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Managing Short-term International Assignments

By Beverly D. Roman

Costs for a single international assignment range between one and two million dollars over a three-year period. That's a lot of money! Especially when you consider that last year's study by the National Foreign Trade Council found that 50 percent of expatriate employees leave their companies within three years of repatriation. Employees are leaving upon repatriation because of:

  • inability to use international skills
  • loss of business autonomy
  • unmet job expectations
  • elimination of a corporate/professional network

    One of the methods that companies are using to curtail relocation expenses and decrease employee turnover is scheduling short-term overseas assignments. Presently, short-term assignments are a very small percentage of international moves and they generally last one to 12 months. Primary reasons why companies are turning to these assignments are: they tend to be more cost-effective, it better meets some of their clients' needs and it is more difficult to get employees to accept longer assignments.

    Although the short-term relocation may sound like the perfect answer, it is not without its challenges. Employees will still require living accommodations, they may be less content without their families and it may take more time for them to settle in due to lack of a partner's assistance. It will also mean more travel allowances to avoid strain on the at-home family situation.

    To help ensure that employees are suitable for the position, employees and their HR manager should discuss the following points.

    Ten years ago only six percent of assignments required an employee to relocate for less than a year, but, by 2005, over forty percent of such assignments were for less than 12 months, according to industry benchmarking research undertaken by Living Abroad LLC. The changing nature of international relocations seems to have increased employee's apprehension about taking an overseas assignment, and the difference most likely to impact expats and their families has been the shrinking length of assignments.


  • Housing: furnished or unfurnished, flats/apartments vs. a home and security deposit (Expats should understand typical rental policies in the country.)
  • Household expenses: furniture rental, utilities and telephone.
  • Salary currency (most employees are paid in accordance to their home country's compensation program.)
  • Tax compensations
  • Cost of living expenses: meals, car/fuel, cleaning services, laundry, etc.
  • Trips allowed home
  • Family trips allowed overseas

  • Cross cultural and language training
  • Overseas insurance: medical and personal
  • Support services for employees' family
  • How the overseas assignment will benefit a career
  • Whether the short-term assignment could develop into a long-term one
  • Mobility Services International recently quoted a study by International Orientation Resources that said: "When it comes to foreign assignments, US expats are ill prepared." The study found that more than half (54 percent) receive no language training prior to the assignment, and 58 percent said they still lack such skills after six months overseas.

    Expats on any assignment need to understand the business culture, customs and manners and language of choice; whereas long-term transferees can perfect some of these skills in the early weeks, a short-term expat does not enjoy that luxury. These individuals need to be savvy immediately because they have a limited time to accomplish their goals. Obviously, the short-term situation can be more fruitful if the expat has previously traveled to the country and is already familiar with its business climate.

    Whether you are taking a one-half hour flight, or flying around the world, you still need a competent, experienced pilot. The length of the assignment is no different. If employees are to be effective in their role, and get the job done right, they need to understand the culture, customs and manners of the country.

    Copyright 2004, BR Anchor Publishing

    Reprinted from Relocation Today, Vol. 3, No. 1. 2001, by Beverly D. Roman, publisher and published by BR Anchor Publishing, Wilmington, NC. Contact her at broman@branchor.com or + 910.256.9598.

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