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International Assignments in a Changing World

By Griselle Cardozo


Working Overseas  - International Assignments in a Changing World

Until a few years ago relocations were a relatively simple business. Companies selected their most career-oriented employees, got them to pack a few belongings and move with their family to the other side of the globe. The relocations and international assignment business has come a long way since then. As globalization steadily continues, companies are now more cost conscious than ever and it has become imperative for companies to evolve. Most companies are now changing their relocation policies to adapt to the current economic, social and technological environment and also to ensure the employee receives much needed support during a move. Consequently, managing assignments has become more complex as more assignments of shorter durations have come into play. Also, according to recommendations from the recent Asia Pacific Global Workforce Summit, a macro-economic power shift away from the U.S. and toward Asian economic powers will cause policies, practices and processes to originate in the East.

How committed is the potential assignee? In today's complex world of relocations, no matter how simple a move may seem, the demands of working overseas cannot be underestimated. It requires a great deal of commitment from the employee, that is far greater than that of someone who agrees to relocate from New York to Los Angeles or vice versa. The company must determine as best as possible how committed the employee will be on an overseas assignment. Tools such as assignment selection, cross-cultural training, and pre-departure counseling can help resolve potential issues and bring other major issues to light. This assists in deciding if the employee is not the best candidate for an assignment and inevitably saves the company thousands of dollars by averting a failed relocation.

Family concerns, especially spousal discontent, is one of the major reasons for failed assignments. According to a study conducted by GMAC in 2006, 67% of failed relocations were due to family discontent. How keen will a family from the United States or the United Kingdom be to relocate to China? Spouses often feel that HR is not empathetic enough during this time. This might be due to lack of direct communication or even miscommunication of the policy entitlements. In order to avoid situations like these, it is important to establish good and clear communication patterns. Involvement of the spouse from the start of the process tends to work best and also having destination service providers provide timely reporting to HR on the status of each move. In the case of dual career couples, it is extremely helpful in establishing the career prospects of the spouse in the host country. Some companies are also now even looking for ways to hire spouses who may be able to slip into available roles. Employees who have to leave extended family behind, especially aging parents, has also become a major factor to contend with.

Clearly defined, explicit and standardised working procedures and quality control mechanisms should be implemented. In order to encourage employees to take up an international assignment, companies often factor into compensation packages generous allowances for housing, schooling, cost of living adjustments plus hardship allowances when relocating to developing countries where the challenges of settling in are deemed to be greater.

Importance of the 'Look See' Visit Employers are also now offering the employee and the spouse a familiarization or a 'Look See' trip to the potential host country, to help them during this decision-making phase. It not only provides the employee and his/ her family the opportunity of experiencing the country first hand, it can be vital in helping them decide whether they will be able to fit into the new culture, business and family living situation. It helps the employee focus on the finer aspects of the relocation.

Ideally, the preparation for this international assignment should begin eight to twelve months in advance (most times, this is a luxury!). This allows the expatriate and his or her family to comprehend what the move will involve. It must be understood that open-mindedness is the key factor in the success of any relocation.

Completing Immigration formalities Once an employee has accepted the assignment, completion of immigration formalities cannot be ignored. More often than not, these formalities are assumed to be only a completion of paperwork. However, it is critical to be aware of the immigration policies in the host country, not only from the employee's point of view but also from the entire family's perspective. For instance, some countries like Singapore do not recognize unmarried/ defacto partners. These partners are therefore not automatically eligible for dependant immigration passes. Partners receive long term visit passes, which do not permit them to work. This situation of the partner being in limbo often causes tremendous stress, even causing the couple to return back to their home country. In order to reduce such risks companies must prepare assignees well in advance, and where possible have all relevant immigration passes and visa approved prior to leaving home.

The expatriate on assignment The expatriate on assignment is required to deal with the culture shock in the host country, ensure that his/ her family is settling in as best as possible, arrange home-viewing appointments and is also expected to hit the ground running at the new place of work. This is extremely demanding. Companies are often not able to provide the level of support required to expatriates during this time, due to lack of adequate resources in the HR department, coupled with the fact that most of the HR staff may have little or no experience of having lived overseas. Some functions are now being outsourced to third party Assignment Management/ Destination Service providers, whose Consultants will have a good deal of knowledge of the host country and provide information from housing to pet care and much more. Often, expatriates in an alien country only want someone they can relate to and someone who will provide unbiased information on the host location.

Repatriation Many are of the misconception that repatriation is simpler than expatriation. However, it must be understood that repatriation is as complex as the relocation itself, if not more. In order to maintain a competitive edge, retention of employees is imperative. This also helps capture the knowledge the employee has gained while on assignment. Companies are now adopting various strategies to build the employee's trust and increase job security. Providing training and mentoring to the employee as part of the repatriation process will ease the stress during this time. The topics may include adjusting to the cultural and professional changes that have taken place in the home country. It is also vital for the company to chart a career path for the employee, which will encourage the employee to pursue a career within the same organization, consequently improving organizational effectiveness and employee effectiveness and creating a win-win situation all around.

Companies now invest a great deal of time and money in sending an employee on an international assignment. Once a suitable individual has been selected, the goals of the assignment must be clearly communicated. Family is a key factor in any move, and all aspects related to family must be taken care of in order to enhance the chances of success of an international assignment.

Given the reluctance of current employees to take on long term overseas assignments, companies are now turning toward short term or commuter type assignments. This also provides the employee the opportunity of working overseas without losing sight of life back home. Each relocation is different from the other and every assignment needs to be treated on a case-by-case basis. As mentioned earlier on in the article, the success of any assignment largely depends on the open-mindedness and tolerance of the assignee, as well as regular communication between the Company and individual.

About the Author


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First Published: Jan 26, 2008

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