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.
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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