With more people willing to relocate in search of their dream job, how do organisations go about selecting employees for overseas assignments?

Jerene Ang explores the top reasons for relocation as well as repatriation, and the factors mobility managers consider while selecting the perfect candidate for an overseas assignment.

It is essential for every organisation to have a mobility programme to be successful in today’s world. However, merely relocating employees to fill a business need is not enough.

In order to thrive, organisations must not only relocate staff to fill business needs, but also to aid in the career development of their future leaders.

Mobility managers are gradually moving away from traditional mobility policies which moved employees solely based on roles and budgets.

Jeslyn Ngan, manager of global mobility for AP at Mondelēz, says: “In recent years, companies are more focused on business delivery and results, hence, attention is paid to acquiring the right candidate instead of the monetary value of the relocation eventually.”

Emerging mobility trends

True enough, according to the “2015 Global Mobility Trends Survey” by Brookfield Global Relocation Services. In recent years, there has been a stronger alignment between mobility and talent management.

The survey, which polled global mobility professionals representing 143 companies across industries, showed there has been a gradual increase in organisations using international assignments to build international management experience for their leaders (from 17% in 2009 to 23% in 2015).

Anika Grant, managing director of human resources for ASEAN and Asia Pacific at Accenture, agrees with this observation and says: “In the past five years, we have seen mobility evolve to be more of a tool for talent and leadership development rather than just a way to fill a business need.”

She states the ideal situation is when both the concepts of talent and leadership development, and the business, come together and the organisation is able to “infuse the right talent to fill a gap, while providing a potential leader with a growth opportunity”.

“We have had to look at being more creative in our mobility policies to support strategic talent moves into and across our growth markets.”

Additionally, Jacob George, president of Asia and the Middle East at SIRVA Worldwide Relocation & Moving, observes that the notion of capturing mobility in terms of policies based on the duration of the assignment is quickly going away and mobility today revolves more around the assignee.

“Today, it is more of an à la carte menu of creating what meets their need, rather than fitting them in a box. Outside of immigration and tax, everything is flexible and tailored,” he says.

Also, with various generations in the workforce, he recommends putting together a policy that supports relocation across generations, by first understanding their dynamics, then tailoring a programme to support their needs.

What’s happening now?

Analysing these emerging trends can be interesting, but what are companies actually focusing on?

The Cartus “2014 Trends in Global Relocation: Global Mobility Policy and Practices” survey shows that companies are evenly divided in their options.

While 41% of them admit to offering ad hoc solutions, another 39% offer tiered programmes, while 38% of companies provide lump sum options.

In addition to these alternatives, Grant shares that Accenture’s current approach is on tailoring the mobility policies by taking “approaches different from the more ‘traditional’ relocation programmes in order to find the right answer”.

With a lot of emphasis on tailored policies, who in the organisation is responsible for creating them?

Ngan reveals that Mondelēz’s mobility policy is jointly owned by the global mobility team and the global rewards team.

Accenture takes a slightly different situation with its mobility programme being managed by the procurement team.

Grant notes that mobility is a “shared service” entity as it contains “significant inputs from human resources, finance and employee tax and immigration”.

“It is therefore owned by several stakeholder functions providing an end-to-end service for our employees who have chosen to relocate either on short-term or long-term assignments around the world each year.”

Now that we know the policies and who owns them, why do organisations today relocate employees?

A survey by Mercer in 2013 showed the biggest reasons companies offer international programmes are to provide specific technical skills not available locally (47%), to provide career management and leadership development (43%), to ensure knowledge transfer (41%) and to fulfil specific project needs (39%).

Additionally, the 2013 annual KPMG “Global Assignment Policies and Practices” report states that 72% of more than 600 organisations surveyed worldwide make use of mobility programmes to support business objectives and remain adaptable to changing requirements.

Richard Tan, vice-president of Pan Pacific for PARKROYAL Serviced Suites, agrees and observes that one of the main reasons why companies relocate employees is the shortage of skills as well as “a need to provide cross nationality exposure and job rotation within the company”.

Mondelēz’s Ngan, on the other hand, notes that one of the main reasons it relocates employees is because of business needs, “where a vacancy is created or in most cases to backfill”.

Nevertheless, “there are also instances where assignees are relocated specifically for career development purposes”.

Similarly, Grant notes that at Accenture, not every location in which it operates has the necessary skills to deliver its full services. As such, there is a need for its global relocation programme to “assist in filling the gaps in the short to medium-term, and also to build a capability for the longer term”.

“We also relocate employees that will be able to assist in developing strategic initiatives and building new and emerging markets for Accenture.”

She adds these employees “often bring with them their specific and specialised skills to enable growth”.

“Finally, we balance the business need with the talent need, and use mobility as a way of building the next generation of leaders at Accenture.”

Reading into repatriation

Repatriation is one of the ways companies can build future leaders by bringing back employees who have gained sufficient experience and exposure.

Building a global mindset is one of the key capabilities in repatriation, and Grant states that opportunities for overseas assignments is the best way to build that mindset.

As a result, Accenture has been able to use “mobility as a way to develop and groom our future leaders for a number of years”.

This is done by typically giving people an experience overseas before bringing them back home with a view of stepping into a larger leadership role.

Tan also observes its talent is usually posted overseas for a short rotation or simply to gain exposure and thus, reverse relocation happens often. He adds that an attractive relocation package is crucial in attracting them to return to their origin country.

On the other hand, Ngan is of the opinion that “it is only right for them to repatriate home upon completion of assignment”, unless there is a strong business need for them to remain in the host location, in which case, she recommends offering them a local instead of an expatriate package.

She also notes that assignees now are rather particular about the positions they are offered upon repatriation, hence, the challenge is more about how their career is planned in the early stages rather than using monetary offers to attract them to return home.

However, according to the “2013 Talent Management and the Changing Assignee Profile Report” by Cartus, 58% of companies did not offer formal repatriation integration programmes. Of those offering them, only 33% typically offered such programmes for long-term assignments.

In addition, the “2015 Global Mobility Trends Survey” by Brookfield Global Relocation Services found that most of the repatriation discussions only happen less than six months before a candidate returns (52%).

Also, more than a third (36%) of companies still do not have a formal written repatriation policy.

From the discussion above, with regards to repatriation, it seems there is a gap in the intentions of organisations and what they actually do in terms of what the research shows.

Factors considered when relocating employees

The “2015 Global Mobility Trends Survey” also found that when selecting candidates for international assignments, mobility managers consider if they are a high-potential employee (85%) and their willingness to go on an assignment (77%).

They also identify if the candidate has specific or rare skills (65%), their inclination towards cultural adaptability (31%), and if they have previous assignment experiences (31%).

Tan notes that factors considered when relocating employees are “largely skill-based – aiming to fit the role that is experiencing a shortage”.

Ngan agrees and adds it also expects them to be mature and able to deliver business results, while Grant says the company looks for high performers or employees with high potential.

Apart from that, they also look for adaptability, perseverance and an open mind, which “ensures that they are best suited to handle the inherent differences in both cultural and business environments in their new host country”.

Some of these skills sound like they can be learnt, but what about others?

Grant reasons that at Accenture, the primary objective of globally relocating an employee is to fill a need in terms of a job requirement or skill that may not be present in a particular host country’s workplace.

“It’s not often that we relocate employees without the necessary skills to perform the task at hand, due to the nature of our business, which comprises substantial project work on tight delivery timelines.”

However, she states it encourages the sharing of skills during assignments as it will help the company “remain innovative and competitive on both the local and global scale”.

“We encourage and support our relocated employees to share their skills while on assignment with their local counterparts, which really helps to facilitate a unique transfer of information from one part of the world to another.”

Other than skills, Ngan reveals that a candidate’s “family situation” is also considered when short-listing candidates for relocation.

Watch out for the challenges

Speaking of family, 61% of the respondents from the Cartus “2014 Trends in Global Relocation: Global Mobility Policy and Practices” survey listed the inability of the candidate’s family to adjust as the second top reason contributing to assignment failure.

Additionally, 76% cited family or personal circumstances as the top reason why employees turn down assignments. Acknowledging the family factor as a challenge, Grant says it is crucial to ensure the candidate’s family is happy and settled.

“If someone is moving with their partner or family, we also recognise that ensuring the family is happy and settled will be critical. Often, an overseas assignment fails not because the individual on assignment is not successful, but their family is not able to successfully integrate into the new environment.

“If the assignment is a temporary move, ensuring smooth integration back into the home country is something that requires a proactive and thoughtful approach.”

Cartus’ “Trends in Global Relocation: 2014 Biggest Challenges” survey listed the top three challenges for mobility managers as controlling relocation/assignment costs (77%), housing (47%) and complying with laws and regulations (45%).

Ngan agrees, observing that “people moving into countries with a high cost of living tend to set a higher standard for their next move and more often than not, try to avoid moving backwards”.

This, in turn, affects the cost of relocation packages organisations offer to candidates.

This view resonates with Grant, who adds, “Particularly in the Middle East and parts of Asia, it has proved challenging to balance the cost of the mobility assignment against ensuring a suitable cost of living, while having a compelling proposition to our people”.

In the same backdrop, Ngan feels that “relocating to emerging markets, especially to Southeast Asia countries”, is a challenge because of their immigration policies.

Here, Tan observes that with the increasing difficulty to attain Employment Passes (EPs) in Singapore, mobility managers face a challenge with “visa requirements as the policies typically help to protect locals”.

Other challenges which result in candidates turning down assignments, he points out, are “unattractive packages” and “lack of career development plans for these mobility candidates”.

Adds Ngan: “Businesses demand people of a certain skill set and are willing to pay everything and anything to have that candidate on board. However, they eventually do not have a plan for them after two or three years.”

What comes next?

Repatriation, identification of mobility skills, and linking the strategy to career development are all current areas of focus, and the interviewees go on to provide their views of further evolution in the function.

Ngan feels the mobility function will not deviate too much from its current stance, because “we are already a part of the new world where organisations go through a thorough thought process before deciding to relocate their people due to business requirements”.

Tan also feels there are some aspects of mobility that will not change.

“Mobility has and always will be highly dependent on the specialised skills needed for the particular role. Cross country exposure will continue to remain necessary to provide overseas experience of its employees as part of their job development.”

That said, he also notes mobility will not remain completely stagnant in the future.

“We will see an increase in job rotation to gain overseas experience more than permanent relocation.”

Grant identifies two key mobility trends for the future.

“Firstly, there is a need to be more proactive and to use mobility as a way to build the next generation of leaders – leaders who can navigate ambiguity, are comfortable with change and inclusive in all senses of the word.

“Secondly, we are seeing more ‘global citizens’ – people, like myself, who have lived and worked in multiple countries and are prepared to move on their own initiative, actually preferring that to a formal assignment in order to have control over timing and ensure a truly ‘local’ experience for them and their family.”

She notes in both cases, a global experience will be very compelling “career capital” for the future.

Image: Shutterstock

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