On the heels of Brookfield Relocation Services' webinar presented by the company's Executive VP Global Sales & Marketing Scott Sullivan at 10.00 a.m. Central on June 18th, 2009, the Dallas chapter of the Forum for Expatriate Management welcomed the Houston-based Brookfield Director John Young to present key findings over a round table luncheon meeting. About two dozen corporate representatives of D/FW mobility experts breathed life into the latest Global Relocation Trends Survey report's numbers and compared notes on policy, strategy, and innovative approaches.
The survey was conducted between the months of November 2008 and January 2009; impeccable timing to capture the effects and expectations of the impending economic downturn. The survey contained over 120 questions and was sent out to members of the Foreign Trade Council, amongst others, and 180 companies replied. A copy can be obtained on Brookfield's website, nevertheless, allow me to cite a handful of interesting numbers and observations from the meeting:
67 % of respondents in the previous year had anticipated an increase in the use of expatriate assignments for 2008, only 37 % of current respondents actually reported one. (It is unclear whether they are the same respondents.) 25 % reported a decrease in expat activity, 42 % expect no change.
When asked about the main business objectives of international assignments, 25 % of respondents cited bridging a skills gap, to which one round table participant quoted a colleague who said, and I'm paraphrasing, "if you want skills development, send [them] to Harvard, that's cheaper." Speaking of which, 68 % of current respondents plan to reduce assignment expenses through various means, e.g. reducing the number of assignments, applying increased scrutiny and selection, postponing assignments, not replacing assignees, as well as local hiring. Top 5 policies reported, and echoed by the audience, are localization, extended business travel arrangements, commuter, short-term assignments, and one-way relocations.
Each of these strategies bear their own challenges, as one mobility specialist's comment "[short term assignments] are a pain to organize" that met with wide-spread agreement demonstrated. Participants did not contribute significant data to support the survey's intra-regional relocation trend, but the point of global HR policy being decided centrally was confirmed.
Cross-cultural training programs (CCT) were discussed in that they are mandatory or highly recommended by the larger companies in the audience and are part of policy for some (i.e. cannot be eliminated). Only 2 % of survey respondents think that CCTs have little or no value, yet the survey indicates it is one of the first elements to get cut. Only 35 % of all respondents offer it for all assignments, 19 % do not offer CCTs at all, and for 10 % one of the criteria to provide it is upon employee request. There lies a challenge in the fact that many first-timers simply have no inkling about the big picture of relocation and of which services are available to them out there. Expats are also encouraged to be pro-active about their long-term career goals and insist on frequent HQ contact, mentors, and a defined role to come back to after the average two to three-year assignment. More about repatriation in the following paragraphs.
27 % of survey respondents said they use career planning and 26 % use more thorough candidate selection initiatives to improve return on investment (ROI). With only 6 % reportedly measuring ROI, this statistic appears to leave room for speculation. Considering the complexity of international relocation, its policy, legislation and tax factors as well as the human element to name a few, this is not surprising. None of the audience members reported to have satisfactory quantifiable measurement systems or timely repatriation discussion practices in place, either. To determine ROI, some of the participants look for lateral continuation of the employee within the company after an assignment, some use performance metrics (information that often doesn't reach the mobility team), others use cost projections (but don't always compare to actual expenses after the fact). It appears a connection between the main reason for assignment refusal and failure (family concerns: 92 %, partner dissatisfaction: 56 % respectively) and measuring ROI has yet to be determined. Further survey data portraying expat family concerns was not addressed in this round table discussion.
It was commented that the business unit receiving the assignee should be best to determine the feasibility of the investment, yet for example an extension of the assignment cannot always be interpreted as, "they're doing a good job, we want them to stay longer." Sometimes, assignments get extended because the project isn't finished, sometimes the investment needs to be protected (as well as face needs to be saved). In any case, it was recommended to maintain and constantly review a list of very clear assignment objectives as well as staying on top of tax regulations. It is important to keep in mind the majority of respondents were US-based or headquartered companies, as there are cultural differences to how much value is placed on a specific task or monetary return as opposed to relationships established and other "soft" indicators.
As for repatriation practices, 37 % of survey respondents said repatriation is discussed less than six months before the end of the assignment. Even if you have a position planned to return to, situations and economies can change, as we have seen, which is why one participant stated they include termination clauses into the expat agreement upfront. As with every other aspect of fair expat dealing, clear communication of policy and boundaries in a timely manner on the part of corporate/HR will greatly reduce misunderstandings and help foster realistic expectations.
Outsourcing was another topic that I hope to hear much more about. Mr. Sullivan cited the benefits of outsourcing as allowing for scalability (once the expat volume picks up again) and increased efficiency. Mr. Young added specialized expertise, a wider network of contacts, as well as better reporting, and that mainly visa and immigration issues are preferably handled in-house. A number of participants pointed out the difference in attitude towards outsourced and in-house personnel, and the benefits of having a mutually supportive "how can we do this better?" attitude were mentioned.
In closing, the advantages and disadvantages of the "core-flex" approach of a consistent base expat package with à la carte items was discussed. On the one hand, it allows for standardization and theoretically reduces confusion (until expats start talking amongst each other and compare who asked and who received what). On the other, no family is the same and circumstances are always different. One participant shared they introduced a "life-style allowance" to avoid single expats arguing against specific spousal allowances that they wouldn't get to enjoy. I admit I didn't think to clarify whether a single person's allowance is the same as that for a family of five. In any case, "core-flex" is supposedly going to be demanded by Gen Y expats, but whether that has any bearing on the fact that according to the survey only 9 % of assignees are in their 20s is unclear.
The FEM round table is a fantastic forum for corporate mobility experts to brainstorm and share solutions, and it offers guests and service providers valuable insight into HR's point-of-view and the complexity of expatriate relocation. Congratulations to Yvonne Bosson for organizing another successful round table and efficiently moderating the hot-off-the-press presentation, thanks to Alcatel-Lucent for generously hosting the event, John Young for his insights and for sponsoring a well-received lunch, and last but not least the participants who so freely shared their experiences. I'm looking forward to next month's meeting already. :-)