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GuidesEmployee experienceWhat is a secondment, and what benefits can it offer?

What is a secondment, and what benefits can it offer?

Last updated

16 December 2023

Author

Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Shawnna Johnson

A secondment is a scenario in which an employee is temporarily assigned to work externally for another company or internally for another department. The purpose of a secondment can be for professional development, knowledge exchange, or simply to help fill a vacancy while remaining employed with the original employer.

In this article, you’ll learn all you need to know about secondments, including what they are and how they work.

Understanding secondments

Secondments come in many forms, but they all involve an employee temporarily leaving their current position to fill another somewhere else. During a secondment, the employee remains employed by their original employer.

In these arrangements, three parties are involved:

  • Seconder—the original employer

  • Secondee—the employee changing positions

  • Host—the new organization the employee will be working for

A secondment agreement will be drawn up at the start of the arrangement. This legally binding contract outlines all the secondment’s terms and conditions. It defines when the employee will start work at the host organization, when they will return, and what they will and won’t be expected to do while in the new position.

Types and forms of secondment

Generally, there are two types of secondments: internal and external.

The list below provides an idea of the various forms a secondment can take and some of the reasons they may occur in the first place.

Internal secondment

Cross-departmental secondment

In this arrangement, an employee is temporarily transferred to a different department within the same organization. This is typically done to foster skill development, allowing the employee to see different aspects of the business. It can help encourage a more integrated organizational culture and enhance cross-functional collaboration.

These types of secondments usually last from a few weeks to several months.

International secondment

An international secondment is when the transfer takes the employee to a different country. For very large companies, this could be a transfer to an international branch. Alternatively, it could involve a transfer to a sister company abroad.

This type of secondment helps develop global competencies, improve understanding of international markets, and foster cultural exchange. Due to the travel involved, these secondments are usually longer, ranging from one to three years on average.

Inter-organizational secondment

This is an arrangement where the employee works for an entirely different organization. It typically occurs between companies that are partnered in some way.

Inter-organizational secondments allow the employee to learn how different organizational cultures and practices work. They can facilitate knowledge exchange and enhanced cooperation between partners.

External secondment

Vendor or client secondment

This is a type of secondment where an employee goes to work for one of their employer’s vendors or clients. This can help the two companies understand one another better. Via the secondee, the seconder obtains a deeper understanding of their vendor or client’s operations, strengthening the business relationship.

Public sector secondments

A public sector secondment involves personnel being transferred between private and public sector organizations. They can be used as part of a governmental initiative to better understand the policy decisions they are making, to help bridge the gap between public and private sector methodologies, and to encourage public–private partnerships.

Non-profit secondments

Companies often have corporate social responsibility initiatives to give back to the community in some way. Non-profit secondments are one method.

In this arrangement, an employee is seconded to a non-profit organization to support community projects, contribute to social causes, and improve corporate–community relations. These secondments can last from a few months to a year.

Research and academic secondments

Educational institutions and research centers also arrange secondments. An academic or researcher can be transferred to another organization to collaborate on research projects, share knowledge, or contribute to teaching.

The duration of these secondments typically aligns with academic terms or a specific research project’s duration.

Mechanisms and practicalities

In this section, you’ll dive deeper into the details of how secondments work, including the factors you need to consider to make them effective.

How does a secondment work?

Secondments come about when a need or opportunity presents itself. This might include a development opportunity, better customer awareness, or product research, to name a few.

Any of the three participants in a secondment may identify this need and get the ball rolling. Once all three parties are on board, the secondary agreement is written so that everyone understands what is expected of them for the secondment’s duration.

Depending on the role the employee is taking on, they may undergo briefings or training sessions to prepare them for their time at the host organization.

Employment details

The secondment agreement should outline the details of the role at the host organization and ensure they align with the seconder’s and secondee’s goals.

Here are some of the common employment details outlined in a secondary agreement:

Objectives or outcomes to be achieved

The secondment is put in place to achieve a result or outcome for one or all of the three parties. Carefully outlining the purpose and expected outcomes is essential for a successful secondment.

Rights and obligations

The secondee retains all the employment rights with their original employer. However, the host organization will also have a list of policies, procedures, and regulations they expect the secondee to follow. These should be detailed in the agreement.

Continuity of employment

Although the secondee will not technically be working with their original employer for the duration of the secondment, their tenure typically continues uninterrupted. This means they can retain their seniority, pension rights, and other long-term benefits despite their lengthy departure from the company.

Secondments should also clarify whether or not the agreement supersedes any at-will obligations.

Salary and compensation

A big part of the secondary agreement is determining who pays the secondee and how much. Often, the seconder will continue paying the salary, although the host organization may reimburse the costs. This can simplify payroll, accounting, and benefits management for all involved as it reduces the number of changes required.

Duties and responsibilities

The secondee’s new role and responsibilities may change as they start working at the host organization. The secondary agreement should provide a clear definition of what these will be. The employee should have access to any necessary training to ensure the arrangement is successful.

The secondee works for the host organization and represents the seconder. Therefore, both organizations should establish clear performance metrics and accountability mechanisms for the secondee. These ensure the secondment remains aligned with each party’s business goals.

Sickness and absence policies

Policies around absences, including sickness, may vary between the organizations. This is just one example of the importance of a secondary agreement, as it helps align expectations across both companies. Where policies differ, the two organizations must come to an understanding of what will be expected of the secondee. These should be communicated to the employee clearly before the secondment begins.

Confidentiality agreements

Many organizations have proprietary or otherwise sensitive information they don’t want to be shared with others. The secondee’s obligations must be laid out if they are to access this information while performing their new duties. The same is true of any protected information they have about their original employer.

The secondee should know exactly what information they are allowed to share in each direction. Having both organizations sign off on it will avoid mishaps that could strain relations.

Conditions for completion

A secondment is a temporary arrangement. It may last for a predefined period or until predefined objectives are achieved. Both organizations need to agree on what happens when the secondment comes to an end.

The agreement should also set out a plan for reintegrating the employee into their original role. If relevant, this should include details on how to put their new skills and experiences to use.

Advantages and challenges

Secondments can fill a need, but major changes in workplace arrangements also have downsides.

Benefits of secondments

For employees

  1. Professional development: the employee can develop new skills, knowledge, and experiences.

  2. Exposure to new environments: exposure to different departments or organizations can broaden the employee’s understanding of business practices and cultures.

  3. Networking opportunities: working with different people allows the employee to grow their professional network.

  4. Enhanced job satisfaction and motivation: sometimes, a new environment with new challenges renews enthusiasm and motivation for work.

  5. Diversifying the employee’s career path: secondment may allow the employee to explore different career paths in a risk-free way.

  6. Improved adaptability and flexibility: taking on a new role in a new environment develops adaptability and flexibility.

For organizations

  1. Skill and knowledge transfer: an employee can bring back valuable skills and knowledge when they return from a secondment, which can benefit the organization’s productivity, innovation, and competitiveness.

  2. Strengthened relationships: secondments to clients, vendors, or partner organizations can strengthen business relationships.

  3. Talent retention: secondments can be an effective way to retain top talent by providing them with career growth opportunities, the chance to learn new skills, and variety.

  4. Talent attraction: an organization open to secondments could be seen as more flexible and employee-centric. It may be more attractive to top talent as a result.

  5. Leadership development: secondments can prepare an employee for a future leadership role, exposing them to new practices and challenges.

  6. Innovation and fresh perspectives: employees returning from secondments often bring new ideas and perspectives.

Disadvantages of secondments

For employees

  1. Adjustment challenges: some employees find it difficult to adjust to a new role, environment, or company culture.

  2. Risk of skill misalignment: the skills learned in the new role don’t always align well with the employee’s original role.

  3. Potential isolation: leaving coworkers can result in feelings of isolation and impact an employee’s sense of belonging.

  4. Job security concerns: employees on secondment often worry that organizational changes may impact their job security when they return.

  5. Disrupted work–life: going to a new workplace, particularly for an international secondment, can be disruptive. It can take some time to settle in and cause stress.

  6. Risk of overlooked opportunities: an employee on secondment may miss out on a promotion opportunity at their home organization.

For organizations

  1. Cost implications: the costs of secondments can add up when salary differences, travel, relocation fees, and other allowances are accounted for.

  2. Operational disruption: losing an employee can disrupt workflow and team dynamics, potentially requiring temporary replacements.

  3. Integration challenges: it can be challenging to reintegrate the employee if the secondment lasts a long time and significant changes have occurred.

  4. Risk of employee turnover: if employees enjoy their secondment experience more than their regular role, they may seek opportunities elsewhere.

  5. Confidentiality risks: even if you trust your employee not to intentionally share sensitive information, there’s a risk that it can happen inadvertently.

  6. Loss of expertise: the employee going away may have knowledge and expertise that leaves a gap in the home organization’s resources.

How to make the most of secondments

For employees

Secondments are a chance to gain new skills and experiences. Be proactive in your desire to seek out learning opportunities and use the opportunity to grow your skill set. This applies whether you’re learning a new technical skill or simply getting a fresh perspective on your role.

At the host organization, you’ll have lots of new colleagues, stakeholders, and other people to interact with. They could be important members of your professional network, opening doors to future opportunities and collaborations. Try to be outgoing and make connections.

One of the primary benefits of a secondment is exposure to new workplace cultures and ways of doing things. To get the most out of this opportunity, stay open-minded about your new role.

It’s natural to fear for your job security when you return to the home organization. Even if doing so isn’t part of the secondment agreement, keep in touch with leaders and update them on your progress and how your experiences can benefit the company. This keeps you on their radar and helps them plan for your reintegration.

For employers

Set clear objectives for the employee who will be leaving. Define what you’re aiming to achieve with the secondment and put processes in place to measure the arrangement’s success once it’s over. This will help keep the employee focused and on track.

Provide adequate support to the secondee. To start, provide any pre-secondment training they may need. During the secondment, check in regularly to gauge your employee’s progress and help them feel they are a part of your organization.

During check-ins, learn as much as you can about the new skills and experiences the employee is gaining. Use this knowledge to create a plan for their return. As they are reintegrated into the company, they should be permitted and encouraged to make use of the knowledge they gained from the secondment.

When the secondment is over, evaluate its success against the original objectives. Feedback from the employee and the host organization will help you better understand what worked well and what didn’t. You can use this knowledge to refine future secondments or decide whether you want to continue the practice at all.

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