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Managing the march of multi-patriates

Posted on from Engage

What are the risks and opportunities in the ever expanding global international assignment market?

Going global

As markets become more globalised there is a huge rise in international assignments often for months or even years at a time. In this respect, businesses (and business articles) are focussing intensely on their need as organisations to be more globally aware, adept, agile, and innovative, and multicultural. 

Less heard is evidence on the employees’ side of the global employment market. What it takes in terms of character and employment practices to play in these international markets? There is some research evidence to support the need for “multi-cultural perspective” or “cultural sensitivity”. 

The size and cost of failure

However, there is also evidence that, despite companies selecting for these differentiating character strengths, there are many stories of globally mobile employees not at all enjoying nor being engaged in their global working experiences.  Assignments are often terminated expensively and disruptively early on in their term. 

Figures quoted vary widely from 5 to 20% failure rates in international assignments. In a once estimated market of $20 billion this is an unacceptable rate – so are there ways of better managing risk?

Starting to learn from your expat engagement data

Our most recent case study is a point in question and being addressed by the client organisation studied. Firstly, this is a commercially very successful and fast-expanding global professional services firm with thousands of employees sited in the many dozens of typical capital cities across the globe. Around 20% of its employees are temporarily or permanently assigned to countries not registered as their home country of origin; again not unusual. We set out to discover if there were differences between expat and non expats engagement levels overall: theme by theme or indeed country by country.

In this study, the offices with higher and lower scores on both engagement and intent to stay (in the Group) were identified (focusing on offices where there were at least 10 expats for comparison purposes). Overall, scores of total expats and non expats revealed little difference regarding engagement and intent to stay. Some might say job done then – no recordable differences. However when we looked into the data city by city, by significant markets some very interesting findings emerge, which we continue to explore.

We would have predicted city markets such as New York, Milan, Paris to be exemplary in terms of engagement and loyalty – in fact scores are significantly lower. These are different geographies for sure - perhaps different sub cultures - to other cities. The other cities whose expat engagement and loyalty was significantly higher include, Sao Paulo, Toronto, Sydney and Singapore; again a mix of geographies almost counterbalancing the low scoring cities geographically and culturally.

On looking deeper at differences in scores by themes, the high commitment cities scored higher on the way talent was managed, where the declared culture of the whole company was reflected and evidenced and where career development was high on local agendas. The less committed cities scored consistently lower on remuneration, locally engaging direct leaders and a high level of service orientation. 

The key finding for us and the client is that aggregating employee feedback data can hide significant stories in terms of expatriate risks and opportunities, notwithstanding local stories for non-expats as well. Our position on expats and expat data is now one of distinctly higher awareness – not just in segmenting employee data to locally significant commercial units of business but by demographics – in this case precious and costly expats.  

Key points

There is still much more to learn from better segmentation of expat engagement data but some of our early take-away points are:

  •   You cannot rely on the simple offer of an expat post being sufficient to engage the chosen person with that new role 
  •   Deeper and smarter analytics around expats need to be used to explore what makes for a successful international assignment
  •     The factors impacting on success may have very local and cultural elements
  •   You need to look at expat engagement in the round:     
    - think through how to best select those employees most likely to succeed in an expat role   
    - then use good data to explore how best to engage them while in-role   
    - keep thinking ahead to assess how to best retain talent either in that role or within the firm as a whole once the assignment is over

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