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Singapore. Stockholm. Sydney. These cities may conjure up visions of exotic vacations, but they are among the world’s powerhouses for business. Most American companies with a global presence have offices worldwide. But to take advantage of this international status, organizations cannot just have a location; they must also have global experts at the leadership level. Company leaders must have a strong working knowledge of the business practices, culture, customs, languages and laws of the cities in which they have offices. Of course, you can’t fully grasp the essence of a locale on a two-week jaunt overseas. It requires total immersion, with an assignment of three years, at the least.
Fifty years ago it wasn’t uncommon for “company men,” as a step up the succession ladder, to take assignments anywhere, often staying at one post for a few years before moving on to the next one. This practice fell out of favor in the 1980s and 1990s as American workers railed against displacing their families for years at a time.
Today, however, these stints are a necessity. Indeed, it is virtually impossible for global companies to stay competitive without their top executives having had at least one international post. Technology can connect us with the other side of the world instantly, but viewing life through a screen is not a substitute for real-life experience. Typically, overseas assignments last from three to five years, in part because it isn’t cost-effective for organizations to relocate an employee for less time. Expatriate workers then return to the U.S. with invaluable knowledge about the culture and operations of key business sites.
Employees who may be wary of taking an international position or who have justifiable worries about relocating—selling the house, finding a place to live, landing a job for a spouse or partner, pulling the kids out of school and locating a new school, learning the language—can receive assistance with the transition from HR professionals. Here are seven steps to balancing the needs of the company with those of employees:
Make growth opportunities public. Information about global positions—where they are, who should take them and when—should not be shrouded in secrecy. These posts and their locations should be frequent topics of conversation among leadership, HR and the organization’s rising stars. Communication can be a valuable recruitment and retention tool. The earlier employees know that overseas posts are a must, the better. That knowledge can ease fear and promote excitement.
Make posts coveted. Typically, global posts are financially rewarding and can be career-changing events. So instead of positioning these assignments as something to dread, organizations (and, in turn, employees) should publicize them as posts of honor.
Plan early. As potential assignees are identified, the HR team should begin working with them to plan their international contract. Professionals can better manage their personal lives when they have an understanding of the timing, location and length of their assignment.
Make it easy. Ensure that the transition from home goes as smoothly as possible by supporting employees during every step of the relocation process. Help workers sell their homes, ship their things, and find schools, housing and job leads for spouses (if it is legal for them to work in the new location). Also give them a taste of the culture by providing literature or websites with information about the location, local food and customs, and assist employees in learning at least the basics of the language.
Connect people with others. Put soon-to-be-relocating employees in touch with those who have worked overseas before so they can get an inside look at what life will really be like and ask all their questions of experts. Share success stories of company leaders who have taken these positions in the past and are now enjoying a stellar career stateside. If there is an expatriate community in the destination city, make sure to introduce the employee to it. Local expat groups can be an important support network for employees and their families.
Keep the spouse/partner happy. If the spouse is miserable, everyone is miserable. Make sure to consider the entire family in the move, not just the employee. Supporting the spouse and children is paramount to success. Share information with the spouse on crucial parts of life such as the culture, jobs, schools, entertainment, and connect him or her with other partners of employees in the city.
Don’t forget the return trip. Relocation specialists are also needed when employees move back to the U.S. They can experience culture shock if they’ve been out of the country for a while—for instance, they may not have a handle on the housing market or changes in the company. Make sure the re-entry process is handled with as much detail and care as the first leg of the trip; otherwise, employees could take their international expertise elsewhere.
Once they are back, it is important, too, to take advantage of their global experience. Returning expat professionals shouldn’t be put into a back office until HR or leadership is ready but placed in a position in which they can excel at the organization. Global assignments are becoming a necessity for international companies. By making these posts public and attractive, supporting employees throughout the planning and relocation processes, and taking advantage of workers’ global expertise, companies can gain a global competitive edge.
Elaine Varelas is a managing partner for Keystone Partners, a career management consulting firm with headquarters in Boston.
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