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The secondee

Secondments may be conceptualised as sequential stages of experiences and adjustments impacting an individual. McMichael, Draper and Gatherer (1992) propose a secondment-specific theoretical model of job change experiences, adapted from the work of Nicholson and West (1989). They present the secondment process as unfolding over five different stages, however, because the principal focus of this paper is on re-entry, it is identified here as a separate stage (rather than being combined with the 'Exit' stage as in McMichael et al [1992]):

  1. Preparation: This stage involves expectations and anticipations of the secondee in the period before the transition. This may be influenced by negotiations with and exposure to the host organisation, as well as personal preparation styles.
  2. Encounter: This stage covers the first few days and weeks of seconded role tenure. During this time, the secondee develops a rough working map of the host organisation, job and colleague relationships and begins to deal with the cognitive and affective challenges of the new environment.
  3. Adjustment: Secondees continue to elaborate their organisational schemas and understanding and find their place within the seconded role over the following months. Personal and professional adjustments may be made to better fit the role with the secondee.
  4. Stabilisation: By this stage, a settled connection between the role and secondee has been established. Firm job attitudes, motivation and performance characteristics emerge, and future career plans may develop.
  5. Exit: Similar to the preparation stage, here secondees may form expectations and anticipations regarding return to their home organisation role although with less uncertainty. Secondees may reflect upon experiences and skills gained from the secondment experience.
  6. Re-entry: Secondees return to the home organisation and re-establish workflows and relationships. Experiences and knowledge gained from secondment may be utilised to the benefit of the organisation and individual.

Three key assumptions underpin this model (Nicholson & West, 1989). Firstly, each stage is interdependent, in that the experience at one stage may strongly influence the following stage(s). For instance, a negative experience of Adjustment may hinder Stabilisation outcomes and the potential for personal development.

Second, each stage is distinctive in its experiential quality affecting different psychological and social systems. Emotional reactivity and cognitive flexibility, for example, will be more salient psychological factors during the Encounter phase than during Stabilisation.

Third, recursion within the model is evident, in that the last stage of one cycle is the first of the next. Although this model ends at re-entry to the home organisation post-secondment, adjustment and stabilisation stages may also apply following this, albeit to a lesser extent given the secondee's previous workplace experience and exposure.

The secondee through the stages of the secondment process

Various personal challenges confront secondees as they move through the stages of secondment. These are examined below:

  • During the Preparation stage, positive anticipation of challenge is common, with secondees feeling excited about new positions, opportunities, the utilisation of existing skills and development of new ones (Bond, 2002). Nonetheless, role change can also be a source or stress and anxiety, especially when the secondees fear that they may not be able to fulfil the new responsibilities.
  • During the Encounter stage, attribution styles and social influence and are pivotal. Secondees will ideally appreciate the external challenges of transition, taking obstacles or learning curves in their stride. However, they may internalise negative attributions when they encounter difficulties (e.g. "I have made this mistake because I am not competent enough") and this may hinder effective outcomes (Silvester & Chapman, 1997). Social engagement with colleagues for support may assist in minimising these attributions.
  • During the Adjustment stage, personal change may occur with the secondee adapting their personal working style and identity to fit the new role. Additionally, some role innovation may occur, whereby the secondee moulds the role to suit their existing work style and identity (Black & Martyn, 1999).
  • During the Stabilisation stage, the professional development and identity changes initiated during the Adjustment stage consolidate further. Much of the benefits and learning opportunities of the secondment are embedded here.
  • During the Exit stage, some apprehension regarding returning to the home organisation may emerge. This apprehension may relate to expected losses of autonomy or benefits associated with secondment, or the anticipation of potential difficulties in returning to the home organisation in the event that the secondee has become 'deskilled' following a long absence (Gatherer & Edwards, 1988). Additionally, secondees may report concerns that their replacements while they have been away may have performed poorly, or changed established workflows or practices thereby complicating the return. These apprehensions may manifest in reluctance to re-join the home organisation.
  • During the Re-entry stage, the secondee returns with newly developed skills and capabilities that have the potential to enhance the operation of the home organisation. If utilised effectively, both parties benefit. However, if new skills are not utilised effectively, secondees could experience reduced morale (explored further below). A 'blurring of roles' between the host and home organisations may also occur, whereby secondees transpose inappropriate workflows or expectations, which then complicate a smooth return (Starr, 2009; NZ State Services Commission, 1999).

Benefits and learning opportunities

With personal development a key motivator for many undertaking secondments in the first instance, research supports the finding that there is a rich variety of potential benefits and learning opportunities to be gained. The challenge of entering a new position and workplace, by necessity, expands the experience base of an individual substantially, and can be crucial in developing and refining new skills. The knowledge and understanding cultivated through secondment can also be applied upon return to the home organisation, or by the secondee in future career paths. Key benefits identified in the literature include:

  • Development of specific new skills: Exposure to new tasks, workflows and processes conducive to learning was the main benefit for secondees cited in the literature (Longden, 1991). While the specific skills gained will depend upon the position(s) and responsibilities the secondee is assigned, the development of new skills and abilities to meet the requirements of a given role are significant assets.
  • Personal fulfilment: Individuals seeking secondment may see themselves as 'ready to do something different' from their existing positions, viewing the challenges of entering a new role as refreshing and desirable (Bond, 2002). This change has the potential to improve motivation and performance upon return, through increased satisfaction and self-efficacy for the secondee.
  • Independence and resilience: Moving from a home organisation to a host fosters increased autonomy, problem-solving and coping strategies as the secondee must respond effectively to the challenges of each stage in a limited timeframe (Hamilton & Wilkie, 2001). This increased flexibility generates independence and resilience.
  • Security:  The ability to explore different roles through the secondment process whilst having a position at the home organisation to return to gives secondees the ability to develop skills with a sense of security. (Uthmann, 2005).
  • Organisational and managerial capabilities: Depending upon the nature of the secondment, employees may be given more responsibilities for project coordination and management by the host organisation than they have within the home organisation. Host organisations may seek individuals with specific expertise from the home organisation for secondment to meet their own project's goals, and in turn, provide leadership and sought after organisational experience.
  • Networking opportunities:  A number of literature sources highlighted the benefits of secondees' ability, while away, to create contacts within the host organisation or associated entities (NZ State Services Commission, 1999). On a personal level, this may assist the secondee with career-choices and opportunities in the future. On an organisational level, the secondee can utilise these connections in the home organisation's project development and broader business operations.
  • Perspective: Secondees are given the chance to increase sectoral and institutional knowledge, bridging professional and political boundaries between organisations (Lewis, 2008). In the context of secondment between APS bodies and to other sectors, secondees stand to gain a broader understanding of different work priorities, client needs and impacts, as well as shared values and issues.

Psychological adjustments

The process of secondment and the challenges faced have impacts on the secondee's cognitive and emotional flexibility, social relationships, and even personal/professional identity. Social Identity Theory (SIT; Ashforth, 2000) provides a multifaceted framework with which to analyse the process of transition for secondees. It emphasises first, the cognitive demands of secondment, particularly in dealing with role contrast. Core and peripheral features of the assigned roles between the home and host organisation, such as performance expectations and skill requirements, will naturally vary and the extent of these differences determines the cognitive load required for adjustment. Further, the affective demands of secondment occur through the lived emotional experience, which may be more turbulent particularly during the Encounter and Adjustment phases.

SIT proposes several critical aspects affecting psychological adjustment. Firstly, the attractiveness of the seconded role can influence performance and capability cultivation. That is, if the role is perceived positively, the secondee will be more willing to embrace the process and even the work identity of the host organisation. This identification further facilitates the development of secondees' skills and capabilities (Reupert, Wilkinson & Galloway, 2010). Conversely, if the role is perceived negatively, the secondee may reject the host organisation, clinging to and affirming their prior work identity within the home organisation. Lewis (2008) made similar observations but goes further, reporting that secondees felt, even if experiences were found to be stressful or ill-suited, the reinforcement of home organisation identity and belonging was constructive and beneficial.

Additionally, social factors can facilitate key psychological adjustments in secondments. They particularly influence affective and emotional responses to the secondment experience as secondees begin to integrate into the social dynamics of a new workplace. Opportunities for social validation and connection within the host organisation, in particular, may help to shape the secondee's professional identity and promote skill development and networking (Ashforth, 2000). However, difficulties in establishing relationships, handling 'difficult individuals', and navigating existing hierarchies within the workplace may impede these outcomes (Bond, 2002). Careful consideration of the secondee's placement within the wider dynamic of a host organisation team is therefore imperative to support effective psychological adjustments.

Finally, flexibility and responsiveness are critical psychological adjustments, influencing cognitive responsiveness in particular. The need to 'hit the ground running' is identified as a key skill developed within the secondment experience (Uthmann, 2005). Depending upon the salience of the position, a more urgent, high tempo seconded role may mean that the secondee is less focused on return to the home organisation or future prospects generally, and as such, identification with the seconded workplace culture and process is enhanced (Ashworth, 2000). While this may facilitate learning, the adjustment may prove stressful and ultimately overwhelming, especially if the Preparation and Encounter stages are inadequate.

Risks upon exit and re-entry

Upon re-entry to the home organisation, the secondee brings with him/her new skills, knowledge, contacts and confidence, as previously mentioned. While, these are a significant asset on both a personal and organisational level, secondees require effective support and recognition of their status and needs before, during, and after return as they face a number of potential challenges and issues.

While many remain positive about their return (Reupert, Wilkinson & Galloway, 2010), the literature highlights secondee uncertainty during the Exit phase of secondment as strongly impacting the experience and success of Re-entry. Secondees may feel apprehension regarding their return, fearing that former positions have been effectively replaced through the distribution of roles and responsibilities to new or existing staff as a result of the secondee's departure. There were serious concerns that "management learns to do without [secondees], and doesn't want them back" (NZ State Services Commission, 1999). Ongoing communication during this time is thus essential to clarify conditions of re-entry and reinforce the value of the secondee to the home organisation.

Many secondees feel 'out of the loop' and need new adjustment stages to reacquaint themselves with former work processes and adapt to changes within the home organisation while they have been away (Reupert, Wilkinson & Galloway, 2010). The need to relearn old skills that have been neglected since leaving can be somewhat demoralising for secondees, diminishing their sense of self-efficacy, particularly if they return to the same role. Further, the social need to 'fit back into the team' within the home organisation can be a difficulty (Hamilton & Wilkie, 2001). Secondees noted that having the personal experience of secondment and life changes, when others had not, created a sense of distance between themselves and their colleagues.

Visibility was also a key concern when re-entering the home organisation. While secondments are recognised for their benefits in professional development and career opportunities, the idea of demonstrating commitment to a workplace by being 'visible' in that workplace complicates this. For example, prolonged absences from a home organisation are perceived as detrimental to an individual's personal professional value, promotion chances and opportunities in the home organisation (McDonald, Bradley & Brown, 2008). Across the secondment literature also, secondees worried about the impact of their absence on supervisors'/colleagues' views of their work value on their return (Starr, 2009; NZ State Services Commission, 1999).

Data from McMichael et al (1992) provide some evidence that partly validates the concerns of secondees in relation to their promotion prospects on re-entry. Of their sample (N = ~50), 44% returned to their previous post, 12% went to another employer at the same level, while 16% went to a different employer on a promotion. A further 14% had another secondment, and another 14% went to an entirely new job. So, although some secondees gained promotions after their secondment, not a single employee received a home-organisation promotion upon return.

Further, the utilisation of secondee's personal development gains by the home organisation is a critical factor in the success of the secondment for both the secondee and the home organisation. Secondees reported, across various studies, feelings of disappointment at new-found skills and expertise 'going to waste' (McMichael, Draper & Gatherer, 1995; Bond, 2002). The opportunity to provide feedback to superiors regarding new capabilities and experiences upon re-entry was valued by secondees as a means of facilitating utilisation of these skills and the optimisation of their performance (Dupont & Tanner, 2009). This finding also extends to networking, with secondees noting that beneficial inter-sectoral links between organisations/bodies that had been personally cultivated while they away were rarely exploited by home organisations after their return (McMichael, Draper & Gatherer, 1992).

This lack of appreciation for new skills identified in the literature relates strongly to the potential for disillusionment by the secondee upon re-entry.  This disillusionment can be substantial (Lewis, 2008), with secondment having creating experiential "appetites that cannot be sustained" (McMichael, Draper & Gatherer, 1995). Feelings of 'anticlimax' or boredom are especially pronounced when the secondee returns to the same pre-secondment position (Dupont & Tanner, 2009). If the secondment position had more managerial and coordinating responsibilities than the position that the secondee returns to, placement in a more regimented role together with a loss of flexibility and autonomy can be severely detrimental to morale (Bond, 2002). Secondees may feel unappreciated and 'oppressed' by the regimentation, resulting in a diminution in the perceived value of the job within the home organisation.

Last reviewed: 
31 October 2019