Mobility Officers on the Move

Relocation specialists are moving from the transactional to the strategic.

By Eric Krell Mar 1, 2011
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As organizational relocation programs become more strategic and less transactional in nature, the role of the HR mobility specialist is transforming. The responsibilities that define this breed of mobility professional resemble the job specifications for a chief procurement officer, a chief talent officer, a chief operating officer, a chief risk officer—or, in some cases, all of these positions combined.

"It's not just 'relocation' anymore," says Stephen McGarry, director of global mobility for WPP Group, a New York-based global advertising and public relations company. "It's really 'mobility.' "

Mobility professionals at large and mid-size companies set and manage mobility policies executed by internal business partners as do chief operating officers; help identify employees best suited for mobility opportunities as do talent officers; select and manage a portfolio of external service providers as do supply chain or procurement executives; and rigorously sniff out and mitigate potential tax, immigration and talent problems like a risk officer.

"When you occupy a senior-level mobility position," adds McGarry, "you work closely with chief talent officers, CEOs, COOs and other senior leaders—not only in moving them but in communicating with them on a daily basis to keep them informed of what's going on in your realm."

Eric Halverson, senior manager of global mobility for eBay Inc., agrees, noting that many mobility professionals have moved further upstream in their organizations' strategic decision-making process. "On a tactical basis," Halverson explains, mobility officers ensure "that all of these cogs are working smoothly and in sync."

At eBay, Halverson manages an average 600 to 800 employee moves annually. Although the complexities and risks that accompany international relocations can be staggering, the fundamental role of mobility professionals within mid-size and smaller companies appears to be expanding in a similar fashion to their large-company counterparts.

Internal and External Roles 

Halverson and McGarry's roles within their companies appear similar. Their responsibilities include:

  • Setting mobility policies.
  • Partnering with their organizations' talent acquisition and talent management teams.
  • Managing external vendors that specialize in components of mobility.

These include immigration, tax and relocation services. Relocation services cover an array of activities: shipping household goods, temporary housing, expense tracking, counseling and more.

WPP hires relocation services companies to move household goods, buys housing cost and cost-of-living data from external providers, and uses external tax and legal specialists on a case-by-case basis. Staff members operate other mobility processes, including cost projections of transfers, offer letters, employee counseling, expense tracking, and related accounting and compensation activities.

At eBay, Halverson is involved in moves related to hiring new employees, transfers and promotions of current employees, and temporary assignment of current employees.

Relocation service providers report that their clients are rethinking how they manage mobility. "We see roles expanding on a global basis," reports Ellie Sullivan, director of consulting solutions for Weichert Relocation Resources in Norwell, Mass. "We also see more focus on benchmarking and building 'best in class' programs. Instead of just approving expenses or exceptions, relocation professionals are embracing more strategic questions." Those questions may cover whether:

  • Company policy is competitive.
  • Policy advances the company's growth strategy.
  • Moves achieve a target "time to deploy" metric.
  • Moves support the company's recruiting objectives.
  • Relocation plans meet the needs of the business units.

In terms of structure, mobility programs frequently sit within human resource functions. At eBay, Halverson's team is part of the compensation and benefits function. That location emphasizes the role of mobility in the company's total rewards approach. At other companies, mobility programs may be in learning and organizational development departments to emphasize the talent management tie, or even outside the HR department in the corporate tax or risk management departments.

Effectively managing external providers requires expertise. Specialists have to know how to read a transportation bill of lading, how to read a housing and urban development statement, and how vendors make their money so they can negotiate contracts correctly. They need to be willing to continue learning because of the fast rate of change in this sector, asserts McGarry.

He points out that he is neither a tax professional nor an immigration lawyer; however, he maintains a high-level understanding of tax laws and immigration regulations in a dozen countries or more. The knowledge strengthens his decision-making as well as his selection and use of the external accounting and legal firms WPP leaders rely on to address complex and risky tax and immigration issues related to employee moves.

Mobility managers should understand the nature of their responsibilities. Each move—with hundreds if not thousands of details and potential missteps—"is a reflection of you and your staff," says McGarry. "If a moving truck gets into an accident and all the goods end up on I-80, that's going to affect you."

Halverson's top-two priorities include partnering with talent managers and maintaining "centralization, standardization and equality" as eBay's mobility policy is put into practice worldwide.

Halverson's relations with talent managers represent a growing trend. "Relocation or mobility departments are more involved in developing plans to prepare talent even before the requirement is made by the business," reports Russ Haynie, director of global consulting for Newark, N.J.-based Prudential Real Estate and Relocation Services.

The balance between standardization and equality can be difficult to maintain. To do so, Halverson partners with corporate tax, stock plan administration, benefits, staffing, finance, accounting, payroll, travel and nearly every other unit in his company. Each has a different motive for moving employees. Halverson reconciles those motives with strategic business objectives, including talent management plans and changing budget pressures.

"One area of the business may have a critical need to bring on specific talent," Halverson explains, "and their rallying cry is, 'Whatever it takes.' It is up to you to say, 'Well, we can't do that, here's why, and here's what we can do.' "

Carrying on these conversations requires Halverson to understand changing business strategy. Mobility managers juggle internal and external portfolios, he says. "You have to liaison with upper management and … understand the current needs or drivers of each business unit."

Psychologist and Negotiator

Most mobility programs were deeply affected by the recession. Cost-cutting in a vast majority of companies nudged many mobility managers to treat their programs in a more strategic manner.

There are two ways to save money in relocation and most mobility managers used both tools, McGarry notes. "Number one is to move fewer people. And number two is to rework your policy." In 2008 and 2009, volumes went down significantly, domestically and globally. Last year, however, the trend appeared to reverse. According to Atlas World Group's 2010 corporate relocation survey, companies of all sizes began increasing relocation volumes among all employee groups: 21 percent of companies increased relocations at the executive level, 16 percent of companies increased middle-manager relocations, and 8 percent of companies increased the number of relocations for entry-level employees and new hires. "The way organizations are moving now is smarter because they reworked their policies," McGarry concludes.

Specifically, more companies now "tier" their mobility policies by offering different levels of mobility to senior-level and high-potential talent than they offer mid-level employees. Homeowner status is a basis for differentiating the level of relocation benefits employees receive. This is because homeownership adds significant cost, work and worry to relocation, particularly following the bursting of the housing bubble at a time when many mortgages remain underwater. According to the Atlas survey, more than 50 percent of large companies and about 33 percent of mid-size companies use homeowner or renter status as a basis for placing employees in different mobility tiers that contain different housing subsidy guidelines. And, according to the trade association Worldwide ERC, nearly 80 percent of companies now have tiered policies.

The use of tiered offerings places greater emphasis on the creation and maintenance of policy. The success of communicating relocation opportunities and decisions with employees largely depends on policy education and discussions that should take place long before an employee is presented with an offer letter.

"Identify, evaluate and select the pool of candidates who are the best fit to be relocated and prepare them in advance," advises Haynie. Properly train candidates on the challenges of relocations and train managers on the policies and processes to deploy people in a cost-efficient way.

From a procedural perspective, the following issues typically are covered before mobility professionals or managers meet with employees to discuss a possible move: an initial expectations-setting session before the decision is made; and a review of the mobility benefits. Once the decision is final, attention turns to intercultural training; immigration and tax requirements; the home sale or buying process; shipping of household goods; and many other possible personal issues such as schooling for children or career counseling for spouses.

From an emotional perspective, a job-related move represents "one of the more stressful activities a person can experience," Halverson emphasizes. "They are moving to a new position, they are moving to a new location, and there are 1,000 things that can go wrong with every move. You have to be a bit of a psychiatrist."

Explaining a move to an employee requires mobility professionals to counsel as well as negotiate. It's a "what's in it for me conversation," says Halverson. "Crystallize for the employee how the move is going to benefit their career and how it will affect them—and their families—on a personal level."

EBay's total rewards approach informs these discussions with relocating employees. "Mobility is one part of the package," Halverson adds. "Cover compensation, bonus, equity, insurance, taxes, holidays and more."

Keep in mind the negotiating power of the mobile employee and the company's reason for wanting to move the individual to figure what, if any, wiggle room exists in the offer. However, sweetening an offer for one employee can create perceptions of unfairness among other mobile employees.

Managing those perceptions is part of the mobility professional's job. "If a client company says that it wants one of our people in a specific location to work with them, can we say that it's just too expensive so we will look for someone else to meet their needs?" asks a mobility professional in a U.S.-based service-industry company. "Yeah, we might be able to, but for the most part it's more a matter of, 'Let's see what we can do to get that person there, period.' "

The head of global mobility at a large U.S. media company notes that many programs "get evaluated based on the experiences of the top-level people they are moving.

"In reality, you are doing your best for everyone, but who has the ear of the CEO? It's not the junior-level person you just moved. If the senior VP has a terrible experience, the CEO will want to know what's wrong with the mobility department."

Halverson constantly manages tension resulting from the application of a standard policy fairly across the business—and changing business needs. "Don't get rigid, or you'll break," he warns, before ticking off risks many mobility professionals confront daily: talent acquisition and talent management risks, international corporate tax risks, the risk of violating immigration regulations as well as individual tax risks. "There is more to this job than meets the eye," he adds. Yet "when the job is being done well, it is invisible."

That may not be the case for much longer as more mobility professionals become increasingly visible in strategic decision-making around talent.

The author is a business writer based in Austin, Texas, who covers human resource and finance issues.

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