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Look before you leap abroad

The virtues of having overseas work experience are often extolled, but not all postings are equal
Saturday, October 22, 2016 - 05:50

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I was having lunch with a friend when she complained that she was being posted to India for a few weeks to train the local staff. What's wrong with that, I asked.

It seemed that the assignment was originally a voluntary one, but not a single person in the department raised their hand. In the end, her boss had to break up the assignment into shorter periods and rotate staff so that almost everyone had to go at some point.

Today, at a time when companies are urged to internationalise, it is common for employees to be sent abroad to either manage operations in a new location or help with the transition. But one of the biggest problems that enterprises face is getting Singaporean staff to take to the bait, especially in small and medium enterprises (SMEs).

Ho Meng Kit, CEO of Singapore Business Federation, explains: "For SMEs, relocating staff is particularly challenging because they have limited resources to cater to the comprehensive relocation needs of their staff, such as housing costs, schooling needs for their children and employment assistance for spouses."

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He added that unlike most local SMEs, multinational corporations (MNCs) have global operations and workers who join are likely to expect, or are prepared, to work overseas at some point. In addition, as MNCs operate globally, staff may need to gain overseas experience to progress in their careers, while that does not necessarily apply to SMEs.

Plugging the gap

Companies like to talk about how working overseas can boost the career prospects of workers, but this is not always the case.

Sometimes, staff are being sent overseas to plug gaps and train workers which add little value to their careers. Companies may see it as fulfilling a need, but employees may feel shortchanged, especially if they feel worse off in the process. Lee Quane, regional director of Asia at relocation solutions provider ECA International, observes that Singaporeans are very willing to work overseas, but with caveats.

"Employees want to do it on their own terms. Singaporeans are willing to do so, provided that they are not worse off in the process, in terms of both their incomes and purchasing power."

Secondly, he points out that employees are selective about where they work. He observes that employees would jump at opportunities such as Australia, the US and even China, even though there are concerns such as healthcare and pollution. "Countries like India, Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar are a lot more challenging. People are a lot less willing to spend a great length of time there."

Kurt Wee, president of the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises (ASME) says that Singapore is still at an infancy period when it comes to outstation postings. He points out that Singapore, while costly, it is safe, comfortable and well-organised with high standards of living, and children get quality education. "As such, there's a segment of the working population that will be less willing to be posted overseas. I do see a growing trend among younger people who do go overseas, enjoy the experience, and come back with a broader view and richer perspective."

What companies can do

To this end, companies are becoming more creative in how they are moving people. Mr Quane points out that he is increasingly seeing short-term assignments of up to one year, and increasingly permanent transfers, especially in financial services companies.

Another trend he observes is that instead of sending executives from headquarters overseas, companies now fly in workers to the headquarters to be trained and developed before returning to their home countries.

While employees who hesitate to relocate to emerging markets are vilified as being spoilt and pampered (barring family commitments), their concerns on the impact going abroad will have on their career may be valid.

Mr Quane says: "It's about being out of sight, out of mind. That's why Singaporeans are unwilling to spend a long period of time overseas and would actively seek to return. They feel that in a few years, headquarters might forget about (them)." He says that this is more applicable to junior executives compared to senior ones. "For senior folks, if they go overseas for three years, they won't forgo promotion levels as much as their more junior counterparts as (there're) fewer opportunities for them to move up."

Statistics often show that executives who make it to the C-suite often have overseas experience, and Mr Quane also believes that people with overseas experience are often more valued in an organisation.

Even as the virtues of having overseas experience have been extolled to the stars, let's recognise that not all overseas assignments are equal. Employees who are sent abroad for career development are often seen as high-potential, says Mr Quane. But on the other hand, if an assignment consists of relatively senior executives going abroad to mentor and train local workers for a few years, it may not add as much value to their careers.

"They are not learning. When they come back to Singapore, they haven't developed. If you are sent on assignment purely because your CEO needs your skills in the host location, then the benefit to you may be somewhat less."

Abhishek Mittal, senior consultant for talent management and organisation alignment at Willis Towers Watson, says that companies need to make an effort to position these overseas assignments as part of the total "deal" being offered. "Employees must be made to understand how such assignments contribute to their learning and growth, and how they prepare them for more significant roles in the future."

He adds that it is important that companies consider such talent mobility programmes as an integrated part of the employee's overall career development, and clearly define the next career moves after the overseas assignment is completed.

These requires career planning and clear communication which are likely the missing links in many companies, especially the smaller SMEs. As a result, employees are hesitant to go as many of their concerns have not been addressed.

It is only with clarity that employees are able to evaluate overseas postings more holistically and hopefully, more favourably. This will make it a win-win situation for both employers and staff.

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