BEING sent abroad by your employer used to be akin to parachuting into a country alone, with some supplies and a job to do.

"In the past, companies tended to provide a lot of autonomy. They would send somebody overseas and say, 'It's yours to manage. Thank you very much, we'll see you in three years,'" says Mr Lee Quane (below), general manager of human resources organisation ECA International.

These days, expatriates are more likely to keep in constant touch with headquarters.

"If they are sent to China and are responsible for the China operations, they would probably report back to somebody in the organisation responsible for that company's international operations. So there's this constant reporting structure," he says.

Besides keeping senior management in the loop, the regular contact with headquarters is also good for the expatriates.

"The employees are kept up to date with the situation in the home location, so they are not exposed to a return culture shock when they come back after two or three years and find that the people they left are no longer in their jobs."

Indeed, a long-term overseas assignment is a complex proposition and deserves careful consideration, not just during the assignment itself but also through to when the expatriate returns to the fold.

Choose the right one

From the start, care should be taken to select the right candidate.

"Some companies just look at skills. If, say, China or Thailand has a shortage of a certain skill, they will look for someone in the home location who has the skills and send him overseas.

"However, there are other considerations that need to be taken into account, such as whether or not the person can adapt to the culture," says Mr Quane.

One way he suggests for companies to improve their selection process is through psychometric tests to determine if candidates have what it takes to cope with being in an alien environment without their usual support structures.

Many companies also arrange a visit to the host location for prospective assignees so that they can see what the place is like and consider whether they can integrate before accepting the assignment.

Family concerns

Another factor that employers cannot ignore is the fact that employees have families whose lives will be disrupted by the assignment.

While companies can provide help in terms of finding schools and accommodation as well as pre-departure language and cultural training to help families adapt, some family members still prefer not to move.

According to Mr Quane, family issues are often the reason assignments get turned down. "Families may not want to relocate due to issues such as the spouse's career or the children's education," he says.

As a result, companies are looking increasingly to alternatives to the typical expatriate assignment in which the employee uproots, together with the family, to the host location for several years.

Alternative options

One alternative is the unaccompanied assignment - the employee leaves for the host location, but the family stays at home.

To ensure that family ties are not broken, the employee is given leave to return home frequently, say, four to five times a year.

Or the company may pay for the family to visit the employee overseas.

Another option is the commuter assignment. The employee stays in the host location from Monday to Friday and returns home for the weekend.

Commuting this way between Hong Kong and China, or even Singapore and China, or between Singapore and Malaysia, Indonesia or the Philippines, is an increasingly common arrangement, says Mr Quane.

Short assignments, of about six months in duration, are also getting more popular.

These are suitable for projects such as skills transfers, where the employee goes to the host location to conduct training, and leaves when the skills and knowledge have been imparted.

"The business still achieves its aims but because the assignment is much more short-term, it's more acceptable to the employee."

Long-term plan

Where a long-term assignment cannot be avoided, human resource managers need to plan for the time when the expatriate returns to the home office for good.

"Turnover rates are relatively low for the expatriate workforce. But when there is expatriate turnover, the principal causes are issues such as lack of career opportunities in the home location.

"For example, an engineer in Singapore is sent on an assignment overseas. Three years later, he comes back to being an engineer in Singapore. No progress, no career development," says Mr Quane.

His recommendation is that the career path of expatriates be mapped out and communicated to them even before they leave on assignment, so they know what is in store for them when they return.

With long-range planning and due consideration given to the needs and aspirations of the expatriate, the overseas assignment can be a fruitful time for both employer and employee.