Mandy Clarke, personnel director at engineer Buro Happold, tells Victoria Madine how the company selects and prepares employees for secondments abroad
How important is it for employees to be able to speak the language of the country?Language is a real problem, but it is not a prerequisite for getting a placement in one of the foreign offices. We put employees on two- or three-week intensive language courses in this country, and then provide language learning support while they are abroad. We expect people to become conversant in, for example, German during an extended stay in the country, and it is amazing how quickly employees are able to pick up the language. Companies used to expect everyone to speak English, but things have changed and there is now a realisation that you can provide a much better service to clients if you speak the language, be it German or Arabic.

How competitive is it to get a job in a foreign office?
Most people who want to go can – a stint abroad is something we encourage. It adds to the individual's knowledge and helps us to share our experiences. We have an annual staff appraisal where we ask staff if they are interested in working abroad, and what their language skills are like. We register that interest and when an opportunity comes up, we let the person know.

How easy is it to transfer a member of staff to a foreign office, and how does it affect benefits such as pensions?
In the eurozone, it is not a problem at all. But the paperwork to get someone over to the USA can be pretty daunting. Before an individual sets off, we arrange for them to see a personal finance adviser and sometimes it will be the case that it is better to freeze their British pension and set up a new one. The individual will also have to conform to the tax laws of the country, which can vary a lot, even across the eurozone.

Cultural differences are a big issue. Learning about a country’s culture is as important as learning the language

Can cultural differences be a problem?
This is a big issue – learning about a country's culture is as important as learning the language. For example, we can't send women out to our Saudi office because women aren't allowed to work there. We've got to respect this.

To what extent does the company support expats with families?
It really depends on the individual. Sometimes we provide accommodation – it all depends on the country, the person and how long they will work abroad. We give information about local schools and services. Sometimes we provide return flights home. We offer as much support as the employee needs throughout their stay – and not just to those with families. Single people are given just as much help.