Employers Should Look After Their Own in Global Assignments

Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. November 5, 2019
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​How can employers make sure they get a good return on their investment and retain the employees they send on expensive global assignments? Make sure the employees working abroad know the organization cares for them and is watching out for them, said Ray S. Leki, who is with the senior executive service for the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., at the Society for Human Resource Management Global Mobility and Immigration Symposium Nov. 5 in the nation's capital.

A third of the State Department's foreign service employees work at its 285 posts abroad , including 3,500 officers and 7,000 family members. The department helps about 20,000 federal employees from other departments, and their 45,000 family members, work abroad as well.

A big challenge in supporting employees abroad is helping the workers' spouses find a job. The spouse's expectations may be hard to meet in other countries, so check to see if remote work may be a possibility, Leki said.

The educational needs of workers' children may be a challenge as well, such as if a child has special needs, Leki noted. Whether a company's officials act with empathy in these challenges often is a deciding factor in whether individuals stay with the organization, he observed.

Another way a company can support employees abroad is to help them prepare well for the assignment and build resiliency. New employees may say they love learning languages and are ready to be off on the next assignment. But after the third or fourth move, employees may start asking, "Why is everything so hard?"

Most foreign-service employees have extensive language training—as much as two years of full-time language training at the diplomatic level, Leki noted. Such investment in global employees is expensive, so the department may intervene some in the employees' personal lives to help them succeed, he noted. After so many investments in these individuals, "We can't afford failure, especially in the senior ranks," he said. Sometimes the key to success, he noted, is simply treating the workers as human beings.

Human Element in Global Programs

At BASF, leaders are expected to have spent two to three years abroad, said Marina Vassilev, director, North America, HR compensation, executive HR and mobility for BASF in New York City. The company has 1,500 global assignments a year, 400 of which are in North America. The company is headquartered in Germany. In addition to global assignments for executive candidates, there are global assignments for individuals with special skills needed around the world.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Introduction to the Global Human Resources Discipline]

Vassilev said she focuses on "the human element and flexibility" in BASF's global programs. For too long, companies' mobility operations have focused on internal processes when what matters the most is how employees perceive the moves, she said.

Mastercard focuses on "the whole you" for each employee, which has transformed global mobility, said Melissa Myer, director of global mobility, total rewards at Mastercard in New York City. It has about 600 global moves a year. Factors that are considered include whether employees have aging parents, babies or pets, she said.

Making a Connection

Edna Diez, director for performance, careers and learning for the World Bank in Washington, D.C., said that the bank wants to attract the right talent where they are needed the most in its more than 100 offices around the globe. While 55 percent of the World Bank's staff is in Washington, D.C., global assignments are critical to career development at the organization, she said.

One challenge she faces is deploying workers to countries that are in economic or social unrest and taking care of the employees as well as their families. She strives not to put women and individuals with same-sex partners at a disadvantage in their assignments.

"Talent is our biggest asset," she said. It's critically important to ensure employees are finding the "right careers and feel connected" around the globe.

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