Employees 'disappointed with expat experience'

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

PHILADELPHIA - Employees who set out on an expatriate assignment with visions of exotic locales and a career boost often are disappointed with the experience, and some employers estimate that nearly half leave the company within two years, a survey has found.

PHILADELPHIA - Employees who set out on an expatriate assignment with visions of exotic locales and a career boost often are disappointed with the experience, and some employers estimate that nearly half leave the company within two years, a survey has found.

Employers often spend $1 million or more to send an employee on an assignment out of the country, but are likely to lose that investment, said the survey released this week.

"There were disjoints between what the employers thought they were doing and what the expatriates thought," said Karen Thomas, project manager for insurer and employee benefits provider CIGNA Corp.

Companies could avoid some of the problems by better evaluating employees' personalities, making adequate investments in support programs for employees outside the country, and setting specific objectives for assignments including how long they should last, the researchers suggested.

The survey of 143 human resources executives and 453 employees on out-of-the-country assignments was sponsored by a CIGNA Corp. unit that provides out-of-country employee benefits, the National Foreign Trade Council, an industry group; and WorldatWork, a trade group for human resources professionals.

Many companies are investing heavily in out-of-country assignments to try to capture global markets but are not protecting those investments, according to Virginia Hollis, vice president of CIGNA International Expatriate Benefits, who helped present the research Monday at an NFTC International HR Management Symposium in San Jose, California.

Bill Sheridan, senior director of NFTC, said one goal of globalisation is to make sure employees assigned abroad bring the knowledge and skills they gain back to the employers who send them.

Thomas, CIGNA's project manager, said the survey indicated a starting point would be better communication beforehand about the goals of assignments abroad.

"The expatriates themselves were doing it because it sounded like it would be something exciting that they would like to do, and because it would enhance their resumes," she said.

At the same time, she said, "I think it was loud and clear that the employers were sending them out to perform a specific project or to manage a foreign operation."

She said the lack of communication was surprising considering the cost of sending an employee abroad.

For example, the estimated cost of sending a family of four from the United States to a Pacific Rim country for three years is $1 million, including salary, housing and education, she said.

"They are putting that money out. If those people do not continue with the company, or they take the skills they developed and go to another company, it's hitting their bottom line," she said.

The survey found that 53 percent of the employers responding thought they did a good job preparing employees for assignments abroad. Only one-third of the employees said their companies did a good job.

Many employees reported surprises such as culture shock, inconveniences and changes in standard of living. And 32 percent of the women and 16 percent of the men said job satisfaction on assignment was worse than they expected. About 20 percent of the employees surveyed returned home earlier than expected.

Ninety-two percent of the employees said the Internet was critically important while on assignment. But while two-thirds of the companies said they had an Intranet to facilitate employee communications, only 20 percent included an expatriate section.

CIGNA International accounts for about $2.2 billion of the insurer's $20 billion in annual revenues. Providing expatriate employee benefits is a small but fast-growing portion of that, having gained 30 percent a year in recent years, spokesman Wayne Adams said.

[Copyright 2001, The Associated Press]

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