Leveraging employee networks for global mobility success

Networking is known to provide significant career benefits to individuals, but organisations can also benefit from employee networks through their contribution to talent management and development.

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Autumn 2019 issue of Relocate magazine
This article is taken from the latest issue of Relocate magazine 
– the must read for HR, global managers and relocation professionals.The concept of networking is often linked to the notion of career success. Indeed, the association of ‘net’ with ‘work’ suggests a deliberate strategy to ‘catch’ to ‘achieve’ or ‘gain’ resources. As such, some definitions of networking place heavy emphasis on meeting and talking to new people via social activities who could be useful to advance someone’s job or career.Other definitions, however, focus on the development of regular communications for mutual benefit rather than the sole pursuit of personal gain and place a far stronger focus on not only helping oneself, but also others. Notwithstanding this, the degree of reciprocity that can be expected from networking is unclear. While an equal exchange is potentially unlikely, as this is rare in social relationships, a one-sided ‘winner takes all’ in career advancement, with no reciprocity offered, is unlikely to be sustainable. Indeed, networking only for personal advantage would be expected to prove harmful to a person’s long-term career prospects.Networks act as relationship channels and create social capital through a two-way exchange of cooperation, commitment, integrity and trust. Maintaining strong ties within close colleague and friendship groupings requires considerable time and effort. As closely associated members within such groups share information, they know similar things. To gain different and potentially valuable information, contacts are required who are external to the usual social circle. Communication via acquaintances is crucial if individuals seek to gain access to contacts within different social groups and, by association, these contacts’ ties with their close colleagues and friends. In this way, the benefits of knowledge held within different social groups can be accessed. Networking is beneficial to individuals, as it does not require as much time and effort to be invested in building relationships as is necessary to maintain the ties within one’s own close-knit social group.

Networking in the mobility context

There has been considerable academic research carried out into the benefits and drawbacks of networking in the expatriate environment. Studies have shown that without open and transparent international assignment selection systems and processes, individuals’ access to assignments has rested upon network contacts. This has had particular implications for minorities, as with fewer networks, their access to career-enhancing assignments has been reduced. In turn, this reduces expatriate diversity and the benefits it can offer organisations.Research into female expatriation, in particular, has shown that women recognise that building networks is crucial to accessing international mobility opportunities. However, as women have lower network access, this has contributed to their poor expatriation representation. Women are not unable to build networks, nor are they necessarily denied entry to networking opportunities. One explanation for women’s reduced networking is linked to their family responsibilities. These reduce the amount of time that women can spend developing network contacts. A further issue concerns men’s and women’s networks being separate. If men hold the majority of international assignment positions and know of the assignments that are coming up – and management is also male-dominated, particularly in the industries that employ the largest volumes of expatriates – this is problematic for women. It is suggested that women need to gain access to these male networks for international assignment opportunities and associated career success. This means that women actively need to develop appropriate managerial and expatriate male network contacts.
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Individuals and their family members report that networks can provide a hugely valuable resource for mobility information and assist with cultural integration. Indeed, networking among mobile professionals has proved so successful that many worldwide, regional and local networking expatriate groups now operate from which relocating personnel can benefit. By drawing upon the diversity of the networking group’s membership who share information and experiences, individuals and their families report experiencing a depth of learning that significantly assists them to manage cross-cultural transitions.

Leveraging employee networks to improve organisational success

Organisations can reap several benefits by leveraging employee networks. For example, organisations wishing to foster expatriate diversity might consider setting up and supporting networking interventions that help to integrate all minorities, thereby widening the talent pool for future international mobility. Employees who previously may not have considered an international career can learn from those who have had such experiences, potentially resulting in their increased interest in working abroad. There can also be a role for networks aiming to support specific minorities. Women’s networks that offer support and advice to women entering masculine cultural environments can be extremely beneficial. Women considering undertaking an assignment in such an environment can gain first-hand information and encouragement from other female staff who have already been there. Networks for LGBTQ+ individuals are also known to be particularly helpful in assisting this minority group to learn about the potential environment of their international posting.

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Organisations can also draw upon employee networks as part of training and development interventions. Current assignees hold considerable tacit knowledge about their location, cultural and work environments, and other aspects specific to living and working in a different country and organisational setting. Networking can prove particularly useful to individuals to learn more about a potential assignment, to settle in on arrival and to adjust in the first few months of their posting. Facilitating links between employees considering or about to move with current and/or returned assignees can kick-start networking opportunities that augment more formal training.Talent development and career progression can also be enhanced via leveraging employee networks. Research has shown, for example, that female assignees are concerned about the work-life balance implications of accepting senior expatriate positions. Yet women who have achieved such roles report that these do not necessarily lead to excessive workloads. To encourage individuals to accept senior international positions and potentially improve diversity outcomes across the spectrum of grades available, supporting network links across the grading structure could prove beneficial.Expatriation in itself is developmental and a series of assignments provide a greater knowledge and experience base, widening organisations’ talent pools. Networking to learn of project opportunities can help individuals to find out about positions where they can enhance their skills and then use these as the basis for future assignment applications. By supporting such networking opportunities, employers can leverage talent development.Repatriates often suffer from reintegration problems. Networking with colleagues at home while abroad can help to maintain ties and keep up-to-date with organisational cultural changes taking place. Network contacts can also help the assignee to keep abreast of job and development opportunities. By leveraging this source of repatriate support, organisations can potentially reduce their repatriate turnover and increase repatriate productivity.

Materials and methods

Networking is usually considered as a spontaneous activity and so the use of specific materials and methods to drive such an intervention forward sounds strange. But if networks are to run as formal talent management interventions, then the time, costs and media needed must be given consideration. Facilitation might require, for example, office space for face-to-face meetings and access to technology such as teleconferencing facilities, webcams and Internet access, especially for geographically spread networking groups.There are financial ramifications, including the cost of premises, necessary equipment and specialist IT staff. If formal networks are to operate, these will require management time, with forethought being given to agendas to be discussed. Consideration of any implications of knowledge disclosure and privacy issues is also necessary. The participants involved informally organised networking groups will also need to take time out from their schedules to attend and there may also be a need for time spent on preparation and feedback.The pros and cons of the coverage of the formal network also need to be given forethought. The intervention could be operated on a wide, open basis to which all are invited. Alternatively, networks might be aimed at sub-groups. It is important to determine the objectives of the networking intervention and the benefits to be leveraged from it in considering its design and operation. Not all may wish to be involved and thought needs to be given to supporting people’s sense of safety and security in joining a network.Another important aspect is the implications of knowledge sharing as part of talent management if this is to extend beyond the firm’s boundary. Management accountability will need to be considered both for internal and external networking interventions. While there are a lot of issues to contend with, the benefits of leveraging employee networks can prove considerable.Subscribe to Relocate Extra, our monthly newsletter, to get all the latest international assignments and global mobility news.Relocate’s new Global Mobility Toolkit provides free information, practical advice and support for HR, global mobility managers and global teams operating overseas.Global Mobility Toolkit download factsheets resource centreAccess hundreds of global services and suppliers in our Online DirectoryClick to get to the Relocate Global Online Directory©2019. This article first appeared in the Autumn 2019 edition of Relocate magazine, published by Profile Locations, Spray Hill, Hastings Road, Lamberhurst, Kent TN3 8JB. All rights reserved. This publication (or any part thereof) may not be reproduced in any form without the prior written permission of Profile Locations. Profile Locations accepts no liability for the accuracy of the contents or any opinions expressed herein.