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The secondment process for international assignments

Due to increasing globalisation as well as growing global activities of companies and enterprises, the importance of international personnel deployment is rising. In addition, careers are becoming international and borderless (cf. Personalwirtschaft Sonderheft 05/2017,p. 24). As such it is important to pay special attention to the selection process so that foreign assignments are successful for both sides, employees and employers.

Due to the often special requirements of the position to be filled abroad, the selection of employees is sometimes difficult, as there is often only a small number of candidates available for them (cf. Ganter 2009, p. 18, cited by Domsch/Lichtenberger 2003, pp. 514 and 518; Kühlmann/Stahl 2006, p. 680).

A good method for finding a suitable employee is the requirements analysis. A requirements profile is drawn up which contains culture-specific and task-specific criteria (cf. ibid., p. 20, cited by Wagner 2002, p. 270). According to Spieß et al., the requirement characteristics can be divided into three different groups: job-related criteria, the relationship to working abroad and intercultural competence. Occupational criteria include professional qualification, work motivation and work experience, while the relationship to employment abroad includes criteria such as age, family situation, language skills or expectations and attitudes towards employment abroad. Intercultural competence is described by communication competence and the willingness to make contact or empathy (cf. ibid., p. 21, Tab. 2.2, quoted from Spieß/Brüch/Podsiadlowski, 1997, quoted from Brüch, 2001, p. 127). In addition, it makes sense to include assessments of superiors, work samples or self-assessments in the evaluation (cf. ibid., p. 22, cited by Scherm 1999, p. 186ff; Bergemann/Sourisseaux 2003, p. 186; Deller 2004, p. 14) in order to gain a more comprehensive picture of the posting candidate.

The selection phase is followed by a preparatory phase. The aim of the preparation phase is to prepare the seconding employee as well as possible for his or her stay abroad. This can be achieved through language courses and intercultural trainings (cf. ibid., p. 22; Plattform 02/2010, p. 5). Since many expatriates are accompanied abroad by their families, it is particularly important to include them in the training (cf. ibid., p. 5). Finally, the cultural situation is also new and unknown for the (married) partners as well as for their children (cf. Ganter, p. 23). Therefore, the aim of intercultural training is to learn typical cultural behaviour and to create an understanding of rules, norms and country-specific values.

The classification of intercultural training according to Gudykunst/Hammer essentially distinguishes between information-oriented and experience-oriented training. Information-oriented training is primarily characterised by the transfer of knowledge about the host country culture and how to deal with its people. Thus, the differences to one’s own culture should be clarified. Experience-oriented training focuses on thinking and acting in unknown situations. The participants’ own experiences are generated and reflected through simulations.

The subsequent deployment phase is characterised by cultural adaptation. The so-called “culture shock”, which usually accompanies unaccustomed burdens in the new culture and the members of the host country, is characterised by stress, exhaustion and conflicts with the family (cf. ibid., p. 25, cited from Taft 1977, pp. 140ff; Kohls 1984, pp. 65f; Scherm 1999, p. 200). Oberg and Lysgaard show the adaptation phase in  three phases (cf. ebenda, p. 26, figure 2.3). The first phase of this representation is euphoria. The expatriate is enthusiastic about his host country, is motivated to learn new things and is generally very interested in discovering and experiencing the characteristics of the host culture. The phase of euphoria is followed by a crisis or culture shock. The expatriate and his family are experiencing more and more difficulties in various situations, such as language difficulties. Only when they have got used to the new circumstances and are able to cope with them, do they find themselves in the recovery phase. These expatriates have therefore observed, interpreted and accepted the characteristics of the host culture. The phase of acceptance is also called “adaptation” (ibid., p. 25) (cf. ibid., p. 25, quoted from Welge/Holtbrügge 2006, pp. 244f.). The main aim of the deployment phase is to speed up and facilitate the familiarisation of expatriates in the new country. Support is therefore offered for establishing contacts or other concerns, such as the search for employment or further training opportunities for the partner or assistance with visits to the authorities (cf. ibid, p. 26, cited by Kühlmann 2004, p. 88). In the deployment phase, it is also of great importance to prepare for the reintegration phase (cf. ibid, p. 27).

Even before an expatriate returns, it is important to find out about future career prospects. There are many opportunities available to the expatriate. On the one hand, he could extend his contract and thus continue working in the host country or continue his stay abroad in another country. On the other hand, he could also return to his home country and continue working in the company there or change employers (cf. ibid., p. 28, cited by Suutari/Brewster 2003, p. 1138). However, this decision depends on their private life situation and professional goals (cf. ibid., p. 28, quoted from Riusala/Suutari 2000, p. 85) the respective expatriate would like to achieve. It is a great challenge for the company sending the expatriate to find a job for the returnee that corresponds to the qualifications and experience he or she has acquired abroad (cf. ibid, p. 28, cited by Kühlmann/Stahl 1995, p. 182; Stroh/Gregersen/Black 2000, p. 684; Wagner 2002, p. 273). Due to major changes in the private and professional spheres in the home country, there may be problems reintegrating the expatriate (cf. ibid, p. 28, cited by Scherm 1999, p. 207ff; Wagner 2002, pp. 272f.; Welge/Holtbrügge 2006, p. 246). According to Hirsch, reintegration can be divided into three phases. The first phase describes the joy of being back home. But this joy is rather superficial, which is why this phase is also called “naive integration” (ibid., p. 29). The following phase is reintegration shock, which often triggers disappointment and dissatisfaction through difficulties in everyday professional life. This can also mean that returnees show arrogant behaviour and react aggressively towards their colleagues. A reintegration is only successful if the returnees are in the third phase, real integration. This phase implies that the expatriates have become accustomed and adapted to the new situation in their home country. They gain trust and feel at ease again in their home country (cf. ibid., p. 29, quoted from Hirsch 2003, pp. 423f.).

To conclude, it is very important to pay special attention to all of these phases. If the expatriate is not adequately prepared for their stay abroad, it can get very challenging and exhausting for them. Also, it is important to offer a good support during their stay abroad and to provide assistance in all different life situations the expatriate has to cope with while living in a completely different culture. Added to that, the expatriates themselves as well as the companies’ employees at home should be intensively prepared for their return since this seems to be one of the most important aspects of the secondment process for international assignments.

Maybe it would be a good idea for the expatriate to have one single contact person for his secondment that prepares him for and supports him during his stay abroad. Thereby, the expatriate has a person he can trust and tell everything to, which also includes personal issues and the things he maybe would not tell his employer.

Works cited

Ganter, Gundula. Arbeitszufriedenheit von Expatriates: Auslandsentsendungen nach China und Korea professionell gestalten. Wiesbaden, Gabler Verlag / GWV Fachverlage GmbH, 2009

Chalupka-Dunse, Sylwia. Herausforderung Auslandsentsendung – Der Entsendeprozess und seine wichtigsten Erfolgsfaktoren. Plattform – Das Magazin für interkulturelle Wirtschaft, 2010, 02, S. 4-5

Dr. Remhof, Stefan. Erfolgsfaktor kulturelle Intelligenz. Personalwirtschaft Sonderheft, 2017, 5, S. 24-26