My next move – stepping offshore

by 25 Jul 2007

Q. I’ve been in HR for about seven years and am currently the HR manager for a division of a large corporate. I’m thinking about looking for my next move offshore, maybe to Asia or the UK. What are the issues involved in moving offshore in terms of my future career, immediate benefits and any major pitfalls?

A. Like any major life choice, the decision to pursue a career move to another country is a big one, with many associated positives and negatives, benefits and drawbacks. And, as with any other life decision, the key to a successful transition is research, information and flexibility.

The positives of a move offshore vary from individual to individual, and can include things such as increased disposable income, proximity to geographical areas of interest for travel, exposure to larger organisational structures, experience in complex offshore reporting lines, personal and family reasons and simply the desire to experience something new.

However, there are negative aspects to a move internationally that can leave expatriates feeling like they have made the wrong decision. The culture shock of moving to a new country can be extreme. Language difficulties are common even in large global organisations. Coming to grips with differences in the legislative environment can take time and requires research. Your usual network of HR professionals won’t be nearby to call on, and will be of little help if they have no experience of the country and its ER and IR laws.

International moves are expensive and logistically difficult – you will need to be sure that the role and the company is right before you make that move. Being in Australia and making a poor career decision is one thing. Being suddenly based in Shanghai and realising the job isn’t for you is a slightly trickier position to be in!

And once you’re back, you’ll have the fun associated with re-entering the market – narrow-minded professionals believing that international experience ‘doesn’t count’ or that the technical ER side of your skill set may have been diluted through diversification in another country.

On returning to Australia, be prepared to look for work for a period of time – it is unlikely (but not unheard of) to step straight into a new role. Often, secondees return to Australia only to find that the role and/or the company they left is now not the best place to pursue their career goals. Be open to this being a possibility – don’t let post-secondment loyalty trap you into a smaller or less challenging or interesting role than you would like upon your return.

Getting back to Australia can be tough – getting a position offshore can be tougher. The easiest and most common method is to transfer with the company you are currently employed by. A track record, retention strategies around secondments and international relocations, and project work all offer opportunities to move offshore internally.

Many candidates will specifically target international organisations during their career in order to maximise the chances of there being places and roles for them offshore in the future. Others rely on specific industry sector experience to make the transition. Language skills (or lack of) can often be a key selection (or rejection) criteria, particularly in the case of local languages in regions of high growth – such as Cantonese or Mandarin – and can be the principal deciding factor between candidates. A candidate with less experience can sometimes succeed against a more experienced candidate when they possess relevant language skills.

The demand for Australian workers offshore is strong, particularly those with specific industry sector experience in vertical markets that are experiencing worldwide growth, such as banking and resources.

Be prepared and then bite the bullet and go – get involved in the expatriate lifestyle and HR networks when you arrive.

By Claire McNamara, senior consultant, HR Matters