Taking the "Ex" Out of Expatriate

March 27, 2001 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - Nearly half of employees sent on international assignments leave the company within two years, apparent casualties of huge gaps in employer/employee expectations, according to a new survey.

Although employers may spend an estimated $1 million or more apiece when they send employees abroad on temporary work assignments, employers estimate that 49% have left the firm within two years, according to new research from sponsored by CIGNA International Expatriate Benefits (CIEB), the NFTC and WorldatWork.

Ironically, the study also indicates that expatriates’  top concern on returning from abroad is uncertainty about the job that awaits them “back home.”

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Far Apart

Despite the fact that nearly all (96%) of employers believed they were meeting expatriate expectations, only a third of those employees agreed with that assessment.

In fact, more than half (53%) of employers felt they gave “better than expected” HR support to expatriates, while only 9% of employees agreed with that assessment.  Worse, nearly half (42%) of expatriates said that HR support was worse than expected.

Other discrepancies:

  • 53% of employers said they did a good job of preparing employees for the assignment, versus just 32% of employees
  • 45% of expatriates felt that companies do a poor job of facilitating a transition back home, while 39% of employers linger under the opposite impression

Gender Gaps

Female expatriates were more likely to be

  • Younger (57% under age 35 versus 31% of men)
  • Single (51% versus 14% of men)
  • Without children (71% versus 33% of men)

They were also much more likely to characterize their job satisfaction on assignment as worse than expected, 32% versus 16% of their male counterparts. 

Return Trip?

As many as 20% of expatriates surveyed returned home early, while less than a third of employers (27%) track what happens to returning expatriates.  Only 2% of employers guaranteed a job upon their return, while 21% implied a job would be available.

More than three-quarters of expatriates (77%) said they were more likely to take an international assignment with another employer than a domestic assignment with their current employer.  However, despite the challenges, a full 87% said they would accept another international assignment with their current employer.

The survey’s authors had the following recommendations for employers trying to improve expatriate satisfaction and loyalty:

  • Examine the personalities of candidates to ensure a good match for expatriate experiences.
  • Evaluate the expatriate program in more detail to justify adequate investment in expatriate support.
  • Develop policies to curtail the post-assignment talent drain.
  • Develop specific objectives for each assignment.

The survey captured the experience of 143 human resources executives from both US and UK multinational parent corporations through a combination of in-depth interviews, and mail and email surveys from November 2000 to January 2001.  Expatriate employees were surveyed by Internet with a total of 453 surveys completed from 300 companies in four languages.