These are the thoughts and takeaways from the latest Reward and Mobility Think Tank (R&MTT) held on Thursday 20th November 2014, hosted by Crown Worldwide Group’s Eileen Girling (HR Director UK, Ireland & Northern Europe) titled ‘International Assignments: How to Strategically Align Business Needs and Add Value to the Individual’.
The following summary has been prepared to reflect a segment of the discussion held amongst senior HR and Reward and Mobility professionals from leading national and international businesses. Specific company details, experiences and examples have been omitted from this summary as all discussions are held under ‘Chatham House Rules’.
As more and more businesses become global, naturally a greater volume of employees are being sent on international assignments. This has led to a need for global mobility programmes and teams to oversee these assignments, ensuring they are as successful as possible, both for the business and employee. This summary will look into the reasons these global mobility programmes are important and best practice for the company and employee when taking on international assignments.
It is important to note that for global mobility programmes to be supported by the business there needs to be a clear business case for moving the person in terms of the costs and benefits of doing so. Consideration needs to include questions such as ‘what cost would be encountered if the person doesn’t go?’ and ‘what costs will there be in implementing the international assignment?’. HR should be able to offer advice to the business on the implementation of international assignments and whether they are worth it.
Why are global mobility programmes important?
- Knowledge transfers (competitive advantage)
In international businesses employees need to have the knowledge of how the whole company works by understanding work life, culture, operations and style in different countries’ offices. The best way to do this is by going to work in these different areas. This gives them an understanding of what would work for some areas of the business and not for others. This is especially important for decision makers in a company. International assignments are also a good way to transfer different skillsets to varied areas of the business.
- Internal networking / collaboration
Sometimes two people working on the same project can sit thousands of miles apart and it is essential they can work with each other and understand one another’s needs. If they have at least met or seen each other’s environments this is more likely to be successful.
- Understanding different customers and markets
If decisions are made in one country and rolled out to other locations in the business they may not always be successful. There needs to be a clear understanding of the customer groups for every country / location in order to develop a product and proposition that these customers will buy.
- Talent attraction
In this day and age employees often expect global opportunities, for these to be delivered well and that they will be supported throughout this process. This may be a consideration before joining a company and therefore, if these programmes are not offered the business may be missing out on top talent.
- Retention of best talent
International assignments can keep people motivated and help with their progression in and understanding of the business. Also, in times where some markets aren’t as good, it can be possible to retain talent by moving them to roles worldwide.
- Customer Satisfaction
Clients have expectations that there is consistency within a company, whichever country they may be dealing with. They expect employees to have global knowledge of the company and the expertise to be able to advise on different locations’ situations and processes.
How to select and attract talent
- Push versus pull
Companies can advertise internally for international assignments and in some instances employees may put themselves forward due to wanting to develop their own knowledge and increase their chances of career progression. It then needs to be decided if they would be right to move globally and have the correct skills needed in the new area.
Having an appropriate ‘ready-now’ pool is important in helping react quickly to international assignments. It is often a good idea to inform these candidates that they are in this pool so that they are prepared to take on the assignments when notice may be short. Some companies build this pool by asking candidates if they are willing to move around internationally within the application process.
In other instances it may be that the company need someone with a certain skillset to work internationally that has not volunteered. Either way communication is essential throughout the whole process. However, for people less willing to take on the assignment communication of what it offers them is crucial. Expectations should be set for what the experience will be like and how the company will support the employee. This can include talking to employees who have previously been on international assignments, a guide of the things that are the individual’s responsibilities and what the company will help with. Some companies even display global mobility processes on their website or have internal comms for employees to read over and decide if moving internationally would suit them. Communication of all the benefits the individual will be getting from international assignments is key. Some employees may just consider salary changes but they need to be made aware of how this move will help them in their career progression.
Some companies go as far as not offering positions at an executive level until an employee has done at least a certain amount of international assignments. In others the pull comes from employees who see that all the executives in the company have worked internationally and believe that this may improve their chances of reaching this level.
Companies can also target international students for these types of assignments. They employ them whilst studying internationally and send them on assignments in their home country. This means they have a good understanding of both cultures.
Best practice for global mobility
As previously discussed communication is key. This is not just before the move but throughout the assignment so that the employee feels in touch with what is going on back home. They need to know exactly what they will be coming back to and which skills they need to develop for this. Honesty in setting expectations is essential so that the employee knows exactly what is expected of them and has a realistic understanding of what moving internationally will mean. People’s perception of a country may be very different to reality and these need to be aligned by education and communication. Employees should also be encouraged to do their own research on what the international assignment would mean for them.
- Trial periods
Giving the employee a trial period abroad can be a good way to see how they suit working internationally and may make an assignment seem less daunting to them.
Understanding what matters to the employee is essential in order to know what needs to be included in their international package and what support they need for the assignment to be successful. If two people of similar levels are both travelling internationally they will expect the majority of the same package with only a few changes which may be due to personal circumstances. Dependant on the level of role the employee is in there are different expectations for what should be included within an international assignment. Higher level roles often expect more support and reward from the company for moving internationally. It is important to remember that employees talk and therefore consistency for the same levels is key when possible. However, packages also need to be realistic as what is offered cannot then be taken away as this could lead to serious dissatisfaction.
Some of the things that companies offer in international assignment packages are: temporary accommodation, legal help (tax consultations), international bank accounts, moving of possessions, help with finding a permanent home and travel costs back to their home country. However, companies can sometimes get caught up on harder aspects and not focus on the softer needs of employees such as help integrating into the new culture.
- Setting expectations and support
Individuals need to take some responsibility for their role in making an international assignment successful but to do this they need to be educated by the company. If the company sends someone off and helps them for the first few months but then no further help is offered an employee may feel lost with no help and ultimately have to end the assignment or leave the business. Therefore clear expectations and guidelines of how they should set themselves up should be offered. Transparency also needs to be present when discussing what coming back to their home country will involve and the role and level they will come back to and how the business will support them fit in with this.
In some cases ex-pats can tend to form groups and stick together when moved internationally. However, if the company wants the individual to truly understand the different culture and style of organisation this may not be beneficial. Therefore, it needs to be made clear that integration is expected of them and support needs to be given to help them do this. Employee’s families / partners may also need support. Often support is offered by an HR Business Partner who can go between HR, the business and the employee to ensure communication is consistent and correct and that the necessary assistance is being offered to both the employee and their family. There needs to be clear ownership of employees on international assignment from their home country so that they know who to get in touch with and are being communicated with and updated by the home offices.
Consultancies such as Crown Worldwide can partner with companies to help with necessary research and support when looking at international assignments.
An option that can help with attraction to international assignments, and also counts as international integration for employees, is having a training course held in one country for all new recruits globally. This enables international employees to meet each other which should lead to better communication between them when starting the role in their home country. It also leads to employees feeling more comfortable with international assignments due to already knowing employees in the selected country.
Due to the cost of global mobility programmes it is essential to be able to measure if an international assignment is cost effective and to be able to demonstrate to the business how successful it was. This can be done by assessing the below factors:
- Tracking talent – where are these people are going in the business after international assignments. Are they top performers and moving up in the business at a good pace? Are they still with the business?
- Did the employee meet expectations of the business case for why they were moved into a new location?
- Has this been a success for the individual? Has it benefited their family and own personal goals?
- Is there clear knowledge / skill-set increase?
Risks / challenges:
- Accommodation can differ hugely and is dependent on the country; due to living costs and type of accommodation in the area. This can be hard to keep global mobility .consistent as some employees may not want to go to certain areas due to a lower standard of living. Locals for the company could also feel disgruntled as they see an expat come in and be treated differently when they feel they are doing the same job, in the same setting.
- In harder economic times it can be a challenge to get employees to want to move internationally as they often want to stay in their home country due to fear that they may lose a role there when they want to come back if they move.
- There are different types of international assignments – business trips, short assignments and expat longer term assignments. These differing assignments may all need differing levels of support and time spent on them. For example when selecting candidates for longer term assignments more consideration needs to be taken as candidates need to be able to adapt long term to differing cultures. If the wrong person is selected it could result in wasted time, money and even losing that employee.
- Some people just aren’t suited – the culture of the company needs to make it acceptable for people to return from international assignments if they are not enjoying them without being branded a failure, to ensure these trips are not seen as intimidating and having a negative career impact.
- The culture of the company also needs to make it acceptable for employees to nominate to move abroad without being seen as bored in their current job. Line managers need to be open to discussions for people wanting to move internationally.