Professor Benjamin Bader reflects on his new research, which suggests communication is vital to making international career development opportunities work

International assignments are an essential part of the daily business of multinational organisations. While historically many companies’ primary motive was to fill skills gaps in overseas subsidiaries, HR managers’ claims that assignments where the primary motive is developmental have been steadily growing in number. Since assignments have become more important in general, and more and more people are happy to work abroad for a defined amount of time, a crucial question arises: what happens once they return, and did the posting offer a career boost to the assignee?

A simple answer to that would be that they go back to their old job. But this is not as easy as it sounds. Possible organisational change after a few years of absence, or the fact that a successor has been hired and is now doing that job, are just the start. Along with term ‘international assignment’ comes the (sometimes implicit) assumption by repatriates that they will automatically move up the career ladder.

Without doubt, spending a few years in a different country and dealing with all kinds of new personal and work-related challenges in a foreign environment can be a good way to improve an individual’s skillset. Furthermore, academic research demonstrates that, in today’s globally interlaced business environment, the personal competencies gained can also positively reflect on corporate performance. Consequently, the repatriate feels that they deserve a share of the benefits. However, for these benefits to unfold, it’s crucial that the former assignee is satisfied with their repatriation and happy with the job back home. In other words, there is a good chance that the outcome will be a win-win for both employee and employer.

Unfortunately, this win-win is not automatically guaranteed. Research shows that, time after time, repatriates who are not satisfied with their position after returning home perform poorly and/or eventually leave the organisation. In a recent study, we investigated the career progress of 295 employees after returning from an international assignment.

To begin with, the good news: most repatriates did experience some sort of career boost after their repatriation. Yet this boost was mainly awarded to those who had explicitly been on a developmental assignment. While this sounds trivial, it is important for both the organisation and the expatriate to be clear about the purpose of the assignment from the outset. Even though international assignments are widely considered a good way to move up the ranks, it should not be surprising that an employee who is sent abroad just to fill a position or transfer knowledge from headquarters may return to their home country and the exact same role as before. This is no problem at all if the employee does not expect to be promoted after coming home.

Our research showed that a mismatch between expectations leads to frustration and disappointment. A solution to this is honest and clear communication before the actual stint abroad – which only half of the respondents said they had.

Interestingly, even though 91 per cent were offered regular communication with the home office during their time abroad, and 86 per cent said there was some sort of communication about returning home, only around half of them were provided with a clear definition of what their position would be following the assignment. In terms of managing expectations, this is not sufficient.

Another key insight of the study is the differentiation between self-directed career management and a reliance on the employer. Recent HR research finds that, increasingly, individuals promote and pursue their career goals themselves – and this was reflected in our sample. These employees actively planned the next steps on their career ladder, and it’s important for organisations to have a positive and active dialogue with them. They need to work in partnership to help employees achieve the personal goals that will, as we’ve seen, eventually also deliver the desired organisational goals.

Professor Dr Benjamin Bader is an academic partner and strategic adviser to the RES Forum, and professor of strategic management and organisation at the Leuphana University of Lüneburg, Germany. This article is based on his recent research, which is available here