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UI Study Finds Too Much Global Experience Might Harm Career Advancement

Managers for U.S. companies may want to limit their international assignments to just one if they hope to advance in their careers, according to research by a University of Iowa management professor.

The study, by Maria Kraimer, associate professor in the Tippie College of Business, suggests that more than one international assignment doesn't translate into career advancement, and might even hurt.

"American companies value international experience, but multiple country experience is not highly valued," Kraimer said. "Firms value international exposure, but the value might be limited."

Kraimer surveyed recently repatriated managers and executives at five U.S.-based multinational firms about their experience overseas, and whether they felt it helped their careers once they returned. They found that those who had one international assignment were more likely to be promoted than those who had multiple assignments.

Those who had between two and four assignments were least likely to be promoted.

"Our findings indicate that repatriates who completed two or more international assignments were eight times more likely to perceive that they were demoted when they returned home, compared to those who completed only one international assignment," Kraimer said.

Kraimer said the study suggests that "out of sight, out of mind" is partly responsible for making international assignments reach their point of diminishing return so quickly. It's hard to advance your career from London or Tokyo because it's harder for the top executives in New York or Chicago to see you.

Proximity is also an issue.

"Most high-level positions in U.S. companies are in the U.S., so if you want to advance, you have to be in the U.S.," she said.

Kraimer said companies understand that having managers and executives with global experience is good for business. For instance, prior research has shown that firms with CEOs who have worked in other countries perform better in a variety of financial measures.

But her research suggests that repatriated workers who were not promoted tended to see themselves as overqualified for their positions and more willing to leave their company for a new employer that would use the skills they learned overseas. This squares with earlier studies that show 44 percent of repatriated managers leave their employers within two years of returning to their home countries.

Considering that companies spend about $1 million per expatriated employee, Kraimer said it's in an employer's best interest to learn how to better manage their repatriated employees and help them utilize the skills they learn in other countries.

Kraimer also said that most repatriated workers in her survey valued their overseas experience from a personal standpoint, even if it didn't help them professionally.

"Those who had children told us one unforeseen benefit was that the experience brought their family closer together," she said.

Kraimer's study, "The Influence of Expatriate and Repatriate Experiences on Career Advancement and Repatriate Retention," was published earlier this year in Human Resource Management. It was co-written with Margaret Shaffer of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Mark Bolino of the University of Oklahoma.


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