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Improving the retention of repatriates

22 Nov 2011

Realistic career conversations and integration with global talent management can help to improve the difficult repatriation stage of an assignment cycle, as Dr David Collings, Head of Management Discipline, National University of Ireland, explains.

Almost every report on managing global mobility points to the significant challenges which organisations face in retaining international assignees on repatriation. Although clearly there are variations, it is commonly accepted that approximately 20% of repatriates change organisations within a year of returning, with a further 20% moving on within a second year. While the average global mobility professional is acutely aware of these trends and the potential impact of this turnover, in many organisations their managerial colleagues seem less engaged with this issue.
Our research at the National University of Ireland with leading international organisations suggests that one key reason for this trend is the frustration international assignees feel when they return home and are not given the opportunity to apply the expertise they have gained while abroad. Equally perplexing to them is the fact that the career benefits which they expected to accrue from the international assignment do not materialise. 77% of companies in ECA’s latest Managing Mobility survey said that limited career opportunities was a significant obstacle to a successful repatriation.
Being clear about expectations from the outset is crucial to alleviate this confusion. The context in which the company sees an assignment in career terms is likely to be quite different depending on the reasons for the move. Is it primarily to achieve technical objectives or does it have a focus on developing managerial talent more broadly? The former requires realistic career conversations with the potential assignee. The latter calls for clear integration between global mobility and global talent management.

“Research suggests that recruiting managers will often imply that taking the assignment will have positive career benefits for the assignee. This creates very unrealistic expectations for assignees and can lead to frustration”


Realistic career conversations

Among global mobility professionals the idea that not all international assignments are premised on building the careers of top talent is clearly understood. Indeed, many assignments simply represent a means of filling important skills gaps in subsidiary operations. They are never intended as part of a greater career plan but are used to fulfil an important operational goal. But just how explicit is this made to the assignee?
Research suggests that recruiting managers will often imply that taking the assignment will have positive career benefits for the assignee. This creates very unrealistic expectations for assignees and can lead to frustration when, on completion of the assignment, the career progression does not materialise. When this frustration is combined with the fact that the international experience is often viewed attractively by the external labour market, turnover becomes an increased risk. The assignee seeks other opportunities in organisations which place a premium on their international experience and offer the career advancement not offered by their current employer.
Arguably, then, a key point of departure in improving repatriate retention is having realistic career conversations with assignees at the offer stage. If the assignment is premised on technical or skill-based roles this should be made explicit. It should also be made clear that any career benefits will be secondary. It may be the case that in these instances the reward and support package provided should reflect the fact that the organisation requires the mobility and therefore needs to incentivise technical talent to undertake an international rotation. On the other hand, when international assignments have a focus on career development, a different set of issues needs to be considered by the organisation. This is when the objectives of the global mobility and global talent functions should be clearly aligned.

Managing global talent

By definition, employees who are sent on assignment primarily for developmental reasons are considered high potential. This cohort represents a critical pool of talent within the organisation. Yet, recent research has confirmed that those sent on assignments for developmental purposes are more likely to leave the organisation on repatriation than others.
By virtue of being selected for a developmental assignment, their perception of their marketability in the external labour market is reinforced. This, combined with their improved résumé incorporating international experience, means not only that they may consider leaving the organisation but also that they are more marketable in the external labour market.
While clearly a challenge, this does represent a key opportunity for the global mobility function to increase its visibility within the organisation and to align itself with the global talent function. A recent report by the Forum for Expatriate Management showed that almost 41% of global mobility functions report into Compensation & Benefits or Rewards, highlighting a focus on the cost implications of international assignments. However, only 7% report into talent management where one would expect a more strategic focus on employee development. Indeed, the potential benefits of integration with talent management should be apparent throughout the assignment cycle.
For example, it is important that job posting systems and global talent forums, where senior managers discuss the talent profiles across the organisation, form part of the selection process. This approach means that assignees are selected on the basis of their development needs and potential for development as opposed to an ad-hoc, uncoordinated basis.

With greater integration between global mobility and global talent there is the real potential to plan a smoother return with a defined career path for the individual.

Like many organisations, one large Danish multinational which we have worked with uses global job posting systems to publicise key roles globally but in addition to those who apply through the system, HR suggests a number of other candidates. They may not have put themselves forward but their profile fits the role and they are identified as being mobile. This not only increases the diversity of the candidate pool but it also provides visibility to candidates who are deemed to be high potential but who may not have initially considered the role. This approach requires joined up thinking and strategic integration between global mobility and global talent management.
Similarly organisations such as Cisco have increased the integration between global mobility and global talent management. There, talent management works with new assignees from the beginning. Furthermore, the organisation places great responsibility on the hiring manager to think about the assignee’s career development in the context of the international assignment.
A failure to consider the international assignment in the broader context of the individual’s career is one of the key factors in explaining the relatively high levels of turnover organisations face in the context of repatriation. The research evidence suggests that many repatriates report frustration at the lack of career progression on completing an assignment and we regularly hear of the 'holding patterns' which repatriates face on returning to the home organisation: not only has the organisation no defined career plan for the individual, they may not even have a specific role mapped out for them on return. Given that those individuals sent on developmental assignments have a greater sense of their value in the labour market and the demand for international experience more broadly, turnover is a real risk.
However, it doesn’t need to be like this. With greater integration between global mobility and global talent there is the real potential to plan a smoother return with a defined career path for the individual. This should reinforce the organisation’s commitment to the individual and provide evidence of progression. It may be that this involves a lateral move within the organisation, or if the assignee was on a shorter term assignment it could even mean a return to the role they left. Key to this is that it is made explicit just how these roles fit within a broader career path and how the international experience the employee has gained might be relevant in the role. As Noeleen Doherty at Cranfield University has argued, repatriation should be considered the mid-point of the global mobility cycle, not the end point. What happens once individuals return is hugely significant in determining how their career within the organisation unfolds thereafter.
All in all the research evidence points to the important role which the global mobility function can play in meeting operational needs and facilitating the development of top talent. The potential of closer alignment with the global talent function offers significant potential for the function in terms of improving the retention of repatriates and contributing to the achievement of organisational goals.

David Collings is Head of the Management Discipline at the J.E. Cairnes School of Business & Economics, National University of Ireland, Galway.

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