10 Rules of the Road for Your Expatriate Program – Part II

bio_400x400 Author:
Chuck Csizmar – CMC Compensation Group

Last week I posted the first five of ten “Rules of the Road” for managing your expatriate program.  I hope you enjoyed reading them.  In this post, I’ve included the five remaining rules.  Enjoy!

Rule #6: Always have a Backup Candidate
It is very important to avoid a scenario where management believes that only one person is capable of handling the assignment.  If all your plans are dependent upon one candidate, and your choice discovers this (they usually do), the assignment from that point will likely become more contentious, problematic, internally disruptive and ultimately more expensive.  You will have lost leverage when trying to apply Company policies, demands for exceptional treatment will increase, costs will rise as a result and the likelihood of equity issues with other employees will increase.

Having a second choice will enable you to more easily finalize an equitable package of terms and conditions, test the candidates’ genuine interest in the overseas assignment and lower inflated egos down to earth.

Rule #7: Do Not Play “Let’s Make a Deal”
Everyone tends to lose on this slippery slope.  The expatriate community is a small group that will eventually learn of any special deals someone received that others did not.  While the expatriate policy document should provide a “safety valve” for approved discretionary exceptions covering extraordinary circumstances, be mindful of creating precedents where the sole reason is to placate an employee (or their spouse).  This problem can be a major dissatisfier for the rest of your community.  Explore cost sharing and trade-offs with the expatriate to mitigate the perception of inequitable treatment.

Certain employees, especially those with a sales background or like temperament, may view many aspects of the assignment terms and conditions as negotiable, simply because it is in their nature to question or challenge what they consider is the Company’s “initial offer”.

A word of caution:  if the employee considers the international assignment less as a wonderful career opportunity and more as a “favor” to the Company, the warning signs should be posted that this might not be a good match.

Rule #8: Have a “Hand-Holder” in Place
Another key to a successful assignment is to provide a ‘go-to” person in the host country for the myriad questions that will crop up as soon as the assignee arrives.  Set up a local contact point for host country issues, expatriate experiences and administrative fulfillment of the assignment terms.  Insist that the assignee utilize this person, not their manager, co-workers or even well-intentioned HR people unfamiliar with the expatriate program.  This go-to person should have the authority to make decisions, to “handle” whatever the question might be.

While this sounds like an easy step do not assume that anyone would automatically take this task to heart.  Left to their own devices, host country employees often find it difficult to invest the time to help assignees understand local business conditions and culture.  Thus you need to make it someone’s responsibility.

Likewise there should be a contact person in the home country as well, a designated individual prepared to handle policy interpretations, provide advice on navigating procedures and assuming responsibility for the home administration of the assignment terms.

Rule #9: Do Not Forget That They’re out There
A successful assignment requires constant attention from both the home and host country contacts.  Communication should be frequent, as should the “check-up” calls to gauge the assignee’s temperament.  For example, does the assignee understand the COLA calculations, have any payroll or currency exchange issues arisen, is the family acclimating well, are there issues the assignee would like to discuss?  A key source of dissatisfaction for assignees and their families is a feeling of being “out in the provinces” and therefore out of touch with what is happening back at the office they have left.  Make every effort to ensure that they do not feel marginalized, taken for granted or forgotten.

Make sure the assignee has a Mentor (as compared to a hand holder) back in the home country as well, a Senior Management-level individual charged with representing the assignee’s career interests during the assignment.  This person should schedule periodic career discussions with the assignee.

Rule #10: Have an Exit Strategy
All too frequently companies are at a loss as to what to do with expatriates who have successfully completed their assignments.  It is not uncommon for assignees to leave the Company upon their return from overseas or within the following year, because either no suitable position was available in the home country or what was available was a diminished or less visible role.

After incurring the huge expense for an employee to develop deeper and broader competencies on the international stage, it is a wise business practice to pay close attention as to how best to utilize that increasingly marketable (and therefore valuable) talent when the assignment ends.  Without due care and planning the career cycle of an assignee is left as an afterthought, one that usually crops up late in the assignment;  meanwhile the assignee has been worried (and thus distracted) for a much longer period of time.

While there are no guarantees that future positions will be available back home for employees presently working overseas, the international assignment letter should at least state that the Company will attempt to secure a “mutually agreeable position of similar stature” upon completion of the assignment.  It is in the best interest of the Company and the assignee to carefully plan for a successful repatriation.

Follow though
Well, that’s my list of ten rules.  The road ahead has curves, dips and more than its share of bumps and potholes.  However, if you manage to keep these sign posts in mind (commit them to memory, post them on the wall, send and resend them to managers), the experience does not have to be an endurance course for all concerned.

You will need to keep at it though (persistence is its own reward), because there is no pill or “Easy Button” that will magically ease the journey.  There is no cure for the realities that expatriate assignments will always be costly, procedurally complex and a personal as well as professional risk for those involved.  But by adhering to your own “rules of the road” your expatriate program can reap significant benefits: lower assignment costs, business objectives achieved, satisfied employees and host management, retained and developed talent and ultimately greater overall business success.  It can be done.

More rules?
Do you have rule that I did not include in my top ten?  Please, leave a comment and share your insights with the community.

More About Chuck:

7 responses to “10 Rules of the Road for Your Expatriate Program – Part II

  1. Hello Chuck,

    I agree fully with your ten “rules of the road”, to use the American phrase, of successful expatriate management.

    One thing I would add is the necessity of offering not only the traditional cultural orientation training session for the assignee and spouse/family, but also coaching or mentoring for the assignee and separately for the spouse on arrival.

    The assignee benefits enormously from coaching on adapting to the different business practices as well as how to lead in his/her new environment. Mentoring on site from a more experienced expatriate can be very helpful if such a person had an objective approach that was respectful of all cultures concerned. Whether the assistance is coaching from a certified, culturally competent global coach, or mentoring from a qualified mentor, what matters is that the assignee has a reliable source of assistance to help him/her adjust to the new work environment, adapt leadership style to the new context, and learn to succeed in a different ball game.

    The spouse can be the “make it or break it” link to the success of an international assignment. Many times, this person, most often a wife, benefits greatly from coaching in the host country to deal with all the confusing perplexity of adjusting to a new life in an unfamiliar culture that may or may not be hospitable or easy to navigate.

    Such coaching and mentoring can make the difference between a successful international assignment and failure within the first few months in the host country. Furthermore, the assignee’s boss must be aware of the challenges and be actively supportive, especially when the cultural differences are significant, such as expatriating from Japan to the U.S. I’ve personally been engaged to help with such a situation when it was too late. Such loss is significant to the individuals involved and costly to the company.

    Carolyn Feuille, President
    Esprit Global Learning
    *Developing global savvy in leaders and teams with Polaris® Global Leadership 360º Assessment
    *Preparing international managers and their families for successful international assignments
    +1 530-264-7008 office

  2. Thanks for expanding on the importance of both the cultural orientation and the role of the spouse in a successful international assignment.

    It is disturbing to see how easily companies commit huge sums to pay for an expatriate experince, yet bauk at spending the token monies necessary to improve the selection process and the preparation for the candidate and family for the adventure ahead.

  3. Your list is very good – you’ve covered a lot of things that companies get wrong, a lot of the time. Two points deserve additional emphasis – I think they’re inherent in your list, but they’re worth pulling out:

    • Do your homework. Too often, companies know 1-3 facts about a new market or country, and dive in on that basis. I was on a radio show yesterday, and an employee from a company considering doing business in Kuwait called in. His company had done a little bit of work in Europe, but nothing in the Middle East, and it seemed pretty clear that this guy’s company had very little idea what it was getting itself into. Research is so easy to do these days–why do so few do it?

    • Know your people. Your points are very well taken–especially regarding having backup candidates in case of problems, or refusal. But the reality is that the international arena is so complex that it’s very hard to tell if someone is going to succeed based solely on reading their resume. Once you’ve done your homework and understand the market you’re sending someone into, you’d better make sure they’re the right person for that job–on all characteristics, not just the technical skills of your industry.

    Bill Ayres
    VP for Action
    Bruce Alan Johnson Associates
    Co-author of “Carry a Chicken In Your Lap, Or Whatever It Takes To Globalize Your Business”

    • Good points for emphasis, Bill. Yesterday I was talking with a company planning their first overseas employment, and it was clear that they had little idea of the human costs involved.

      Often it is the operational folks (not HR) shouting ” d*** the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” as they demand a quick entry into a country. Therein lies the danger, the expense, and the higher risk of assignment failure. I remember my old Boy Scout motto, be prepared!

      Regarding the people selection I’ve too often seen a candidate list of one – an employee who is technically capable of doing the job. With that single criteria and no backup assignments are often condemned to high cost, host country frictions, likely failure or all three!

  4. Thanks a lot for a very useful tips, Chuck.

    I would add one point – Understand the reason for the assignment and have a relevant terms and conditions outlined especially for your particular case through an estabilished policy. I believe the cost you incur in terms of time and payments should include risk analysis for the certain type of the assignment you approve. Therefore, it might be useful to have a different approach for development assignments for the future benefit versus critical skills required at the host location at the moment. This might be helpful when you face risk of attrition at the end of the assignment, though everything will depend on the right recruitment and selection at the beginning of the assignment.

  5. You make a useful point for all of us to remember, Fakhrin, and that is that one size does not fit all situations. For assignments with different purposes it makes sense to ensure that those purposes are kept in mind when developing the terms and conditions for the assignee. It will help with the selection process, the assignment duration and with the ultimate repatriation process.

  6. Chuck, Why do you think companies are reluctant to pay relatively small amounts for family or employee adjustment coaching, given the extremely high cost of expatriate assignments?