfavourable comparisons between UK
HR practice and what goes on back home. "I had this perception that the UK
would be well advanced. But it’s actually way behind" – on
everything from parental leave to equal opportunities, harassment and
His main bugbear is corporate rigidity – particularly when it comes to the
Atlanta head office handing out one-size-fits-all edicts. "We have a
Balanced Scorecard ethos at UPS, in which a set number of elements are measured
around the world. A big difficulty is that the corporate office often won’t
accept cultural differences: there is the attitude that "they do it the
UPS way or not at all". When one employee from the Czech Republic rang the
company’s (US-based) internal helpline she was asked: "Prague? What part
of America is that?"
Aldis agrees that an international role can hinder career advancement –
primarily because of the false perceptions of others. "People think you’ve
got a glamour job and that can influence decisions on your next assignment.
They see you as standing on the edge of the company." There is a notion
that unless you are "operating in a tight structure" you are somehow
not performing as strongly. Certainly those who work internationally enjoy a
far greater autonomy in the decision-making process. "I go above and below
people to get things improved" – but this can ruffle feathers back at HQ.
Although he and his wife have now bought a place in London, her job may
shortly take them to New York. No worries, says Aldis. "We’re young and
have no kids – we’re flexible. "In a company like UPS there’s a lot of
internal movement" and he’s confident a US role will come his way –
"Even though they think I’m a mad Aussie."