In certain industries expansion overseas is the only way to grow and the only way to ensure that home office culture and values are mirrored in the new offices abroad is to transfer trusted staff to serve as ambassadors.
Research will indicate that international transfers are cumbersome and costly but new, fast growing organizations did not get to be successful by being intimidated by old news and nor will they when deciding how to transfer their employees to new countries. There is nothing wrong with developing a tailored approach and in fact, it is to be encouraged.
However, before ditching the old it is important to appreciate that while practices to assist a transferring employee might change the underlying challenges that they face in crossing borders to work do not. Understanding those will enhance the quality of those new practices and reduce financial risk to both the employees and shareholders.
There are three types of international assignment:
- The transfer of skills to resolve a specific problem
- The transfer of management to develop an office or sales base; and
- The transfer of an individual for professional development.
The the value of any assignment to the company will depend upon timing and business circumstance, and when planning a transfer it will be important to articulate its value because that will inform the size of investment the company should be prepared to make in resolving employee challenges if the assignment starts to fail.
Important issues in a first time international expansion are who decides policy and when internal values conflict, how are critical decisions resolved. Most are launched with a team comprising HR, Finance and Operations. The most senior person in the team will usually dominate and the issues associated with their department will inevitably tend to take precedent. HR issues will most commonly be seen as the least important but ironically the selection and support of best fit candidates represent the biggest potential for value destruction.
Tax costs and day to day operational concerns need to be weighed against the value generated by the right employee both during the assignment and their contribution later. Mobile employees are hard to find and the ripples from any perceived mistreatment will quickly affect the motivation and willingness of future candidates.
The work environment at the new office will be identical to that at corporate – not much to go wrong there but assignments tend to come off the rails at home; an area considered “off limits” with locally hired employees. Consequently, there is a natural reluctance by employers to become involved in the home lives of their international transfers but consider a partner who cannot work, is asked to live in a different type of housing, cannot speak the language and efficiently purchase at the supermarket, or obtain customary medical care for a child. They will become increasingly frustrated without support and in time, will affect their partner’s performance placing the assignment at risk.
Everyone travels and it is easy to assume that someone sent to a new country will quickly assimilate. Vacationing in an airbnb is not the same as living in a different country for an extended period. An unfamiliar language is fun for a week or two but not when navigating day to day survival. Compliance tasks are many and complicated (e.g. social security, residency, securing health and dental care, driving licenses and in some locations new wills) and take the positive edge of a new assignment.
Rarely is it possible to secure the same style of accommodation at the same cost. Even when the overall cost of living between two countries is the same some form of additional housing support often proves necessary to reflect size or proximity differences. For example to compensate for an apartment vs a house or when an employer may want these expensive employees to be closer to the office to avoid time wasted in a long commute. Housing is an important satisfaction feature for first time international transfers.
Shaking up the way we respond to challenges when sending our people overseas is timely and overdue, but despite technology and increasing familiarity with foreign locales don’t assume that the old challenges have gone away.