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Enhancing the re-entry experience for individuals and organisations following secondments: A review of the research literature


Abstract

This paper examines the research literature on secondments, particularly as it is able to inform effective re-entry of the secondee to the home organisation at the conclusion of the placement. The paper contends that effective re-entry is dependent on experiences prior to, during and following the
secondment. In this context, the secondment process is conceptualised as a series of stages and the respective experiences and roles of the secondee, the home organisation and the host organisation are identified. A series of recommendations based on the research is included to guide effective re-entry
of the secondee.

Introduction

This paper presents research into factors that enhance the effectiveness of 're-entry', for both individuals and organisations, following structured secondment programs. Although the ultimate focus of the paper is on effective re-entry, the review posits that, to maximise the effectiveness of re-entry,
the secondment process must be considered as a whole. If the secondee has a positive and productive experience during the secondment, and appropriate arrangements are put in place on their return, the re-entry and reintegration processes are more likely to be effective.

Secondments are generally defined as arrangements for the transfer of an employee from one organisation (referred to as the 'home organisation') to another (referred to here as the 'host organisation') on a short to medium-term basis. For the purposes of this paper, we also extend the definition of
a secondment to include placements of staff on formal academic programs such as Masters and Ph. D courses of study that are sponsored by the home organisation. In relation to academic placements, the tertiary institution is regarded as the 'host organisation'. A number (but not all) of the factors and
considerations discussed in relation to ensuring successful work secondments and re-entry arrangements are relevant to academic placements.

Secondment opportunities may be provided as part of a formal exchange program between organisations to expose the employee to different work environments and build specialised skills for professional development. Placements on academic programs are typically designed to develop high level research,
professional or technical skills that are of relevance to the work of the home organisation. Additionally, secondments may meet a need or shortage at the host organisation by utilising the expertise of the secondee for a limited time to fill absences or meet the requirements of specific projects and
initiatives.

Although secondments have no strict definition within the Public Service Act 1999 or subordinate legislation, in the Australian Public Service (APS) context, the secondee will formally remain an employee of the home organisation, but on a day-to-day basis will work or study within, take direction from and be assigned duties by the host organisation
(more typically an APS agency, or an outside employer). If secondment arrangements occur from an APS agency to another APS agency or to an outside employer, the home APS agency retains their authority and responsibilities as the secondee's employer, such as determining salary and most terms and conditions
of employment. Likewise, the secondee remains subject to APS Values, APS Employment Principles and the Code of Conduct.

The potential benefits of secondments are substantial for all parties involved. On a personal level, the opportunity to undertake a secondment may be considered a career opportunity, allowing the individual a chance to 'climb the corporate ladder' through promotion upon return. It may increase the
individual's professional standing and networks and/or cultivate marketable qualifications and experience, which may increase employability and possibly facilitate movement to different sectors (Gatherer & Edwards, 1988). Additionally, secondments may be a matter of personal fulfilment, viewed as
a welcome challenge and change of pace from an existing role within the home organisation.

For the home organisation, the exchange of perspectives, skills and understanding of workflows and processes gained through sending staff on secondment are significant. Secondees usually gain enhanced capabilities that can and should be utilised within the home organisation on return, and that can
help better inform an understanding of shared inter-organisational issues and client / business needs (Critchley, 2002). Additionally, the potential for increased connections and professional relationship building between agencies and external organisations can be an asset.

For the host organisation, experienced and motivated secondees can offer a 'fresh set of eyes', different sets of experiences to draw from and different perspectives on organisational workflow and procedural feedback which can greatly benefit their operations. (Uthmann, 2005). Additionally, receiving
capable staff to fill specific needs, such as covering staff leave and successional planning is also strongly valued.

The review has found that empirical research into secondments is limited and the literature base sparse. Definitions of secondment vary and they often overlap with conceptually similar but substantively different processes such as intra-organisational job rotations, transfers and international assignments.
This paper draws primarily on eight key publications that have focused exclusively (in part or in whole) on investigating the qualitative experiences, impacts and outcomes of secondments at individual and/or organisational levels. Additional references to related research, particularly in regard to theoretical
models or secondment-related issues, have also been included to build on identified themes and findings.

As mentioned, this paper takes a holistic view of secondments and contends that successful re-entry to the home organisation is dependent on the quality of the secondment experience from start to finish. The secondment process itself is conceptualised as a series of stages, the final of which, is the
Re-entry stage. In this context, the paper focuses on the secondment experience from the various perspectives of the secondee, the home organisation and the host organisation. The paper concludes with a series of recommendations designed to enhance the secondment experience and maximise the likelihood
of a successful reintegration of the secondee into the home organisation at the conclusion of the secondment.