Offshore job problems plague WA companies

A CURTIN Business School study has uncovered disturbing trends in the deployment and management of employees who are sent to work on overseas projects for Western Australian companies.

My fellow Curtin Business School re-searcher Alan Nankervis and I recently surveyed 60 Perth companies about selection criteria, training approaches and effectiveness assessment techniques for international assignees. We found that many companies need to rethink their international human resource management practices.

More than half the companies had 10 years experience in the offshore relocation of managers and staff. Most were in the manufacturing, mining and professional services categories (54 per cent), with smaller proportions in the construction, retail trade, financial-business services, and public sectors. Most offshore employees were located in Asia or Europe, although a few companies (18 per cent) had a US presence.

Most companies choose international staff because of managerial or technological abilities, rather than cross-cultural knowledge, experience or skills, even though these are essential to effective negotiation, networking, and the penetration of offshore markets.

The surveyed companies relied heavily on traditional performance appraisals, and little on cross-cultural tests, linguistic knowledge or psycho-logical assessments. International research points to success in overseas assignments being strongly linked to staff and families being able to cope with the different cultures and living conditions. Only 26 per cent of the companies provided cross-cultural training, and only 22 per cent provided language tuition.

The effectiveness of international employees was most often exclusively assessed in “bottom-line” terms like sales, profitability, or return on investment. There was little apparent emphasis on leadership style and approach, staff morale, internal and external relationship building, or cross-cultural adaptability. Very few companies provided assistance or training of any kind for the partners and children of staff during the assignment. This is despite the premature return of the WA-based companies’ staff often being related to difficulties associated with foreign languages and cross cultural issues (38.5 per cent), and to marital and family problems (31 per cent).

More than 40 per cent of respondents reported that readjustment to Perth was often difficult for returning expatriates.

Our findings show that many WA companies need to build better cross-cultural and language skills in their international staff, through their selection and performance management systems. Including partners and families in assignment planning and discussion, providing support systems overseas and debriefing returnees, would be highly desirable practices.

n Dr Richard Grainger is area co-ordinator, international business with the School of Management at Curtin Business School.

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