15 Oct 2015

Advice on Retaining International Workers

Staff turnover rates can be very high for employees that are posted overseas or employed outside their country of origin.

With a large amount of money invested into sending workers overseas, or recruiting internationally, savvy organizations would find it cost-effective to minimize the turnover of this group of workers in particular.

So how can organizations reduce staff turnover for their overseas employees? We’ll outline a variety of ways organizations can support international employees to reduce quit rates and improve both performance and job satisfaction.

Earlier this year it was identified that UK hospital trusts were in some cases losing the majority of nurses recruited from overseas within a year of hiring. A hospital in Merseyside managed to retain only 11 of 20 nurses recruited from Spain at high expense.

Some of the problems identified as being behind this high turnover rate included language barriers and cultural differences. Some nurses recruited to the north of England by various hospital trusts were apparently disappointed to find themselves located outside London. Those that had learned standard English also struggled to adjust to local slang and dialect. Trusts such as those in Lancashire found that helping overseas recruits with acclimatizing to local dialect and culture was helpful in retaining them.

But managing overseas workers requires more than cultural induction. Research by the Harvard Business Review identified that up to one in five US managers posted abroad returned early, either due to dissatisfaction with the role or problems adjusting to life abroad.

HBR identified that a key concern was that organizations didn’t really allow for managing or supporting the overseas employee any differently than they would a domestic worker. There seems to be a general belief that because these overseas postings are highly remunerated, no further support is needed beyond financial assistance. “As a result of such thinking,” HBR warns “the only time companies pay special attention to their expats is when something goes spectacularly wrong. And by then, it’s too little, too late.”

Best practice worker management

Firms that successfully manage their overseas workers and reduce turnover share a number of best practice approaches. Firstly, they choose the right people to send abroad. Many private recruitment companies have criticized the NHS for not checking the language ability of nursing staff they attempted to bring to the UK.

As well as language ability, it’s important to choose workers that have an interest in or affinity with working overseas. Many organizations make the mistake of selecting overseas workers based solely on their ability in their position within the familiar environment of their native office. Performing that role in an unfamiliar environment may require a different set of abilities, such as the ability to perform well within new team structures and office work cultures.

It’s common for organizations to assume that just because someone has performed well at home, they can replicate that success overseas – even though the working situation may be very different. The human skills required to negotiate within a new culture are perhaps as important as technical skills and knowledge for an overseas worker.

Learn from other postings

It’s rare for organizations to make best use of internal knowledge and experience when it comes to their overseas program. Some companies have had success using mentoring schemes that help past and future overseas workers to share knowledge and support each other. In addition to mentoring, it’s also important that this knowledge is captured and fed back into the organization so that it can learn from past issues and help eliminate them in future. For instance if returning workers identify that they had particular problems opening a local bank account, the organization can offer greater support in future to others who may have the same problems.

Avoid quitting on return

Employees who have recently returned from overseas assignment are more likely to quit than employees who never went overseas; that’s according to a study by PwC and Cranfield School of Management.

In fact, managers who have recently returned from overseas posting are three times as likely to leave the company than managers were never posted abroad. When any valued worker leaves, it is likely to represent a loss of skills and experience to the organization that employs them. But the loss is even greater when an organization has already invested in sending that worker overseas. Overseas postings cost over £160k (approx. $250,000) per year on average, and only the best workers tend to be sent abroad.

In part it may be that the skills and experience gained overseas may make the employee more valuable and increase their opportunities in the job market. It may also be that they are not excited by the role that they have returned to and are no longer committed to the career path on offer. In other cases, the employer finds they have fewer opportunities inside the company. In some cases the employee has been out of sight and out of mind during their posting, and may have missed out on career opportunities in the meantime.

And it’s no wonder. A report by HR International found that in 90% of organizations the overseas worker’s domestic line manager has no involvement in their career progression whilst they are abroad. 80% of organizations also admitted that home and host line managers never collaborate on the worker’s development. It’s almost as if they drop out of the career process altogether whilst overseas.

But going overseas is not generally damaging to individual careers in the long run. The vast majority of FTSE 100 CEOs have international experience: in many cases having worked overseas for prolonged periods. It seems to be the case that overseas postings don’t detract from the individual’s career, but their opportunities may not come within the organization that originally sent them overseas.

Formalize support

Organizations sending staff overseas usually fall into two camps: those tasking the home country to provide all the support, and those who expect the host country to do so. There are disadvantages to both approaches, and a more collaborative approach may be beneficial. This can also help stop the posted worker being overseen when it comes to career progression during their posting, and ensures things such as appraisals are seen by both sides.

Another mistake that organizations make is relying on informal methods for support, such as the occasional phone call. This can often mean employees with stronger and weaker relationships with their home team get very different levels of support, and that those who are best able to articulate what help they need are most likely to receive it. Formalizing contact frequency and the type of support received is a more reliable method of supporting overseas staff, and ensures that all workers receive the same support.


Sign up to our newsletter

Get our blog articles straight to your inbox.