International assignments are an essential part of the daily business of Multinational Corporations (MNCs). While historically many companies’ primary motive was to fill skill gaps in overseas subsidiaries, HR managers claim that assignments where the primary motive is developmental have been steadily growing in number. During international assignments, employees have the chance to develop valuable human capital, such as knowledge about foreign markets, cultures and languages, or to establish international networks. Academic research demonstrates that in today’s globally interlaced business environment, such competencies can also positively reflect on corporate performance - if employees with these skills are deployed in senior positions over the long-term.
Since the individual benefits from this human capital as well, international assignments are commonly considered a career booster. Hence, international assignments can help companies to gain a competitive advantage and at the same time they may also be beneficial for those employees who go on assignment. In other words, there's a good chance that the outcome will be a win-win for both employee and employer.
However, the number of international assignments is increasing steadily, meaning that providing every former expatriate with a better position upon repatriation simply exceeds the capacities of many MNCs. Consequently, not every expatriation experience can have positive career implications for the individual. Career development back in the home country may be dependent on aspects such as the assignment’s purpose, the support practices provided by the assigning MNC, or the proactive career management displayed by the employee.
In a joint empirical research project between the University of Hamburg, represented by Anika Breitenmoser and Prof. Dr. Nicola Berg, and the Leuphana University of Lüneburg, represented by Prof. Dr. Benjamin Bader, the career situation of repatriates was investigated. In this preview, we present the key insights of this study.
Repatriation in Focus: International Assignments as Career Boosters?
- Career development due to assignment experience in general
Most repatriates experience a career boost regarding project responsibility, position and annual compensation when compared to their position before the assignment.
Respondents were asked to compare their current project responsibility, position, and annual compensation (including base salary, bonuses, incentives and other financial compensation) to that of their last job in the home country prior to the expatriation as well as to that of their last expatriate job. On average all three increased almost equally compared to the last job in the home country. However, in comparison to the last expatriate job, project responsibility and position increased, whereas the annual compensation decreased upon repatriation.
- Understanding the impact of the type of assignment
The international assignment characteristics, such as purpose of assignment, can have an impact on career development
Each international assignment is different from any other, and the particular characteristics of the overseas experience can be assumed to reflect on the career development of former expatriates upon repatriation. With regard to the international assignment purpose, more than half of the respondents described the primary purpose of their last assignment as managerial or with a significant element of control or leadership in the host location. Hence, these employees were assigned because there were few local nationals qualified for the position they held in the subsidiary, and/or the assignee's role was to train local nationals to enable them to meet company standards. Repatriates returning from an international assignment with a higher focus on development reported better career outcomes in terms of project responsibility, position, and annual compensation (in contrast to people with no overseas experience).
- The importance of organizational support
Organizational support is very important but is often disregarded after the completion of the expatriation period. However, employees can find it easier to take responsibility for their own career development upon repatriation.
It is not only the characteristics of the international assignment, but also the measures which companies and individuals take during expatriation and upon repatriation that are likely to affect the future careers of repatriates. More precisely, companies can provide organizational repatriation support to ease the transition back home. Employees were provided with significantly more support during expatriation (11 support practices in the questionnaire, average availability of 42%) than upon repatriation (9 support practices in the questionnaire, average availability of 21%). Independently of any repatriation support provided by the company, individuals can also promote their career goals themselves. In fact, (former) expatriates can take personal responsibility for managing their career e.g., by networking or proactively seeking information on vacant positions in the home country. With an average score of 3.9 (with 1 indicating low and 5 indicating high self-directed career management), repatriates in the sample considered themselves as rather strong, self-directed career managers. In other words, they don’t rely solely on their companies but actively manage their own progress on the career ladder.
The RES Forum cooperates with the Leuphana University of Lüneburg. The main goal is to enhance the practical perspective of the RES Forum with a more academic research approach. We aim to match the understanding of pressing issues in HR management with research expertise in order to achieve academic thought leadership in the field of global HR management.
Prof. Dr. Benjamin Bader
Professor of Strategic Management and Organization
Leuphana University of Lüneburg
Birte Manke, M.A.
Leuphana University of Lüneburg
This report was co-authored by Anika Breitenmoser
Anika Breitenmoser, M.Sc.
University of Hamburg