How to Develop Effective International Assignment Policies

Alan Freeman – LOF International HR Solutions

During a recent conversation a colleague shared some frustration she was feeling. “I’ve read lots of articles and attended conferences where we’re told what we “should” be doing with our International Assignments (“IA”) policies on the basis of what everybody else is doing with theirs. What I’m not hearing is how to go about structuring our program in a way that really makes sense for our company. Where do we start? Who should be involved? What steps are necessary?”

“True”, I said. “We hear a lot about best practices such as keeping the spouse happy, increasing flexibility, controlling costs, keeping exceptions to a minimum and conducting benchmarking studies to find out what everyone else is doing. That’s all well and good but if your company sells luxury consumer goods in the best department stores in the largest cities of the world, do you think that practices that work well for mining companies in rural West Africa or at 14,000 feet in the Andes Mountains will be relevant and useful?”

“Exactly – they wouldn’t!” she said, “so what should we do?”

Let’s start with The Prime Directive. Simply put, your IA policies and program exist to help your company achieve its business objectives by having the right talent, in the right places, at the right times, doing the right things. Clearly, your company’s business objectives define what the various “right items” will be. Is this another way of saying you must start by truly understanding your business? Yes, of course!

“OK, that makes sense” she said, “then what?”

Well, now it’s time to go about structuring your program. A process that has proven to work well follows these steps:

Assemble a Policy Development Team

To often, policy development is left up to a Global Mobility department or single HR staffer working in a vacuum.  This generally is not effective. Utilizing teams of key stakeholders provides greater breadth of ideas, broader input from key functions and business operating units, and greater understanding of and buy-in to the end product. The team must be led by someone with significant depth of IA program expertise and include Global Mobility, Tax, Accounting, Payroll, HR Business partners from units that utilize international assignments, etc. Bringing in expert consultants and specialty service providers, e.g. immigration, international tax, global security firms, etc. can pay large dividends as well.

Conduct Benchmarking

There are two types of benchmarking to consider. First, conduct internal surveys of line managers who make use of IAs, and current and former assignees themselves. These groups can provide a wealth of information as to what has been working and what has not. They further can often make great suggestions for new approaches worth considering.

Second, do take a look at market practices through both generally available surveys and, potentially, custom surveys more precisely focused upon your company’s industry and competitors. This can help generate ideas and help gauge competitive positioning. Be careful, however, to not only look at what companies are doing but also to ask how well those practices are working. It’s amazing how many times I’ve heard a colleague say “we do ____” and in the next breath, say “and I’d change that practice in a heartbeat if my management would allow me to!” Another caution about benchmarking is that it’s imperative to consider the policy package as a whole and how the many provisions work together in total. There is a definite tendency toward getting caught up on individual line items and, hence, “lose sight of the forest for staring at the trees”.

Draft a Policy Structure

Put together the first array of policy provisions that make sense given the demographic, geographic and time variables dictated by The Prime Directive. Make sure they integrate and work together in a consistent and holistic manner.

Model the Costs

The first question executive management is likely to ask when the new program is presented for approval is not, “how does it meet our business needs?” It’s assumed that it will. The first question is, “what’s it going to cost?” If you are reengineering an existing IA program you’ll need to show the difference in costs between the proposed and existing programs.

Fortunately, there are many applications and providers that make cost modeling relatively straightforward.

Test Your Ideas as You Go

One of the worst ways to achieve buy-in on your ideas is to keep them to yourself and spring them on someone only at the end. If you communicate as you go through the process, sharing what you’re thinking about and soliciting inputs, that engagement frequently gives the other a sense of having had input and influence on the final product. Those who feel they had input are much more likely to respond positively. Their inputs may well have a lot of value as well.

In a larger corporate environment this could be done via periodic progress update meetings.

Finalize and Implement

In pursuing the steps above, you’ll ultimately obtain approval to proceed. Prepare the necessary communications and implementation materials. If you are reengineering an existing program, you’ll have already determined whether current assignees will be “grandfathered” under their old terms, converted to the new terms, or converted with some sort of buy-out provision.

When you have it all in place, move ahead.

Continually Evaluate and Improve

Finally, when you implement your new program, be sure you’ve also built in metrics and processes for determining how well it’s working on an ongoing basis. You can’t have anticipated everything that will ultimately be encountered and change happens! Be ready to be flexible and make program adjustments “on the fly”.

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8 responses to “How to Develop Effective International Assignment Policies

  1. I was interested in the relationship between this article and PM. IMO, The process above relates to Project Management, but very remotely. I could not accurately locate the initiating, planning, execution, monitoring, and closing phases in your article (which are the 5 phases of Project Management).

    For example is “Assemble a Policy Development Team” part of the initiating phase, or part of the planning.

  2. Thank you for your observations. Indeed, you are quiet correct that this was not intended as a primer in Project Management. Rather, my goal was to emphasize several key areas that are often missed by HR/Global Mobility departments when they create or reengineer their policies and programs:
    1. Work with the end result – maximizing staff mobility – in mind at all times.
    2. Don’t do the work by yourself. Involve all key stakeholders, subject matter experts and decision makers from the beginning – and keep them involved.
    3. Don’t just follow the herd. Be sure your approaches fit your company’s unique culture and operational needs.
    4. Always work from the perspective of the total package, don’t get caught up in matching line item provisions to what others are doing.

  3. Thanks for the quick answer Alan.

  4. Alan – As always, an excellent summary for a very complex topic.

    I would like to add one more thought around benchmarking. While it is quite common to benchmark competitors or companies in your sector for compensation and benefits, when benchmarking IA policy is often better to consider companies with similar IA populations and similar program goals, regardless of sector.

    Many of the key policy decisions for an IA policy will revolve around how assignments are integrated into career and succession planning. Are the assignments all out and back “boomerang” assignments, or do assignments go back-to-back? Is the assignee population strictly high-level executives, or are lower level staff included? What are the assignment objectives typically encountered (i.e., development, skills transfer, projects, operating the business, etc.)?

    If you answer these questions, then you can look for other organizations with similar assignment objectives for benchmarking. For example, if you have many back-to-back assignments for a global cadre of assignees, comparing to other companies that also take that approach will give you rich information to design your policy, since these organizations are likely to have considered many of the same challenges your company is facing.


  5. One thing I don’t see here – though I’m sure this is simply a matter of emphasis – is some consideration for where in the world you’re sending people, and what you’re asking them to do there. Any company that is sending IAs to different regions (say, Northern Europe and Southeast Asia) is going to have to take those differences into account in determining who they send, and what you expect of them when they get there.

    This is where ‘benchmarking’ makes me nervous, because it’s very easy to get crossed up on apples-and-oranges comparisons. The author makes the point well that this can occur between different industries or economic sectors; I hope folks will remember that this also includes different areas of the world and the different cultures of your partners.

  6. Thanks for your comments Warren and Bill. These are useful but do start to drill down further into the details than I had intended.

    Bill, I share your anxiety about benchmarking not only for the reasons you stated but also because I’ve too often seen people use the “it’s what everyone else is doing” excuse for not carefully thinking through their company’s unique circumstances and designing programs to specifically address them.

    Hmmm, given your inputs maybe a blog specifically on the good, the bad, and the ugly of benchmarking would be interesting to our readers. What do you think?

  7. Great article Alan! In our 18 month long redesign effort over 3 different types of international assignments/transfers I emphasized a combination of what you and Warren suggest in my benchmarking and determination of market position. I found that you need to consider not just industry as well as comparable programs, but where you want to be as a program. Looking at mature, established programs gives you insight so you can structure for the future while the other data helps you determine what you may need to do in the short term.
    As noted, this only gets more complex based on your business and where you do it!

  8. Hi Alan –
    this was a really great article with a lot of great insights and tips! Thanks!