Global MobilityThe ever-expanding, yet exciting global international assignments market presents both opportunities and risks. Initial evidence shows it is local professional experiences that account for variations, not necessarily geographies nor sub-cultures, although expat tracking studies continue to examine these factors.

Global ways of working

As markets become more globalised, there is a huge rise in international assignments often for months, even years at a time. In this respect, businesses are focussing intensely on their need organisationally to be globally aware, adept, agile, innovative and yet multicultural.

Less evidence is available on the employee experience in global employment markets. What does it take in terms of character and employment practices to secure and sustain performance and success in these markets? Some research evidence on the “entry” factors support the need for “multi-cultural perspective” or “cultural sensitivity” (whatever that means in reality) and yet failure costs are high in terms of local under-achievement of assignment objectives, replacement and return penalties and family distress, frequently discontinuities.

The cost of failure

There is evidence that, despite companies selecting systematically for differentiating character strengths, there are many stories of globally mobile employees not at all enjoying, nor being engaged in their global working experiences. Assignments are often terminated expensively and disruptively early on in their term. Figures quoted ( vary widely, from 5 to 20 percent failure in international assignments. In a currently estimated market of tens of billions of dollars, this is an unacceptable rate of failure – so are there ways of better managing corporate and people risks?

Learn from your best. Where did it all go well?

Our most recent case study is a point in question and this is being addressed actively and currently by the client organisation studied. Firstly, the client is a commercially very successful and fast-expanding global professional services firm with thousands of employees based in the many dozens of typical capital cities across the globe. Around 20 percent of its employees are temporarily or permanently assigned to countries not registered as their home country of origin; again not unusual. We set out to discover if there were differences between expat and non expats’ engagement levels overall: theme by theme or indeed country by country.

In this study, the client’s offices with higher and lower scores on both engagement and intent to stay (in the Group) were identified (focusing on offices where there are at least 10 expats in situ now, for comparison purposes). Overall, and interestingly, scores of total expats and total non expats revealed little significant difference regarding their engagement and their intent to stay. Some might say job done then – no recordable differences. However when we looked into the data city by city (i.e. by significant markets for this firm) some very interesting findings emerge, which we continue to explore.

From the outset we would have predicted city markets such as New York, Milan, and Paris to be exemplary in terms of engagement and loyalty scores. In fact scores in these are significantly lower. These are different geographies for sure, perhaps different sub-cultures to other cities. However, perhaps not intuitively, the other cities whose expat engagement and loyalty was significantly higher include Sao Paulo, Toronto, Sydney and Singapore. Again a mix of geographies here, almost counterbalancing the low scoring cities conveniently as geographically and culturally influenced.

On looking at differences in these scores by themes, the high commitment cities scored higher on three critical workplace factors; the way talent was managed, where the culture of the parent company was evidenced locally and where career development was high on local agendas. In contrast, the less committed cities scored consistently lower on three other themes; remuneration, locally engaging direct leaders and the local level of client service orientation.

The key takeaways for the client are firstly that aggregating employee survey data can easily hide significant opportunities in locally mitigating expatriate risks and opportunities, notwithstanding local workplace opportunities for non-expats as well. Our position on expats and expat data is now more wary, where we are more acutely aware of the dangers in comparing aggregate engagement data and a distinctly higher awareness of the opportunity in segmenting employee data to locally significant market meaningful commercial units of business and also by expat and non expat demographics – in this client study their very precious and costly expats.

Key opportunities and learning points:

  • Recognise expat experiences can be different to non-expats and need managing differently
  • There is much more to learn from better, innovative segmentation of expat engagement data
  • Do not rely on the simple offer of an expat post being sufficient to engage the chosen person
  • Smarter analytics around expats are needed to explore what makes a successful assignment
  • The factors impacting on success may have local and cultural elements (e.g. local managers)
  • Think how to best engage uniquely those employees most likely to succeed in an expat role
  • Identify drivers in your data that explain how best to engage expats while in role, in-country
  • Think ahead; assess how to retain expat talent either in that role, and within the firm at large





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Andy Brown is the CEO of Engage Group.

He is a senior strategist, leadership effectiveness and engagement expert. Previously a Partner at Mercer, Head of Research at Gallup and Global Practice Leader at Manpower.