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Good expat packages
By Mary van der Boon
This article first appeared in Expatrium

The key to a successful assignment lies in managing the expectations of everyone involved: the expatriate, accompanying family members, home office management and HR and local office management. These expectations must be addressed before, during and after the assignment period in the compensation, benefits, assistance and evaluation criteria that comprise the assignment package. Good expat packages come in many forms, and the trademark of the best is that they are flexible and can be tailored to meet the exigencies of differing family needs and a wide variety of assignment categories. There are generally accepted guidelines in formulating these packages, as with all good HR policy, but the one-size-fits-all approach will raise more questions and cause more HR headaches than an adaptable basket of options.

A Failure to Communicate

First-time expats often feel they have been taken advantage of by corporate HR. In not knowing what to ask for, and which parts of the package to choose, they frequently overlook important issues that will have major impact on assignment satisfaction and success. From the HR perspective, the bottom line is of paramount concern, and while they are not really taking advantage of the naiveté of the expatriate family, they are often pleasantly surprised if the new expat makes few demands of the company purse. Further, not having been expats themselves, they can’t anticipate the difficulties that lie ahead for their international managers and their families, nor can they insist that their expats avail themselves of all facilities on offer. This is particularly true for companies who are new to the international arena.

The Good Package: Phased Delivery

The following phases are critical to the success of any expat package negotiated for today’s international assignments. Make sure you have considered all the factors.

Phase One: Assignment Due Diligence
This crucial phase takes place between the assessment and selection procedure and contract signing. As described in Expatrium issue 04, this includes many diverse elements:
  • pre-assignment visit to host country for expatriate executive, partner, and older children to inspect lifestyle, housing, schooling, health and partner work/study options
  • in-depth discussions between expatriate (and spouse), business unit, HR and host country management on assignment terms and conditions including job description, assignment goals, assessment criteria and assignment duration.

After options have been weighed and agreement reached between expatriate family members to accept the assignment, and clear job descriptions and assignment conditions have been set by all concerned parties, the contract can be signed, leading to:

Phase Two: Pre-Departure
Relocation agent
Selection of a knowledgeable and reputable relocation agent is a non-negotiable aspect of all successful expatriate assignments. At the recent Association of Relocation Agents conference held in London, keynote speaker Jef McAllister, Time magazine’s London Bureau Chief, paid glowing tribute to veteran relocation specialist and ARA member Carla Roundell-Greene, founder of Chelsea-based People and Property Ltd. who went beyond the call of duty to help the McAllisters in their move from Washington to London. A good relocation agent can facilitate everything from getting the treasured family pet through quarantine to landing that coveted private school admission slot. When the expat panic button is connected to the relocation agent, and not to corporate HR, it not only ensures rapid solutions to local problems, but keeps the HR-expatriate relationship intact (and untarnished).

Cross-cultural training
Considered the key to successful intercultural adaptation, cross-cultural training provides the expatriate family with the tools to make sense of their new environment, and increases their chances for personal and professional success. Coaching for the accompanying partner is also critical, to address dual career and adjustment issues in advance and prevent these from derailing the assignment (and causing lasting, even terminal, damage to the relationship). Wherever possible requisite language training should be followed by all family members.

Phase Three: Assignment Conditions
While these will have been defined in Phase One, the impact will only be felt once the assignment is underway. The need for flexible options regarding home leave and definition of ‘dependents’ will become painfully obvious when you decide to fly your mother-in-law or younger sister out for a visit instead of going home yourself, or if your family wishes to visit Australia in a leave period instead of returning to your own country. If ‘home leave’ has been rigidly and traditionally defined, neither option will be possible, triggering long-lasting anger and resentment (and a most unpleasant e-mail war) between expatriate and HR.

The parameters of the job description and assignment goals (or lack thereof) will quickly move from the realm of theory to daily reality. If these were drafted without your input, or those of the local management, the likelihood of achieving cultural synergy over the period of your assignment just became a lot more remote. Even worse, performance appraisal and bonus and promotion options are often linked to these very goals. Aligning expectations of all concerned in this matter is one of the most important success-failure triggers in international assignments.

Phase Four: Post-Assignment
Thomas Wolfe tells us ‘we can never go home’, but this shouldn’t literally be true. The buy-back clause is crucial: is your company planning to return you to a position at least equal to the one you left to go abroad? Even better, are they planning to leverage your newly-developed management and leadership competencies within the organisation? If not, be very afraid. Mentoring and career development should be essential elements in any expatriate assignment.

Culture shock lasts a few months, but re-entry shock lasts for the rest of your life. The expatriate family returns to their home culture changed in many major and minor ways. Learning how to cope with these changes may just be the most valuable life skill you will ever master. Insist on repatriation training and assistance, including relocation agent backup, upon your return.

HR Concerns: Transparent Policy

While HR should obviously play a decisive role in the four phases of assignment policy application outlined above, macro-level International Human Resources policy design and delivery is also a requirement to attracting and maintaining top talent in your organisation.

Developing a global database and posting all expatriate positions the company is seeking to fill on company intranets (open to all applicants) will remove the taint of head-office and home country national bias that is so often attached to expatriate assessment and selection. This also addresses diversity and glass borders issues in international management by encouraging women, minority and differently abled candidates to apply.
Development of an expatriate competency profile linked to global and transnational strategy will also banish forever the spectre of patronage, cronyism, sexism and racism in expatriate selection and assessment procedures. Today’s competitive global marketplace requires a working environment which visibly demonstrates a commitment to people, and enables these people to contribute to their full potential.
IHR executives should be aware that in today’s fast-paced world assignment goals are not explicitly set in the majority of assignments, with the head office business unit often leaving the specifics of the position to be filled in by the local office. This often does not occur until after the expatriate’s arrival in the host country. For reasons ranging from local or inter-office politics to a misunderstood head-office globalisation policy, these assignment objectives are often never actually defined. When targets are made tangible, they were set in the vast majority of cases by the senior manager in the destination country, with little or no input by the expatriates themselves. In 10% of all assignments, the expatriates set the assignment goals themselves, with virtually no scorecard or appraisal attached to the process.
Ensuring expatriates have a clear understanding of company culture, business principles and corporate social responsibility policy is essential in today’s climate of accountability and stakeholder value. The OECD Guidelines for Multinationals offer up tough penalties for failure to meet generally accepted standards of practice in international business, and all company employees must be thoroughly versed in these issues.

Author Mary van der Boon is founder and principal of global tmc international management training & consulting. Mary’s work centres on intercultural communication and expatriate and inpatriate assignment management for managers and their families, cultural due diligence, global workforce and virtual team development, ethics and corporate social responsibility, diversity and women in international management. She can be reached on mary@globaltmc.com.

Developing Good Expat Packages
The Expat Top 10

The IHR Top10

  1. Assignment Due Diligence: pre-assignment visit (with family) and meetings with local office prior to signing contract
  2. Relocation assistance through reputable agent
  3. Cross-cultural coaching for family, including partner coaching and dual career assistance
  4. Contact with predecessors – overlap and debriefing
  5. Flexible home leave arrangements and broader definitions of ‘dependent’
  6. Management development objectives, including return guarantee
  7. Transparent assignment goals and job description (including assignment duration)
  8. Performance appraisal criteria and repercussions for not meeting assignment goals (or rewards for exceeding them)
  9. Define personal and corporate expectations and policy on ethics and business principles
  10. Repatriation assistance (including relocation agent backup)
  1. Global database to leverage talent and remove home-office bias
  2. Expatriate competency profile aligned with global or transnational strategy
  3. Transparent assessment and selection procedure, with close cooperation between HR, business unit and local office
  4. Assignment terms and conditions (including job description, assignment goals and duration) defined by HR, business unit and local office
  5. Compensation and benefits package including flexible options (pre-assignment visits, home leave, dependents)
  6. Cross-cultural coaching for family (in close consultation with expats), including partner coaching and dual career assistance
  7. Career objectives of assignment (management development, return guarantee)
  8. Performance appraisal and bonus criteria (linked to assignment goals)
  9. Ensure expatriates have clear understanding of company culture, business principles and corporate social responsibility policy
  10. Repatriation and career development policy

Designing an effective global HR programme

  1. Break all the ‘local national’ glass ceilings. Organisations tend to view nationals of headquarters country as potential expatriates and everyone else as "local nationals". End all favouritism towards "national" managers: such attitudes are not viable and cause resentment and dissatisfaction in today’s global business environment.
  2. Trace your lifeline. Identifying activities and positions that are critical for success is essential: such positions represent the "lifeline" of the company. The technical, functional and soft skills required for the success in each lifeline need to be defined. The lifeline and job descriptions need annual updating for effective translation into business strategy.
  3. Build a global database to know who and where your talent is. Without this, there is no way to keep track of the strategic posts scattered all over the world. It is also essential for monitoring managers’ career development.
  4. Construct a mobility pyramid. Evaluating managers as "movable" and not movable" has become outdated. It should now be viewed as a graduated scale many different levels, for instance: rooted local nationals, mobile local nationals, regionals, globals and glopats. Different levels of mobility require different HR solutions.
  5. Identify leadership capital. Using the global database, spotting talent will be much easier. Collating information such as management competencies, personal profiles and strengths in functional areas for all managers is a constructive step in this direction.
  6. Assess your bench strength and skills gap. Each executive needs to do this exercise of comparing skills and characteristics with the requirements of the current and preferred posts. This information can also become the basis for management training and development programmes.
  7. Regular recruitment. This should be both national and international. It is essential to have the reputation of a favoured and best practices employer. Demonstrating the opportunities offered for career advancement and development is one way to attract talent.
  8. Advertise your posts internally. Remove cronyism and bias and locate the best candidates by routinely advertising expatriate positions internally. This will bring in-house talent to the forefront and foster diversity in filling international slots.
  9. Institute succession planning. Each manager in the lifeline should be required to name three successors who could take over on a short-term or long-term planning basis. This would resolve the complex issue of succession planning.
  10. Retaining talent. Organisations which have good knowledge management and repatriation systems in place would enhance executive contact and continuity. This would bring down turnover, recruitment and opportunity costs.

'Ten Steps to a Global Human Resources Strategy', John A. Quelch and Helen Bloom, Strategy & Business, Booz Allen & Hamilton, issue 14, 1999. HelenBloom@compuserve.com

‘How many companies lose the wealth of experience they generate (at such cost) when employees leave after they’ve come back. It’s like investing money & then throwing it away’
Helen Bloom