Secondments provide employees with an opportunity to experience a different part of an organisation or a different organisation altogether, and the potential benefits can be great for both the secondee and the organisation, particularly with a well thought out process and clear expectations for all parties, ensuring a smooth transition for the secondee between different roles and working environments.

This factsheet delves into the benefits and challenges of internal and external secondments and provides examples of the types of work that are appropriate. It explores the role of HR and L&D in supporting secondments to realise the benefits fully, and offers guidance on how to ensure effective implementation of secondment opportunities.

Organisations can benefit from both inward and outward secondment as these can be a very useful way of providing development to meet both individual and organisational needs. This is particularly the case as people increasingly work within flatter organisational structures. However, secondment opportunities must be properly planned and supported throughout their duration in order to ensure their success.

Secondment is the temporary movement or ‘loan’ of an employee to another part of an organisation (internal secondment) or to a separate organisation (external secondment). Employees may be seconded into organisations ranging from major commercial businesses or public sector organisations through to small local groups, schools and charities. Typically, paid secondments require formal arrangements, are full-time and last up to twelve months.

Secondment is increasingly recognised as valuable for both employee and organisational development. As organisations adopt ever flatter management structures, traditional opportunities for promotion through a succession of line management positions are limited. Secondments offer employees career development opportunities and are increasingly used as part of talent management programmes. They also provide organisations with the chance to develop their skills base. Read our factsheets on talent management and management development.

How long does a secondment last?

The duration of any secondment depends on the circumstances. Short-term secondments may last from around 100 hours (possibly undertaken on a part-time basis) while long-term secondments can last a year or more. During times of economic downturn, there is sometimes a tendency to favour short-term secondments (of say two to three weeks) with the aim of continuing to capitalise on the benefits of secondment while also minimising the costs involved.

Who is eligible?

This is a policy decision made by each organisation. Opportunities for secondments may be open to all - or alternatively they may be restricted to managers, technical and professional staff, ‘high-fliers’, those on talent management programmes or employees with a specified length of service.

Who pays?

Generally, the organisation (or part of the organisation) that supplies the secondees continue to pay their salary during the secondment period. For a commercial secondment, however, this cost might be reimbursed by the host organisation.

Secondments can take place:

  • within an organisation, to a different department or function
  • externally to another organisation (often, for example, from public sector to private or vice versa, or to a voluntary organisation).

Internal secondment

Secondment within the organisation is a valuable way of providing staff development opportunities, particularly within flat organisational structures with limited opportunities for promotion. It’s also useful for resourcing short-term assignments or projects. The employee benefits by gaining wider experience and acquiring new skills without the disruption of relocation and with the benefit of continuity of employment. While the main disadvantage for all parties is that this approach does not provide the entirely fresh outlook that an external secondment may bring.

External secondment

External secondments can benefit all three parties, by exposing initially the host organisation and the employee and subsequently the seconding employer to different work practices. However, it's essential that all parties are clear about their responsibilities, expectations, accountabilities and performance objectives.

Specific questions that need to be addressed prior to a secondment include:

  • Is the secondment for a fixed term or for an indefinite period that is subject to notice?

  • Although the seconding employer will generally be responsible for basic salary, what are the arrangements for other terms and conditions such as overtime, bonuses, expenses or training?

  • What will happen if long-term absence or persistent short-term absence occurs?

  • How will supervisory and disciplinary matters be dealt with?

  • If the assignment is long-term, how will performance management and development be managed?

  • Does indemnity insurance need to be provided?

  • What happens if there are changes to the organisational structure (jn both the host and seconding organisation) during the secondment?

  • Who will fill the role in the home organisation, and how will the secondee retain contact?

  • How will the end of the secondment be managed (for example, return to original role)?

The host employer should be careful not to treat the secondee as their employee. For instance, whilst they need to know when an employee intends to take holiday, they shouldn’t assume direct responsibility for either authorising or paying for holidays. Similarly expenses should form part of any 'charge' between the host and seconding employers.

Nor should the host employer be responsible for disciplining the employee. though they will wish to have access to a mechanism by which it can require the seconding employer to institute such a procedure if necessary. Alternatively, the host employer may wish to specify employee misconduct as a 'trigger' event, allowing it to terminate the agreement with the seconding employer. 'Trigger events' could also include, for example, long-term sickness of the employee.

Failure by the parties to resolve such procedures prior to entering into a secondment arrangement could cause the employers, and particularly the host employer, to lose the advantages of such arrangements.

The voluntary sector

As organisations are increasingly aware of corporate responsibility, the release of employees to work in voluntary organisations, sometimes for quite short periods, is gaining in popularity. The voluntary sector is also often targeted for development of mid/senior level leaders from the commercial sector to give these individuals experience of leading in a completely new context. Our employer-supported volunteering factsheet and report Volunteering to learn: employee development through community action provides more information on how voluntary activities can help support development.

Examples of secondments

Internal and external secondments could include:

  • Senior civil servants seconded into industry to gain experience of the private sector.

  • Managers seconded into a voluntary sector or other organisation to gain new skills in project management and experience of leading in different organisational contexts.

  • Technical specialists gaining experience of the supply chain through secondment to their suppliers or customers.

  • Teachers exposed to industry to observe different cultures and working practices.

The type of work appropriate for secondments could include:

  • a review project
  • the introduction of a new initiative
  • policy development
  • a specific task of limited duration or with an uncertain future
  • a short-term appointment to start a new work area prior to making a permanent position.

A common feature of these examples is that they are discrete and often of limited duration and so are easier to manage as a project.

Benefits

When implemented effectively, the potential benefits of secondment include:

The secondee:

  • has the opportunity for wider career and personal development than in their day-to-day work
  • acquires valuable experience in project management
  • is able to test and apply specific skills in a different organisational environment
  • gains new skills and experiences in challenging areas.

The secondee's employer:

  • gains enhanced employee skills such as teamworking and cross-functional communications
  • attains improved workforce morale and motivation
  • develops wider networks and contacts
  • may build a reputation as a good employer and contributor to the community.

The host organisation:

  • attains assistance with projects
  • gains an external perspective.

Challenges

Potential challenges to be overcome can include:

  • The secondee's employer may have to deal with dissatisfied staff who are not selected for secondment.

  • The host organisation may find that the secondee fails to adapt to the organisational culture.

  • The secondee may have difficulty settling back in their own role when the secondment ends.

  • There may be an expectation of promotion at the end of the secondment period.

The role of HR and L&D in supporting secondments

The HR and L&D functions can take the following steps to help fully realise the benefits of internal and external secondment:

  • Ensure that the organisation has an effective secondment procedure that is well publicised to all staff, for example, in the staff handbook or on the intranet.

  • Ensure that there is a clear business case for a secondment, with specific outcomes identified – that is, capabilities and competencies are identified in the performance management process.

  • Discuss with senior management the advantages of using secondment as an organisational and staff development tool.

  • Advertise secondment positions effectively to the widest possible audience.

  • Use local and national networks to make links with the external community.

  • Actively seek secondments themselves in order to widen their experience of other working environments.

  • Provide a tailored induction for both inward and outward secondees.

  • Ensure that secondments are carefully monitored throughout.

  • Encourage feedback and evaluation from secondees on their return.

  • Review how the knowledge and experiences gained by the secondee have benefited the organisation.

  • Act as a contact point to facilitate communication between the home and host organisation.

A range of external support is available to help employers to arrange and co-ordinate secondments. Some examples of organisations who offer secondment opportunities alongside volunteering activities:

Business in the Community was founded in 1982 to meet the responsibilities that businesses have to their communities. Currently boasting a membership of several hundred companies, its purpose is ‘to inspire, challenge, engage and support business in continually improving its positive impact on society'. The involvement of employees in external community activities, supported and encouraged by their employers, is central to the organisation’s work.

HTI is a not-for-profit social enterprise organisation that has been seconding senior teachers into business for around two decades. By taking a funded secondment into business for anything from six weeks to 12 months, educationalists can undertake interim management responsibilities, stretch their leadership skills in a new environment and understand what industry requires of young people who will become the employees of tomorrow.

The Whitehall and Industry Group (WIG) is a charity and membership organisation that brings senior people together to improve understanding and co-operation between the public, private and voluntary sectors. WIG's 'leadership & talent' activities include the brokering of cross-sector secondments that provide opportunities for individuals to gain insights into other sectors through business-focused projects and remits. WIG also runs a secondment initiative called 'Charity Next' on behalf of government departments, The Prince's Charities Foundation and other charities.

The Pensions Regulator offers a range of secondment opportunities and has hosted secondees who are lawyers, actuaries, business consultants and financial analysts. Keen to attract a wide range of people, they take a flexible approach and are able to create a customised package to suit an individual secondment.

Journals

ELLIS, D.W. (2011) A second look at secondments. Benefits and Compensation International. Vol 40, No 8, April. pp3-4,6,8.

ESPINOZA, J. (2011) When a stint elsewhere reaps benefits. The Wall Street Journal (Europe). 1 March. p27.

FEARN, H. (2013) How to get promoted after a civil service secondment. Guardian Professional. 5 September. 

FOX, A. (2011) Paths to the top: do assignments outside HR pay off? HR Magazine. Vol 56, No 11, November. pp30-35.

MCWHINNEY, S. and JOBLING, B. (2014) Second changes. Employers' Law. October. pp18-19.

CIPD members can use our online journals to find articles from over 300 journal titles relevant to HR.

Members and People Management subscribers can see articles on the People Management website.

This factsheet was last updated by CIPD staff.

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