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Expatriate return on investment: A definition and antecedents. Studies of Mgt. Sharpe, Inc. All rights reserved. Yet no stud- ies exist examining how expatriate ROI may be calculated and what factors may increase or decrease expatriate ROI for the firm. The purpose of this article is to advance our understanding of expatriate ROI by examining the following: 1 What is expatriate ROI, and how can it be defined, and 2 What are the anteced- ents of expatriate ROI in terms of the human resource HR activities that would increase or decrease ROI.
In addressing the research questions, the article formu- lates hypotheses to guide future research to develop an understanding of expatri- ate ROI. It is intended that the find- ings of this article will enable scholars and practitioners to have a framework by which to advance research in this important area. The costs associated with a long-term international assignment, defined as the relocation of an employee abroad by a firm for a year or more Boyacigiller ; Yvonne McNulty is a Ph.
It also happens to be the single most expensive per-person investment that a company makes in globalizing their people. Understanding how to obtain a ROI from long-term assignments is important. The reporting of expatriate assignment failures, with 44 percent of MNCs report- ing failures in the Asia-Pacific region and 63 percent in Europe Cendant , seems to indicate that the direct and nondirect costs associated with expatriation are substantial.
In fact, 70 percent of the respondents rated their ROI as average, fair, or poor. Other industry surveys show that to avoid the costs of long-term assignments, MNCs use a range of alternatives, including virtual assignments and teleworking, short-term assignments, business trips, cross-border commuting, frequent flying, and host- country nationals HCNs Cendant ; GMAC et al. Yet, despite the costs, many MNCs continue to use long-term assignments Cendant ; Mercer Human Resource Consulting ; PricewaterhouseCoopers , even when cost-ef- fective alternatives are available.
This is because the costs associated with expa- triation are only one of several factors that are considered when approving international assignments KPMG International Determining a ROI is, there- fore, necessary to justify the continued use of these assignments. Despite the importance of obtaining a ROI from long-term assignments, elec- tronic searches e. Consequently, a theoretical foundation does not yet exist that explains what a ROI means or what factors would increase it or decrease it.
Whereas there are definitions of ROI from other disciplines e. Past studies have investigated the link of individual HR activities in relation to the costs and ben- efits of long-term assignments but not the system of HR activities that may in- fluence it. For example, we believe that expatriate ROI should not simply consider whether a particular indicator e. Based on the shortcomings of the literature, the purpose of this article is to address the following research questions: 1 What is expatriate ROI, and how can it be defined?
In answering these research ques- tions the article develops hypotheses as it proceeds to guide future research. We, therefore, borrow concepts and theoretical foundations from other disciplines, such as accounting and economics, for explanation in order to address the first research question.
Definition of key terms Return on investment is an accounting term. In its simplest form, Flamholtz defines ROI as a financial ratio that expresses profit in direct relation to invest- ment. Schachner further defines ROI as a profitability equation that may be used to calculate past performance e. However, scholars in accounting and eco- nomic theory Abdallah and Keller ; Brief and Lawson ; Laitinen ; Spencer have cast doubts on the appropriateness of using only traditional accounting methods in determining ROI, because accounting measures indicate only past or future financial performance defined as lagging or leading indicators of financial profitability to the exclusion of nonfinancial performance indicators.
The economic perspective of value in ROI is consistent with the argument that an approach to expatriate ROI based on financial and nonfinancial values can potentially improve the accuracy and usefulness of the calculation.
In terms of defining expatriate ROI from industry surveys, the GMAC survey concluded that, at that time, there was no universally understood definition of the term. Yet in the GMAC Survey only 10 percent of respondents agreed that they used this definition to measure the ROI of their international assignments. The definition is considered inadequate in comparison to definitions given by scholars in related fields Canibano et al.
As Boudreau and Ramstad asserted, the definition of expatriate costs needs to be more fully explained in terms of both the financial and nonfinancial gains and losses associated with HR investments. A part of any definition of expatriate ROI is whether the benefit to the MNC outweighs the costs of the international assignment Kobrin ; Sheridan The costs and benefits of long-term assignments From the literature Downes and Thomas ; Dyer and Reeves ; Kobrin , we conclude that a definition of expatriate ROI needs to include an estima- tion of both the financial and nonfinancial costs and benefits of a specific assign- ment.
Such a definition would then enable practitioners to improve their understanding of what would increase, or conversely, decrease ROI, because, as Danfy argued, the importance of an ROI calculation is not just in determin- ing the rate of return, but also in understanding why rates of return increase and decrease. We suggest that there are transaction costs arising over the life of the long-term assignment that may reduce ROI Masten, Meehan, and Snyder For example, in terms of financial costs and benefits, the U.
Not surprisingly, high failure rates, which can be defined as premature return, the inability to achieve assignment objectives, or host-country problems, only exacerbate the financial costs Cendant ; Tung Furthermore, although Benito, Tomassen, Bonache-Perez, and Pla-Barber did not estimate the ROI of an international assignment, they reported that the financial costs associated with the premature return of an expatri- ate could result in an increase in relocation expenses associated with repatriating the assignee and finding a replacement to send to the host location.
Overall, Benito et al. There are substantial nonfinancial costs and benefits with respect to long-term assignments that also need to be considered when calculating expatriate ROI. With respect to nonfinancial costs, labor turnover during repatriation and poor cross- cultural adjustment can generate losses for an MNC.
Poor cross-cultural adjustment can also lead to a less-than-satisfying expatriate experience and poor performance Bhaskar-Shrinivas, Harrison, Shaffer, and Luk ; Harrison, Shaffer, and Bhaskar-Shrinivas Yet, the nonfinancial benefits of long-term assignments can also be extensive. For example, Kobrin proposed that the on-the-job internationalization of key managers, in terms of acquiring cross-cultural expertise, language skills, and local knowledge of the host country, was a clear benefit at the individual level.
Overall, Downes and Thomas argued that the benefits of international assignments might be linked to a longer-term competitive advantage for MNCs, for example, by developing unique rare capacities through the international competencies of the top management team. From this viewpoint, expatriates can add more economic value i. Therefore, we conclude that approaches to defining expatriate ROI should in- clude a combination of financial and nonfinancial costs and benefits.
We further propose that accurate rates of return are likely to be determined when the benefits are compared with the costs, irrespective of whether a cost is financial e. The importance of the purpose of the long-term assignment One of the themes of this article is the importance of calculating expatriate ROI within the context of the purpose of the long-term assignment.
Given that MNCs differ greatly in terms of industry, organizational culture, and overall strategic objec- tives Boyacigiller ; Dyer and Reeves , they will have different reasons for using expatriates. These purposes have been more recently validated by several industry surveys in which it was found that the top six reasons for using expatriates were to 1 fill a skills gap, 2 build man- agement expertise, 3 launch new endeavors, 4 transfer technology, 5 enable managerial control, and 6 transfer corporate culture Cendant ; GMAC et al.
Therefore, not only is the purpose of the assignment likely to have a direct impact on expatriate ROI, it may also act as a moderator variable, as shown in Figure 1. For instance, more ROI may be gained by predeparture training of an expatriate who will be a chief executive abroad than of an expatriate who will provide the technical skill for a company project. An ROI calculation will differ from one assignment to the next because the objectives of each assignment are likely to be different.
The ROI approach we suggest accounts for these differences and enables the ROI calculation to be tailored accordingly, because it focuses only on those costs and benefits that are linked to the assignment objectives. A second justifica- tion is that expatriate ROI should be calculated at different times for each interna- tional assignment. This is because, as suggested by Bonache, Brewster, and Suutari and Stroh and Caligiuri , the differences in assignment purpose will not only dictate what is included in the ROI calculation but will also determine the most appropriate time to do the calculation.
Therefore, outcomes such as successfully finding a suitable position in the company for the expatriate upon return or an increase in labor turnover resulting from unsuccessful repatriation would not be included in the ROI calculation, and the calculation could be made as soon as the assignment is completed.
These calculations would need to be made at some point after completion of the assign- ment. This is be- cause many of the costs and benefits associated with long-term assignments are nonfinancial in nature and appear only at or after the conclusion of an assignment.
As Mills and Print pointed out, accurate calculations of ROI are less likely to be made in the short term if the long-term benefits cannot be identified in the period during which the calculation occurs. Consequently, if calculations of expa- triate ROI include only short-term costs and benefits, longer-term costs and ben- efits may not be captured—especially those benefits resulting from broader decisions made for a strategic longer-term competitive advantage, such as succes- sion planning and the expansion of operations internationally Prahalad and Hamel Thus, as demonstrated, the reason for the ROI approach we propose is to ensure that items included in the ROI calculation are always based on a link be- tween the costs and benefits of the assignment and the purpose of the assignment.
The antecedents of expatriate ROI The next section examines the literature to consider the antecedents of expatriate ROI in terms of HR activities, including the development of hypotheses for future testing. As a starting point, we discuss two theoretical perspectives to explain why these antecedents should be viewed as a system of HR activities when calculating expatriate ROI.
The system of human resource activities The first theoretical perspective to consider is transaction cost theory that exam- ines, among other things, the influence of a system of activities taking place dur- ing all stages of a contract Williamson ; Williamson and Masten Essentially, transac- tion cost theory argues that contractual activities have the potential to influence costs and benefits to the firm both ex ante i.
That is, each contractual activity has the potential to increase or decrease the costs and benefits to the firm at different times during the life of a contract. For instance, the impact of just one contractual activity, such as the an- nual compensation of an expatriate, can significantly affect overall costs Masten et al.
Nonetheless, estimates of overall costs should also focus on the im- pact of other relevant activities, such as predeparture cross-cultural training that can increase expatriate adjustment, which, in turn, can lead to increased perfor- mance and reduced intentions to return prematurely Bhaskar-Shrinivas et al. In terms of expatriate ROI, when transaction costs are viewed within the context of a system of activities occurring at different times during a long-term assignment, a more meaningful rate of return is likely to be obtained, because all relevant costs and benefits will be captured within the context of the appropriate activities taking place.
HPWP are a group of HR activities that are viewed as a system of superior practices that can more fully explain costs and benefits to the firm than individual practices alone. Whereas we believe at this stage in the research it is premature to suggest that a group of HPWP can be developed to influence expatriate ROI, we believe that approaching expatriate ROI from a systems perspective of HR activities would be an important step forward from the isolated perspectives used in previous studies Caligiuri ; Stroh ; Tung , This is because a system of HR activities can more adequately explain what influences costs and benefits during a long-term assign- ment than individual activities alone; that is, a system of HR activities represents a group of interrelated practices in which one practice can potentially influence the costs or benefits to be derived from another.
Conversely, if recruitment and selection practices are poor, expatriate performance may also be poor, and training and development costs may be high. In turn, the overall costs of the assignment may increase if a poorly performing expatriate needs to be replaced.
Indeed, the empirical evidence suggests that systems of human resource management HRM policies can have bigger effects than those of individual practices alone Dyer and Reeves ; Ichniowski, Shaw, and Prennushi Yet, empirical studies examining expatri- ate costs and benefits from a HR systems approach have not been done; therefore, the assumption requires testing in the following proposition: Proposition 1: An expatriate ROI calculation that evaluates a system of HR activities during all stages of a long-term assignment will produce a more accurate rate of return than an expatriate ROI calculation that evaluates individual HR activities in isolation.
Figure 1 illustrates our proposed system of HR activities and its proposed influ- ence on overall expatriate ROI. It groups the system of HR activities occurring during all stages of a long-term assignment and connects the system to the ex- pected costs and benefits from that assignment. The underlying concept is that the expected costs and benefits will be influenced by the system of HR activities and the purpose of the assignment.
A calculation of those costs and benefits, in turn, will result in the ROI of the international assignment. The antecedents of expatriate ROI: human resource practices We now specifically review nine major HR activities taking place during a long- term assignment that potentially affect the costs or benefits that may arise from expatriation and thus cause ROI to increase or decrease.
The empirical studies, reviews, and surveys of HR activities that may increase or decrease expatriate ROI are classified and listed in Table 1. The nine HR activities we review were identified from the literature as the major practices taking place before, during, and after an international assignment in most MNCs Becker et al.
They include planning the assignment, recruitment and selection of expatriates, administering the reloca- tion program, training and development, compensation, family support practices, performance management, repatriation, and retention. Planning the assignment Scholars Bonache et al. If the purpose of an assignment has not been clearly identified, the assignment may not be able to provide clear benefits to the MNC and may result in unforeseen costs. Ad hoc expatriate practices, in which reloca- tions are rushed and poorly prepared, can often lead to higher incidences of as- signment difficulties in terms of failure to achieve specific strategic goals Torbiorn ; Welch and Welch The overall cost of the assignment is, therefore, likely to increase.
Kamoche proposed that international assignments should meet clear business needs and have clear business goals. Therefore, it is proposed that plan- ning an expatriate assignment, based on meeting strategic objectives, can poten- tially decrease the costs e. Under these circumstances, it is proposed that overall expatriate ROI will increase. Hence, the following proposition is offered: Proposition 2: Linking expatriation to careful planning of the purpose of an international assignment will increase benefits and reduce costs, and increase expatriate ROI.
Yet, scholars have argued that few compa- nies have adequate recruitment and selection practices to support their global staffing strategies Harvey a; Porter and Tansky , which can result in significant costs to MNCs due to not meeting the purpose of the assignment. We propose that in these circumstances, overall expatriate ROI will be affected. Likewise, when recruitment and selection practices were ad hoc and reactive, and not based on assignment planning and the purpose of the assignment, studies have argued that decreases in performance and productivity and increases in failed assignments were likely to occur, which are more costly to the organization in the long run Forster ; Harris and Brewster ; Torbiorn ; Welch and Welch Decreases in ROI would, therefore, be expected.
To reduce some of these costs, many MNCs outsource the administration of the relocation program e. The same survey reported that one of the major reasons for outsourcing was to allow HR staff to focus more on strategy, for example, developing and retaining expatriate talent where long- term international assignments are concerned. Hence, the following proposition is offered: Proposition 4: Outsourcing expatriate administration will allow HR staff to focus more on expatriate strategy, which will increase benefits and decrease costs, and increase expatriate ROI.
Compensation Selecting a candidate to fit the purpose of the international assignment then leads to developing an effective compensation package to ensure high performance from the expatriate and thus increase benefits and decrease costs. Expatriate compensation includes base salary, mobility premiums, and hardship allowances Mercer Human Resources Consulting and is a financial cost in expatriation that influences ROI.
To avoid some of these costs, many MNCs use standardized compensation packages, because they are less costly to administer and control, and they give the perception of equity among international assignees, thereby re- ducing the costs associated with unplanned labor turnover Harvey ; Stone But scholars have argued that standardized compensation packages do not take into account differences in assignment objectives or cultural conditions, where expatriate compensation and reward systems are often a critical factor in motivat- ing expatriates to not only accept assignments, but to also perform in difficult locations Bonache and Fernandez ; Gomez-Mejia and Welbourne Yet, the costs associated with compensation are often outweighed by the ben- efits, particularly when compensation is linked to the purpose of the assignment, which then results in improvements in organizational performance Fish and Wood ; Gomez-Mejia It is therefore proposed that expatriate compensation that is linked to the objectives of an assignment can improve overall organizational performance, which can, in turn, influence ROI in terms of increasing the benefits from international assign- ments.
Hence, the following proposition is offered: Proposition 5: Linking expatriate compensation packages to facilitate meeting the purposes of the international assignment will increase benefits, and increase expatriate ROI. This includes not only the financial costs asso- ciated with implementing training programs for the employee and other family members Mendenhall and Stahl , but also the hidden productivity costs associated with the employee attending training sessions for a future, rather than a current, role Bennett et al.
Other costs can include difficulties in retaining highly skilled employees in the long term due to deficiencies in cultural prepara- tion that can lead to unplanned labor turnover Black ; Tung , a. In contrast to the costs of training, there are also significant benefits to be gained from training in terms of better performance and cultural adjustment Eschbach et al.
Shaffer and Harrison found that predeparture training particularly language training had a positive impact on expatriate and spousal adjustment that, in turn, led to improved performance. Harrison also suggested that training and development programs that are linked to the objectives of the assignment are likely to maximize ROI. It is therefore pro- posed that customized training and development programs can lead to more real- istic expectations, higher levels of cross-cultural adjustment, and better overall performance, thereby increasing benefits and reducing costs.
Increases in ROI are then more likely to occur. Hence, the following proposition is offered: Proposition 6: Providing expatriates with training and development appropriate to the international assignment will increase benefits and reduce costs, thereby increasing expatriate ROI. Conversely, a number of industry surveys GMAC et al. Harvey b argued that the dual-career issue could not only significantly affect the willingness of expatriates to accept assignments, but also impact the likelihood of assignment success.
Hence, the following proposition is offered: Proposition 7: Providing support to the expatriate family will increase benefits and reduce costs, thereby increasing expatriate ROI. Performance management Thus far, we have established that effective HR systems for international assign- ments include planning, selection, relocation administration, compensation, train- ing and development, and family support practices.
Once on the assignment, performance management is another important practice. Performance manage- ment can influence expatriate ROI in two ways. First, it can decrease costs and increase ROI when it is conducted during an assignment by 1 providing MNCs with the ability to assess whether the objectives of an assignment are likely to be met, 2 providing MNCs with an opportunity to address problems before they result in assignment failure, and 3 providing insights into the effectiveness of other HR activities, including training needs and the appropriateness of reward systems and compensation packages, that may be affecting performance Brewster and Scullion ; Schuler et al.
Yet, a system of HR practices must also consider how to effectively manage the end of an assignment. Successful repatriation is, therefore, a potentially critical component in the ROI calculation for two reasons. For example, scholars Erdener and Torbiorn ; Gregersen and Black ; Lazarova and Caligiuri ; Stroh have ar- gued that repatriated staff can improve strategic capabilities when their interna- tional knowledge and expertise are leveraged during repatriation.
Yet, studies Banai ; Black et al. To do so would be misleading in terms of the final ROI outcome. For example, the GMAC et al. Further compounding the problem is that for those MNCs who intend to repatriate as a specific purpose of an assignment, there appears to be a discon- nect between intending to repatriate and ensuring it can be successfully achieved.
For example, the ORC survey found that 67 percent of MNCs offered no contractual agreements to expatriates regarding job-level guarantees during repa- triation, yet, as already stated, for many of them, the primary reason for using expatriates is to acquire international expertise and knowledge and to then lever- age it upon their return Lazarova and Caligiuri ; Stroh With regard to repatriation, this is particularly important, because calculations of expatriate ROI will not be accurate if repatria- tion has not been carefully planned and managed with rates of return in mind.
The importance of context also highlights why customizing the ROI calculation for each assignment, rather than applying a standardized formula that expects identi- cal costs and benefits to be calculated across the board, is essential. Consequently, careful consideration as to the inclusion, or exclusion, of repatriation is important to the expatriate ROI calculation.
Retention Finally, if a system of HR activities is perfectly managed, yet an MNC is unable to retain the talent in which it has invested a considerable amount of time, money, and effort, then ineffective retention practices can be a costly factor in the ROI calculation.
For example, Stroh concluded that the turnover of expatriate staff after repatriation incurs an obvious cost to MNCs when the loss is unexpected and an MNC loses key employees considered pivotal to achieving its long-term strategic objectives. All can affect ROI considerably.
To highlight the significance of retention and its potential impact on ROI, two factors with regard to costs must be considered. First, retention statistics must be interpreted correctly and appropriately in order to contribute accurate data to the ROI calculation. For example, it has been reported that 20 percent to 44 percent of British and U. Yet, the statistics do not clarify whether labor turnover is expected or unexpected as a result of linking retention to the purpose of international assignments.
This point was explained in more detail in the pre- ceding discussion on repatriation and is mentioned here because it also applies to retention. Consequently, scholars have concluded that expatriate retention and the costs associated with it should be defined within the context of the risks associated with losing only high performers Abelson and Baysinger ; Black et al.
This is be- cause when poor performers leave an organization, labor turnover may not always be unwelcome or as costly. As such, expatriate retention needs to be approached as a carefully managed combination of functional retention and functional turnover, in which high performers are retained and low performers are lost, as part of a larger strategic plan Black et al.
Under these circumstances, the replacement of poor performers during an assignment from a strategic standpoint e. For example, if the overall purpose of an assignment is to ac- quire international competencies, and the majority of an expatriate investment is centered on a small group of key individuals to deliver those competencies, the loss of these employees either during an assignment or upon repatriation to join a competitor would impact expatriate ROI considerably Birdseye and Hill ; Naumann Expatri- ate ROI is also likely to increase.
Overall, it is, therefore, proposed that the unexpected turnover of expatriate staff, during or after an assignment, incurs considerable costs to MNCs, and de- creases overall ROI. Yet when retention is carefully planned and managed as a combination of functional retention and functional turnover, benefits are likely to increase, as is expatriate ROI.
Discussion We contend that expatriate ROI is a complex phenomenon requiring careful ex- amination on many levels in order to produce a calculation that has a meaningful rate of return. Expatriate ROI can, therefore, be explained by four interrelated approaches. First, it must contain a summary of costs and benefits incurred during a long-term international assignment, and these costs and benefits must be defined both financially e.
Second, the costs and benefits of a long-term assignment must always be defined within the context of the purpose of the assignment. For example, if an assignment is designated as a one-way transfer for which no post-assignment job guarantees are offered, the inclusion of any repatriation-related outcomes such as labor turnover is not relevant to the expatriate ROI calculation for that assign- ment.
Third, the compilation of costs and benefits data must be approached from a systems perspective that avoids investigating only individual costs and benefits at one point in time e. Determining when to calculate expatriate ROI depends upon the specific purpose of the assignment and requires that a long-term, rather than short-term, view be adopted. This is because costs incurred at the start of an assignment may not be able to be matched to a corre- sponding benefit until the completion of the assignment years later.
The timing of the calculation, therefore, remains an important step that can help avoid a rate of return that is misleading or incorrect. We further contend that accurate rates of return will only be achieved when the benefits are compared to the costs, irrespective of whether a cost is financial e. Our analysis of the literature thus far has highlighted that the importance of an expatriate ROI calculation is not just in determining the rate of return as outlined in the first research question , but also in understanding why rates of return in- crease and decrease; that is, what are the antecedents of expatriate ROI?
As we have acknowledged, the antecedents of expatriate ROI are, in fact, not new. Many of them have been identified in prior research as outlined in Table 1 and include planning, selection, administering the relocation program, training and develop- ment, compensation, family support, performance management, repatriation, and retention. What is new is the way in which we propose these antecedents be incor- porated into expatriate ROI calculations.
A Long Journey South. Looking Back to the Future. An Ice-Bound Continent. Weather and Climate. The Southern Ocean. From Ice to Space. Remote Ocean Outposts. Life on Land. Life Beyond the Ice. Antarctic Megafauna. Surviving in the Cold. Polar Expeditions. A Continent for Peace and Science. Extreme and Unusual. Destination Icy Wilderness. Creativity at the Frozen Frontier. Commercial Harvest in Antarctica. Southern Ocean Fisheries.
The Search for Extremophiles. The Question of Mining. Ice and Mineral Resources. Recent Climate Change. Reducing Fossil Fuel Consumption. Alien Invasions.
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