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Three Tips to Avoid Mobility Program Start-up Messes

One of the most common types of consulting I am involved in is in global mobility program start-up. Sometimes it’s companies moving their first international transfer. More often though, the company realizes they’ve done a couple of assignments or transfers on an ad-hoc basis and as a result they have kind of a mess to figure out. Some of the messes I’ve seen include excessive cost and overpayments, inequities between similar employees, costly mistakes and assumptions, unnecessary employee hardships, employee resignations and failed assignments. In one weird case, I was asked to recommend solutions to a situation where all local hires had been given full expat benefits to keep things fair with the sole expat employee, but that’s a whole other story!

The leadership in companies involved in these messes are usually smart and want to do what’s right, so how does the mess happen? I believe the key is found in the two phrases above, “ad-hoc” and “assumptions”. Under the pressure of getting a single assignment underway quickly, HR leaders are forced to make compromises, to guess and to assume. Also, because these are typically company firsts, there is also little in the way of policy, guidelines or precedent to follow. This forces decision-making without careful or analytical eyes toward the future.

What are the ways companies can avoid these mistakes and assure their mobility program gets started on the right footing? Here are my top 3 things to remember when making these initial steps:

  • The first is not the last.  Recognize that the work you are doing in getting this first employee to wherever they are going is going to set precedence for the future, whether you like it or not.  This mentality allows you to think through and plan how you want to manage not just the situation but the overall program.  For HR leaders it also allows you to be the strategic voice in the room with the business.  It also allows the company to invest in the time and expertise to make good decisions.  This isn’t about getting Fritz to New Jersey or Susan to Paris, it’s about all future employees.  Be careful with the decisions you make for the individual case in front of you because it’s inevitable that patterns will be replicated from these decisions.
  • There is no “one size” fits all.  I wish I had the proverbial nickel for every time someone has asked me for a template mobility policy they could borrow.  And by that, I know they didn’t mean just a policy format, they really wanted a mobility policy they could just replicate and start using.  Your company wouldn’t just borrow it’s compensation or benefits policies, or it’s talent or business plans (at least I hope not), nor should it just copy a mobility policy.  The decisions that drive these policies depend on numerous factors, including your industry, business goals, talent strategy, corporate culture and other factors.  Approaches to mobility are incredibly diverse.  I have clients successfully move 100% of their staff using almost a pure localization approach, and others that offer rich, traditional expat policies.  Neither is wrong and neither would work for the other.  It’s important to do the work early in devising an approach that is effective for your company.
  • Not knowing is OK.  I had a friend call me recently to ask me what I knew about assignment letters in Vietnam.  This is someone with 25+ years in Mobility and a true expert in expat tax, compensation and mobility policies, someone I would and have called for advice.  But in this case, he recognized this was something he didn’t know and was seeking council.  HR leaders need to be unembarrassed that they must seek expertise, whether we’re talking about a US domestic transfer, or a global assignment.  Recognize that mobility crosses multiple specialties, tax, employment law, immigration, compensation, benefits, relocation and components of each of these that no one should be ashamed to seek expertise and council.  Fortunately, the Mobility industry is filled with resources to provide this expertise for virtually any situation imaginable.  While sometimes companies are reluctant to pay for this expertise, recognizing that by doing so you are avoiding huge potential issues, not just for this single employee, but potentially all future employees.   This expertise is risk mitigation, the benefits of which last far into the future.

The reality is that in today’s business environment there is always extreme pressure to move things forward quickly, cheaply, and easily. Certainly, being the person to slow things down and encourage a more strategic, longer term view can range from uncomfortable to impossible. But we should at least recognize that, as in many things, when dealing with mobility decisions not addressing fundamentals early means we’re just pushing more pain into the future. We’re putting that pain on a virtual credit account payable with interest, due at some future date.

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear your comments on the topic and how HR leaders have helped their organizations adapt these three tips.

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