Over the years, AstraZeneca Plc (AstraZeneca) has developed a strong reputation for its expatriate management practices. Expatriate management at AstraZeneca went beyond tackling issues such as compensation, housing, issues related to the spouse’s career abroad, etc. It also took care to ensure that employees on international assignment were able to adapt well to the new environment and achieve a work/life balance. With the global economic situation continuing to be grim, AstraZeneca also began placing emphasis on a “more thoughtful planning and selection process” of candidates for international assignments AstraZeneca is the world’s fifth-largest pharmaceutical company by global sales. It is headquartered in London, UK and Södertälje, Sweden. For the year 2008, AstraZeneca’s revenues were US$31.6 billion and it employed around 66,000 employees. As of 2009, AstraZeneca had around 350 employees working on international assignments in 140 countries worldwide. These were employees who were on short-term, long-term, or commuter assignments.
According to Ashley Daly (Daly), senior manager of international assignments for AstraZeneca in the U.S., the company’s employees were mainly concentrated in Belgium, the U.S., and the UK, but they “also have a significant presence in the Asia-Pacific and Latin America regions.” AstraZeneca’s policy stipulates that for any international assignment, there had to be a business rationale. The company saw to it that the costs involved were acceptable, and that the career management of the employee during the assignment was consistent with personal development goals as well as business needs. The contractual arrangements for the assignment were also centrally managed. “From the outset, if there is not a clear sense of how the international assignment experience can be applied at the end of the assignment term—at least in broad terms—the business should strongly consider whether an international assignment
should even move forward,” said Daly.
Once an assignment offer was made to a potential expat, AstraZeneca paired them up with
an international assignment manager (“IA manager”), who briefed them on company policy
and opportunities for cultural and language training. Before leaving for their international
assignment, employees were provided training in a workshop that focused on relevant issues
(such as leaving the destination location and returning back to the home country). The expats
were given information about the culture of the destination country—particularly differences
with the home country—as well as social considerations and do’s and don’ts. If necessary, the
employee and his/her spouse were given training in the local language. Tessi Romell (Romell),
research and development projects and HR effectiveness leader at AstraZeneca, said that the
company also helped connect new expats with those who had already served in that location.
Sometimes, follow-up workshops were held in the host country. Once on assignment, expats
stayed in touch with their IA manager in addition to the manager they reported back to in the
home country. AstraZeneca saw to it that expats were given the necessary flexibility required
for them to achieve a work/life balance. “AstraZeneca is really good at allowing people to manage their own time and being aware that we are working across different time zones. It’s always something that we try to take into consideration so we don’t have people [taking care of work matters] in the middle of the night,” said Romell. With AstraZeneca taking various initiatives on this front, there were few complaints about work/life balance among the company’s expat population. Romell attributed this to the mechanisms the company had put in place to prepare the employees for life in a different country. “It’s a combination of things that the company is doing and having a culture that is supportive of work/life balance, as well as encouraging individuals themselves to think about their own work/life
balance,” she said. Experts too felt that the practices followed by AstraZeneca, such as preparing the employees for international assignments, providing them with support, and assigning IA managers, were effective. They lauded AstraZeneca’s practices, which were in contrast to those of many companies that rushed employees to foreign assignments without adequate support. Chris Buckley, manager of international operations for St. Louis-based Impact Group Inc., pointed out that the expats knew that the organization was spending a lot of money on them and they might be wary about coming up with any complaints regarding their new assignment with their boss. In such a scenario, contact with the IA manager was useful, as it could encourage them to open up.
With the economic situation around the globe continuing to be grim, experts felt that organizations would be forced to take a second look at the costs associated with international staffing. Some felt that organizations would send fewer people on international assignments, or allot them to shorter terms abroad. They even predicted that the high compensation and benefits generally associated with foreign assignments could also see cuts. While AstraZeneca had also taken measures to cut costs (specifically tax costs) by sending employees on short-term assignments, Daly noted that this was not always possible. When the expat had a family and was being posted for a longer term, Daly pointed out that some of the elements of AstraZeneca’s expat packages, such as comprehensive destination support and educational counseling for expatriate children, played a critical role in ensuring the employee’s productivity. These supports ensured that the expatriate family was able to settle down in the host country. Not providing them could result in employees not being able to focus on their new job, putting the company’s investment at risk. So, the company was not looking at this issue in terms of expenditures alone. The company also did not have any plans to decrease the number of its staff deployed internationally. According to Daly, “Our recent focus has been less on reducing numbers of international assignees and more on making the right decisions about who goes on assignment; why they go; and perhaps most important, how the skills and experience gained abroad will be leveraged in their next role, post assignment.”
*Discuss major points in the case
* What lessons can be gleaned from the experiences that occurred with the management of expatriate employees at AstraZeneca?
*What could have been done better?