HUMAN RESOURCES

How to Avoid Pitfalls when Making Overseas Assignments

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Last year more than 3.7 million Americans were expatriates. Add to that number of spouses andchildren and the global HR manager's work grows exponentially.

Improving your global competencies is critical if you want a strategic role in the organization'sgrowth. By starting with the premise that you can't simply put a foreign accent on domestic policies,you can avoid six key mistakes common in making overseas assignments.

Poor Staff Selection

First of all, a successful assignment hinges on an expatriate's ability to adapt to unfamiliar surroundings,display cultural sensitivity, be comfortable with ambiguity, and operate independently whilecommunicating with the home office. If you send the wrong person, opportunities may be lost.

To avoid the problem, you need to thoroughly understand the assignment. Ask questions about the personand be sure the assignee is independent and resourceful.

Cultural Miscues

Understanding the culture is as important as understanding your assignee. Work styles, human behavior, andmanagement all vary. Incentive systems that work in one country may fail miserably in another. It is yourrole to understand the variables and work with the expatriate to build results.

Lack of Disaster Planning

Exploring "what if" scenarios and defining contingency plans ease transitions. Before disaster strikes -anything from illness to a kidnapping - you need an action plan, just as you would for a crisis here. Explorethe employee's health care options and explain insurance systems before relocation. Know who to consultwith, what to ask for, and what to do with information.

Inadequate Cost Controls

The average overseas assignment costs three times the expatriate's U.S. compensation. Numbers canescalate quickly when you don't research actual costs, you try to placate everyone involved, or you don'ttake advantage of either foreign or U.S. tax options.

An international project management firm reduced expatriate costs in Egypt 30% when the HR directorused his knowledge of U.S. tax codes to rewrite compensation packages. The employees earned the samemoney and the company saved substantial dollars.

To avoid cost escalations, obtain actual costs rather than anecdotal information. Use competitors asbenchmarks and work with experts who understand international issues.

Missed Career Planning

Most expatriates worry that when they are out of sight, they are also out of mind. They worry about careerissues more than any other business aspect, causing you retention problems. One manufacturer lost avaluable employee halfway through a four-year assignment. The company was thrilled with the expatriate'sresults, yet failed to communicate feedback. The manager worried about his long-term prospects and took aposition with a competitor.

Implement preassignment career planning and maintain regular communications that include you, theemployee, and his or her manager. Planning helps employees feel valued and respected upon repatriation. Amentoring program can also contribute to an expatriate's confidence in the future. With so many dual-careerfamilies, it pays to consider the needs of the employee's spouse as well.

No Cross-Cultural Training

Many assignments end prematurely because the employee or family feels lost in the new culture.Preassignment education, information sharing, cross-cultural training, and country-specific comparisonshelp. By providing cultural insight, you help the expatriate make better decisions about the pendingrelocation.

The opportunity for mistakes doesn't decrease the value of global expansion. Rather, it gives the HRmanager the opportunity to learn and to play a strategic role in global planning.

Randall P. Brett is founder and managing director of The Sagacity Group, a HR systems and workforce improvement firm inSomerset, N.J. For information call 732-560-6117.

Copyright © Kennedy Information, LLC, 800-521-0007. All rights reserved, Reproduction prohibited by law.

Last updated: Feb 1, 2000




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