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Hiring Multicultural Vagabonds

November 1, 1998
Related Topics: Managing International Operations, Featured Article
The changes in the U.S. work environment over the past two decades have significantly altered how we do business. Now we’ve exported those changes, and the results can be seen in the global employment marketplace.

Although we sometimes bemoan the work ethics of our Gen Xers, the best and brightest of their era have truly pulled us into a sea of change in work/life. Earlier this year, a cover story in Fortune magazine entitled, “Yo, Corporate America,” gave us an in-depth analysis of what the new workforce (note: workforce, not just Gen Xers) is demanding -- and receiving -- from its employers.

Compare staffing yesterday to staffing today.
In the past, there was such a thing as “lifetime employment.” For example, my father retired from Lockheed after 36 successful years. (I’ll have six or seven employers in that length of time.) In this model, the company was responsible for career development: “You should go where we send you, and we’ll take care of you.” And it was believable when the company said this. There was a sense of security created by this long-term, somewhat symbiotic relationship.

Then, due to large inefficiencies, companies began developing a low dependency on employees, leading us into the restructurings of the late ’80s and early ’90s. The downsizings have changed the landscape, forcing both companies and employees to take a different view of the employment relationship.

In many companies, the employer has encouraged employees to carry more responsibility for career development. Companies provide some assistance, but it bears more resemblance to a video game than the sturdy A-frame career ladder of several years ago.

Employees’ views have also changed. The term “serial monogamy” has surfaced as employment has become more transactional than ever before. This, I believe, is due in part to a decline in trust between the employee and the employer. Employees know they’re expendable and have likely seen good workers let go. Similarly, the company knows the employees owe little allegiance to it, and therefore hesitates to invest large sums of money or pockets of time in employees who may up and leave. The rise in 401(k)s and portable pensions seem to validate this line of thought.

In addition, it sometimes seems that people identify themselves more with their role than they do with their companies. When someone asks you about yourself, do you say, “I’m with X, and I am a manager of Y,” or do you say, “I’m a Y manager with X”?

Yet at the same time, our near-record-low unemployment rate means that a company’s very real dependency on people has significantly increased, especially on an international level.

Tomorrow’s transactional employees.
So where to go from here? In the coming years, several trends will begin to arise -- many of them with roots clearly in place today.

Partially engendered by the I-want-it-now Gen Xers, and partially by the no-longer-trusting Boomers, there’s a new, emerging workforce that abhors the traditional employee/employer relationship. These folks know when their current gig is up, and they stay on the look out for the next assignment.

This will drive employment to become even more transactional. Employees will have frequently changing corporate sponsors. Think of the shifting sponsors for the Olympics and other sporting events. When business is good, corporations sponsor more events. When things slow down, they may discontinue the sponsorships. The event continues, but someone else pays the bills.

Today we see resumes that show people holding jobs for one or two years. And depending on the industry and discipline, we frequently accept this when candidates explain their tactical moves to obtain skill sets and enhance competencies. With the movement toward employees owning their careers, it’s a priority for employees to maintain their professional skills. Similarly, the employer has an obligation to provide an environment where the employees can satisfy their developmental needs. But if the employer doesn’t provide these developmental opportunities, then why would employees bother to work there? And if the employees don’t continue to upgrade their skill/experience/competency mix, why would the employer want to retain them?

This self-ownership leads us to terms like “free agency.” Fast Company is a fairly recent entry on business magazine racks, and appears to be targeted at Gen Xers and younger Boomers. A quick stroll through the magazine and their Web site ( shows a healthy dialogue regarding these self-sufficiency topics. If their readership makes Fast Company the Fortune of the Gen Xers (my words, not theirs), we as employers need to take note. The mindset of our newest employees -- our early career hires -- is changing.

Furthermore, these very changes and trends will impact our firms as we globalize. And no one is saying “No” to that inexorable walk.

How will this trend impact international recruitment?
On the international front, staffing is already transactional in several disciplines and industries. As countries emerge, they become hot spots for multinational corporations to head into, with the accompanying cadre of expats leading the charge. Where do these expats come from? Hopefully from within, but not in every case. Companies with poor, new or ill-defined expatriate programs may find it difficult to get their existing employees to take overseas assignments in Burkina Faso, Chandigargh and Urumqi.

This growth into emerging markets can create sudden needs. Frequently, the company that can respond the fastest will win a market opportunity. Foreign partners -- whether entrepreneurs, governments or existing businesses -- are typically looking for Western partners to bring Western skills (in addition to Western cash), and they want them fast.

So the 1980s vision of the just-in-time employee is finally becoming a reality -- and on a global scale. Companies need the right people in the right places at the right time and at the right cost. You need a just-in-time (JIT) inventory system of managers who can deliver effective results anywhere on the face of the planet. And when you don’t have these people in your high-potential, globally mobile candidate pool, you need an external solution. You need a global JIT manager.

Use the Internet to source candidates globally.
Can your company deliver a global JIT manager? Possibly. But not always.

For starters, we must accept that this global JIT manager may not be American, and he or she may not be an existing employee. We have to move past any challenges with third-country nationals (TCNs) and embrace truly global recruitment. We have to accept that not every expatriate assignment is a developmental opportunity for high potentials. Sometimes, you just have to get work done.

And in this day of short-term commitments between employers and employees, we must recognize that 12- to 30-month agreements will suit many global managers well.

Your reach is facilitated by the emergence (and dominance) of Internet recruitment. There are zillions of sites out there, which means candidates can dig through hundreds of companies and thousands of jobs in an afternoon of surfing anywhere from Qingdao to Queens. For the employer, it means that quarter-page ads in the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times may no longer be necessary -- just an agreement with a heavy traffic Web site.

Razor-thin margins in these global projects mean the cost of recruitment will become a huge concern. The high costs of traditional sources (search firms, large print ads) vs. inexpensive Internet postings will drive sourcing online. And online there’s no need to restrict your search to one city, country or continent.

At GTE, we recently launched a recruitment effort for a project in Latin America. This project required us to place roughly 90 expats within a 90-day window. Our goal, of course, was to fill these positions with GTE people. But realistically, that would be extremely difficult in such a short time frame.

To augment our internal sourcing efforts, we listed our positions on more than 20 Web sites. Within a 30-day period, we had more than 1,000 external résumés. The cost of the postings was far less than a single ad in a U.S. newspaper -- and our responses came from as far away as Australia, Sri Lanka, Korea, Germany and other far-flung places.

Globally, candidates -- including some of the folks who’ve raised their hands for our Latin America project -- are highly mobile multicultural vagabonds. For some time, there has been a large, floating population of folks who are stateless. And the Internet is providing them with the means to continue this lifestyle indefinitely. You may call them “hired guns,” but you’ve got to have them. Your only question is, “How much will it cost me?”

Update your policies.
International recruitment will continue to target two groups of people:

  1. High-potential internal candidates for developmental placements. This is the group we all prefer to select from.
  2. Externally engaged expatriates. These are host or home country hires, TCNs, and so on. They are what you may settle for if no one will relocate to Qingdao for two years, for example. They are the global JIT managers.

Those of us in policy-writing roles are faced with some significant challenges in how we deal with the cross-border employment practices of the next century. Companies that recognize the changes coming and plan for them will succeed in what is becoming an increasingly small world. On the front end, the keys to finding, engaging and retaining global assignees will be:

  1. Embracing transactional employment with open arms
  2. Aggressive Internet recruiting
  3. Robust pre-assignment assessment practices (and follow-up)
  4. Strong communication channels during assignments
  5. Expatriate policies which are consistent, but flexible enough to adapt to the changing workforce and the demands of the global JIT manager
  6. Clear, well-planned repatriation policies and practices at the end of the assignment.

What will this do to repatriation?
Your company’s effort to articulate a repatriation strategy -- or to openly state there is none -- is critical to your ability to access these global JIT managers and other assignees. Companies that want to retain their investment in expats but lack repatriation programs and fail to address expat spouse issues will face some challenges with this emerging workforce.

In many cases, staffing problems on the front end are exacerbated by failure to articulate a full-circle foreign assignment policy. This results in the “I have no reason to go back home” syndrome. But successfully handling this may mitigate your need to engage in global JIT managers (who may be effective, but can be expensive). And it may improve your expat retention rate overall -- which, of course, has a hard dollar linkage to ROI.

GTE believes that returning expats bring a great deal to the table, and we’ve implemented a number of initiatives to ensure that we maximize the investment we’ve made in these employees. To further ensure that ROI is tracked, GTE is including repatriation placements and retention in the HR scorecard.

Amazingly, however, in an Arthur Andersen/Bennett Intercultural study, 49 percent of corporate respondents indicated that no repatriation program exists in their firms. The same study says there seems to be a higher attrition rate for companies with fewer expat support programs. Although this survey measured the attrition side, it didn’t explain how repatriation programs affect assignee recruitment, which may be an interesting question for future studies.

There’s also an emerging question in repatriation practices about what’s being done to prepare a receiving manager for managing a returning expatriate. Dealing with an employee who just moved from Atlanta to Dallas is very different than dealing with the employee who has just returned from a tour in Marrakech.

To respond to this concern, GTE is developing a guidebook for receiving managers. The book will help managers understand the opportunities and challenges which come with accepting a repatriate into a workgroup. In doing this, we hope to include the receiving manager into the influence circle, which ensures that GTE captures a maximal ROI for our expatriate costs.

The multinational companies that will win in the next century are the ones that can develop and maintain excellent expatriate programs, are willing to embrace global JIT managers, and understand and study the changes in the workforce. The expatriate population is not growing slowly -- it’s on the rise. But the look and feel of it will be a little different.

Global Workforce, November 1998, Vol. 3, No. 6, pp. 28-30.

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