Global Assignments Enhance Employee Development


By Roy Maurer July 30, 2015
More companies are sending employees abroad to help them grow needed skills, recent research finds.

For the first time in years, building international management experience has appeared as one of the top two reasons for sending employees on international assignments, Brookfield Global Relocation Services (GRS) discovered, based on responses from global mobility professionals representing 143 companies worldwide. Brookfield GRS provides employee relocation, assignment management and mobility-consulting services for multinational organizations.

This finding is borne out in the experience of Joy Hill, global mobility manager at Brown-Forman, the spirits company that produces Jack Daniels and many other well-known brands. Developing high-potential employees and meeting business needs are the top two reasons employees at Brown-Forman are sent on international assignments, she said.

Brookfield’s 2015 Global Mobility Trends Survey report found that the need to move talent internationally is not diminishing (88 percent of respondents expect their expatriate population to either increase or stay the same this year) and that dealing with cost pressures, compliance mandates, measuring return on investment (ROI) and assignees’ spousal needs have become top priorities.

“All of the data suggests that talent will be in short supply in the next five to 10 years and that the mobility of the talent that is available will be important in order to address the talent shortage,” said Gill Aldred, director of consulting services at Brookfield GRS. “Mobility has a role by partnering with talent management in a formal way so that the identification and preparation of good candidates for international assignments is approached with more structure and is supported by the resources it needs to be effective.”

Seventy-seven percent of respondents believe that having international assignment experience has real value. Respondents reported that international assignees are promoted faster (43 percent), achieve higher performance ratings (19 percent) and receive more frequent compensation increases (17 percent) than those without such experience.

Hill found these metrics to ring true at Brown-Forman. “Given that most of our expats are high potentials, I would agree, but I believe it comes down to the organization’s objectives for the expat assignment,” she said. For example, those sent on assignment to fill an immediate business need may not necessarily be in line for a faster promotion or increased compensation, as that action can be viewed as a normal course of business, she added.

International assignments also represent value to the organization, Aldred said. “There are clear advantages to assignees, and by extension to the company, in completing a successful international assignment. Companies can target retention efforts towards those who have gained valuable international experience, which supports a company’s overall strategy to retain high-performing and highly invested-in employees.”

Organizations can also brand themselves as employers of choice for Millennials who actively seek international opportunities, Aldred said.

More Work to Do

While the value of international experience is recognized, only half (49 percent) of mobility practitioners indicated they have an active link to talent management in their organization, and a majority of respondents said they lack talent-based tools related to mobility, such as preassignment candidate assessments and repatriation programs.

More than three-quarters (78 percent) of respondents do not utilize any type of candidate assessment for selecting individuals to go on international assignments. “In terms of ensuring that the company’s high-stakes, high-investment assignments start off with the best possible chance for success, a candidate assessment makes sense,” Aldred said. “For a key strategic leadership role, an employee’s technical skills and experience may be paramount for success, but assessing the employee for the right mix of adaptability and global communication skills is also critical,” she added.

A large majority of respondents said that they have not identified a candidate pool of high-potential, ready, willing and able candidates for international assignments (81 percent); don’t have a formal career-management process in place for assignees (82 percent); and don’t have repatriation programs linked to retaining international assignees (86 percent). Nearly one-quarter (22 percent) reported having no initiatives at all in place to reduce international assignee attrition rates.

“Respondents that reported a formal reporting relationship between mobility and talent rather than only a strong link between the functions also reported a number of positive practices, including more often having formal career-management processes in place and better outcomes in the areas of reduced assignment failure and assignee attrition,” Aldred said.

Cost Pressures, ROI Challenges

When asked about the single biggest mobility challenge that their companies face, 23 percent of respondents cited assignment cost, 22 percent said compliance with host-country laws and 11 percent said career management while on assignment.

Three-quarters (74 percent) indicated that they had been required to reduce international assignment costs within the last year in response to economic pressures.

Even with the mounting pressure to reduce assignment costs, the survey results reveal that many companies lack basic cost-management practices. Only 62 percent of respondents indicated that they track costs during an assignment, and less than half (46 percent) said that a preassignment cost-benefit analysis is required.

Despite the high cost associated with international assignments, a staggering 95 percent of companies don’t measure international assignment ROI, according to the survey. The top reason cited for this oversight by 53 percent of respondents is that they are “not sure how to achieve this.”

The anxiety around calculating the ROI of international assignments has to do with inhibitors such as the lack of data collection and governance processes, Aldred said. Starting ROI evaluation requires strategy and data, and Aldred advised companies to remediate inadequate data collection, tracking and interpretation strategies, and amend governance so that defining, communicating and evaluating assignment objectives is a requirement.

“ROI for international assignments could represent a valuable scorecard metric for the mobility function and one that might be used to arrive at a more nuanced and strategy-friendly balance between the cost and the value of mobility,” she said.

Family Concerns Top Reason for Assignment Refusal, Early Return

Family concerns (38 percent) was the single most cited reason for assignment refusal and for early assignment return. It was also the third most commonly noted reason for assignment failure, after assignees leaving to work for another company and poor job performance. Spousal and partner career issues is another growing concern. Spousal career concerns came in as the second most noted reason for assignment refusal, and just over one-third (35 percent) of respondents indicated that spousal and partner career concerns were having an impact on their ability to attract employees for international assignments.

Emerging Markets in Challenging Locations

International assignments are growing in the same locations that respondents say are the most challenging for assignees and program managers.

The top emerging markets for international assignments—Brazil, China, India—also present the greatest problems, according to respondents, whether it’s immigration, cultural adaptation, and specifically, security in Brazil, environmental health concerns in China and government regulations in India.

Assignees moving to what may be considered a challenging location should be carefully selected and supported, Aldred said. Additional strategies she recommended include:

  • Providing mandatory intercultural training.
  • Carefully setting expectations for the quality of housing, availability of good schooling and the immigration process.
  • Providing high-quality destination support through in-country support partners.
  • Including spouses and partners in the preassignment training process.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM. Follow him @SHRMRoy


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