Taking up a posting in a different country ought to be a time of joyous discovery and broadening horizons. Try telling that to Julie Hamp. In 2015, the American executive had just moved to Japan to take up the high-profile role of head of public relations at Toyota when she found herself behind bars on suspicion of importing the prescription painkiller oxycodone. She was released without charge after 20 days but resigned from her job as the company’s first senior female executive and the first foreign Toyota executive to be based in Japan.
Toyota acknowledged that it should have done more to help Hamp with her relocation. But if the tale was salutary, it wasn’t unusual. A few years ago, an executive was moving with his wife and family to a Middle Eastern country, and among the belongings they shipped over was a 500-year-old rifle, a family heirloom. He was arrested on suspicion of terrorism and imprisoned for several months. And in Saudi Arabia, immigration authorities destroyed a rug adorned with the image of a naked woman that was among the possessions of a relocating business leader.
Such examples are embarrassing, inconvenient and, most of all, a PR nightmare. But poor planning around global relocation assignments takes many forms – and it continues far beyond the initial settling-in period.
Factors such as cost, dual careers and the localisation of labour have resulted in a shift away from ‘traditional’ expat assignments, where individuals would relocate for several years, often with their family, on a generous expat package. These days, assignments are likely to be shorter and involve younger, perhaps more junior, employees taking on overseas posts as part of their career development or a specific talent management programme, on a cheaper ‘local plus’ package.
“People are probably more motivated by career benefits than cash these days,” says Heather Hughes, general manager at the RES Forum, an independent network of mobility professionals. But she adds that businesses need to think more carefully about what they want to get out of an assignment, who they send, how long for, how they will ensure it is successful and, critically, how they will reintegrate the employee on their return.
“Companies are making more flexible arrangements,” says Hughes, adding that ‘commuter assignments’ – where the assignee goes away for a few days, works intensely and returns home for the weekend – are increasingly popular.
But while superficially attractive, they are arguably the worst of both worlds because assignees are part of neither their home nor work communities, says Hughes: “My husband commuted between the UK and Paris for five months. I had to change my work arrangements to fit round the children, and it was taxing for both of us.
“He wasn’t properly involved in the work environment because he was only there for half the week and working so hard that he had no time for anything else, and he couldn’t properly relax with us at home either. So we all moved over to join him for the remaining year or so of his assignment.”
Commuter assignments are often a false economy too, adds Hughes. “Once you’ve paid for a hotel or serviced apartment for four nights a week, and peak-time travel, it may be costing you more than moving someone across properly. Also, the individual might be liable for tax in both countries because they are living in one and working in another.”
Where people do relocate, preparing them for the inevitable culture shock is critical to their success. Many postings fail because either the employee or their spouse is unhappy with some aspect of expat life – from relentless heat, lack of social contact or less-than-luxurious housing to restricted personal freedoms (for example, dress codes or rules around alcohol or driving).
But the country responsible for the highest number of failed assignments from the UK is the US. “People assume it will be the same as the UK, whereas if they go to Japan or China, for example, they prepare far better because they expect it to be hard,” says Hughes.
Paul Bailey, now general manager for Europe at cultural learning company RW3 CultureWizard, spent five years in New York as general manager at the US arm of a British data company. “You think everything’s going to be the same – and when you get there it all feels very familiar with the yellow taxis and famous landmarks,” he says. “But after a sort of honeymoon period, I hit a bit of a barrier. People spoke the same language, used the same buzzwords and business jargon as we do in the UK, but they had radically different ideas.
“They also had very different expectations of me as a leader, and I had to try and figure it out. They weren’t working to the same set of rules as I was, but I didn’t know what their rules were. I sort of enjoyed the craziness of it, but it was bewildering.”
He admits that he wasn’t prepared. He took a cultural awareness course six months into his assignment, “and I wish I’d done it earlier. I thought I was going mad, but the course showed me that my American colleagues’ behaviour and attitudes were manifestations of significant cultural differences.”
In addition to cultural training, and practical help and advice – on everything from what clothes to pack, to how to set up a bank account and how to contact emergency services – an employer also needs to communicate regularly with their assignees, on both work and pastoral matters.
“You need to put the right network around people,” says Louisa Scanlan, a former assignee with a multinational and now an HR and relocation consultant. “Their boss should be phoning them regularly about work, but you also need to provide more personal coaching support.”
Such investment matters because the stakes are high – the Center for Global Leadership says the cost of a failed expat assignment can be 5 to 10 times higher than a local hire. The failure rate itself can range between 3 and 70 per cent depending on how well-prepared the business is, and the countries and individuals involved.
Some companies’ preparation extends to sending potential assignees and their spouses on pre-assignment orientation visits. These may be expensive, particularly if the prospective assignee decides it isn’t for them, but it’s far less costly than having to bring them home after six months because they’re unhappy, says Scanlan.
Preparation also includes managing the expectations of the team the assignee is going to join. Carl de Cicco, employment expert at law firm Reed Smith, says: “I’ve come across situations where someone goes to head up a section in a different jurisdiction, but finds they can’t do it in the way they thought they could – they are blocked, or held on a short lead. Someone else went to South America and his colleagues spoke Spanish in front of him to deliberately exclude him.”
Individuals suggest that you need to be outgoing, adventurous, adaptable and resilient to thrive on an overseas assignment. But Bailey believes thorough preparation is more valuable than selecting people based on particular attributes. “Many companies will typically be in a situation where they need, for example, a drilling expert with 25 years’ experience to do a particular job in a particular place for a particular length of time, and there’s only one individual who fits the bill. So you need to get them there by hook or by crook, and manage the issues to ensure the assignment is successful,” he says. That means talking upfront about the personal, family and career issues that might affect the individual’s expectations of the assignment, he says.
But if preparing an assignee properly for an overseas posting is important, preparing them for their return is equally crucial. Overall, Bailey’s US adventure was “a wonderfully positive experience”, he says. The real challenge came when he returned to the UK. “In the HQ environment, I missed the autonomy I’d enjoyed in the US. And I came back into essentially the same role I’d had five years earlier, which felt frustrating. What was the point of going away and getting all this experience and then not being able to apply it?”
Returning assignees tend to “fall between the cracks between talent or leadership development and global mobility”, he says, adding that around 85 per cent of the companies he works with overlook repatriation or deal with it at a ‘process’ level.
“Many organisations send people on assignment to help develop their careers, but they lose them when they get back because they don’t know what to do with them,” says Bailey. “They also overlook what can be significant ‘reverse culture shock’ – when you go on assignment, you understand the nature of the challenge, but when you come home you’re often completely unprepared for the fact that everything has changed: family, work and yourself.”
Individuals need to prepare for this re-entry, and HR needs to support them. This can range from meeting people at the airport, to cutting them some slack when they start back at work to give them time to adjust, giving them a mentor who’s been through the same transition, or providing their partner with some sort of allowance to help them study or find a new job. “These things don’t cost much, but can make a real difference to people’s wellbeing and sense that their employer is looking out for them,” says Bailey.
Simon Richardson, global mobility consultant for Total Reward Group, advises companies to put together a business case for every assignee, which acts as a discipline on both sides – not least in terms of managing the individual’s career path once they return. Conversations about potential roles should begin well in advance of the planned return. “If there is no clear role for someone when they get back, they can ask for redundancy – and if they’ve got 30 years’ service, that can be very costly,” says Richardson. “That should really focus employers’ minds.”