By Olivier Meier, Mercer
The future of work is about breaking down barriers between disciplines, and there is much that international talent mobility can learn from marketing.
A mobility policy is not a mere set of guidelines designed to address administrative and practical issues – it can be a powerful recruitment and retention tool. Understanding how to brand and market a mobility program internally and externally is an essential part of global mobility management.
Talent Mobility and Employer Branding
Employer branding is a recruiting tool that is becoming more important in the context of war for talent. Global mobility has a role to play when it comes to employer branding at two levels:
- How can mobility impact overall employer branding? The promise of an international experience could attract high-potential candidates if it is well communicated. Should it be an important feature of your company's employer branding?
- How to brand the mobility program itself? What are the career and personal benefits of your program? How is it advertised? Success stories and unique value propositions that help differentiating from competitors are important.
Branding a program cannot just be a one-time exercise. The brand should be managed on an on-going basis and constantly re-evaluated. Changes to policies and practices need to be integrated in the reflection.
For example, what would be the impact of greater policy flexibility and self-service on the mobility brand? How would it be perceived by the different types of assignees? It could a plus for millennials who value flexibility but assignees with families could be worried by what could be perceived as a hand-off approach to assignment support. Even if the organization make the right choice will it be effectively communicated? Will assignees and management understand what a flexible approach means and how it differentiates the organization from its competitors?
There is an opportunity for HR teams to work with marketing to make mobility program brands personal, memorable, congruent and viral.
Making It Personal: Mobile Employee Value Propositions
Clear mobility branding implies developing a unique Employee Value Proposition (EVP) for international assignees. An Employee Value Proposition (EVP) is the total value an employee receives from the company: compensation, benefits, career management, workplace/lifestyle, and employee pride. The EVP defines the commitment the company will make to develop the employee in exchange for the effort the employee puts in to benefit the company.
Initially developed for local employees, the concept of EVP is applicable to international assignees. This is especially the case because assignees face greater uncertainties about their remuneration and career as their local peers. They need clear reassurances from their employers.
Similar to successful businesses that differentiate their products and services to attract targeted segments of the population and retain them as long-term customers, companies with segmented mobility policies should also provide differentiated offerings – a unique EVP – to attract and retain different talent groups.
Different assignee personas could include for example: young professionals focused on learning and boosting their careers, older employees having specific requirements in terms of health and preparation for retirement, single parents concerned about day care, families worried about schooling issues and the issue of dual career, top managers with high expectations and locally hired foreigners who are already based in the host location.
The objective not to create additional policies but to determine how a given policy is responding to the needs of different assignee groups and if necessary make adjustments as well as prepare more personalized messages.
Making It Memorable: the Art of Storytelling
Storytelling is one of the essential skills for mobility managers. A mobility manager needs to know how to convey the main ideas of a policy in a 30-second elevator pitch format as well as be able to detail it further in an appealing way. In both cases, it involves much more than just listing a series of policy items.
What is the promise behind the policy and can you articulate it clearly in a couple of words? What are the key words you should be using?
Here are some simplified examples of how mobility programs could be positioned and explained:
- The goldmine. This vision of mobility is not for everybody and has had bad press in past years, for good reasons. Global mobility cannot be viewed as a gold-paved road allowing employees to make a lot of money just by becoming international assignees. The days when companies solved their mobility issues by purely throwing money at expatriates are long gone – at least for many types of moves. However, this positioning is still valid for specific types of assignments in some industries. It could be the case for companies operating in high-hardship locations, and is about allowing employees to significantly boost their savings in exchange for accepting a temporary decrease in their quality of living.
- The caretaker. Some of the largest companies in the energy and fast moving consumer goods industries attract and retain assignees not just because of how much they pay but also because they provide extensive support to their assignees and their families. As one assignee was telling me: “During my time with my previous companies I had to repeatedly ask for support for all kinds of issues. With my current employers, I know that everything is being taken care of – they take care of all the details, have a great support network to help me, my wife, and the children integrate in the host location.” This type of red carpet experience can be very attractive for employees but not all companies can and want to provide such hands-on support. It takes time, investment, and a certain degree of maturity of the mobility program to achieve this type of positioning.
- The fast tracker. The focus is on career progression. Some of the big brands attract assignees with a clear career path, a promise of fast promotion, and learning. Employees know that they will go to a series of assignments and that if they succeed in their jobs they will climb quickly through the managerial ranks. This positioning requires integrated talent management. Not fulfilling the promise in terms of career expectation would lead to retention problems.
- The lifestyle facilitator. These companies frequently advertise overseas job opportunities and develop exchange programs. The employees know that their company will try to accommodate requests to relocate when possible. This model is popular in the service sector operating in international financial hubs. Packages might not be as attractive as in other sectors but the key word is flexibility. This positioning plays well with the expectations of the new generations – it might not be suitable for companies who need to operate in more challenging locations and whose business requirements don’t allow for so much flexibility.
- The gateway to adventure: An engineer working in the mining sector describes the appeal of the mobility program in his company like this: “I knew by joining I would be traveling all the time to destinations that I would not have visited by myself.” Unlike in the lifestyle positioning, the company is driving the moves, but the incentive for employees is also the lifestyle and the experience.
These examples are erring on the side of caricature and mobility programs’ positioning are usually not so clear-cut. They can be a mix of these elements: many companies might try to offer a mix of the caretaker approach, career fast tracking, and cash incentives. However, companies cannot promise everything and should be clear about what they are offering.
Making It Congruent: Bringing All the Pieces of the Puzzle Together
Marketers use the concept of congruence to describe the need for all aspects of communication and marketing activities to be consistent with the brand.
Having elements of your communication or practices not aligned with your mobility positioning could create misunderstandings, false expectations, and ultimately dissatisfaction.
Here common examples betraying a lack of congruence:
- Mobility is presented by the organization as essential to reach the top, but former expatriates are underrepresented at top management levels, and there are few role models for expatriates. There is no factual evidence that mobility can boost a career. Employees have the impression that it is safer to stay at the HQ rather than going on assignments and being out of sight of management and their professional network.
- The mobility policies explain that global mobility is very important for the organization, but international assignments and topics related to mobility are rarely mentioned by management and HR in internal communications.
- The mobility team, home HR, and host HR/line management have views on mobility that are not fully aligned, and some of the stakeholders ignore what global mobility entails.
- The organization claims to provide extensive support to the assignees and their families, but in practice it is difficult for them to find practical information or have a clear point of contact.
The question of congruence does not mean that mobility support should be systematically on top of the company’s agenda – it is perfectly legitimate for an organization to decide that some types of moves are not business essential or that mobility is designed to address ad-hoc business issues rather than be at the heart of the talent strategy.
The objective is to be true to the official story in all aspects of the communication and mobility management practices. If there are obvious discrepancies, the official story might have to be revised.
Policy introductions reveal much about a company culture and the role of mobility within the organization. Who wrote this introduction (top management, CEO, or a lower level manager)? What promise has been made in terms of career, remuneration, and lifestyle? Is there a discrepancy between this message and actual practices?
The wording of the message itself is important: did the company promise the same lifestyle or an international lifestyle to assignees? Reflect on what images these promises will conjure in the minds of assignees: the same lifestyle as in their home country could mean a big house and two cars for an American assignee (going to central Tokyo) or extensive domestic help for an Indian one (going to Europe.)
Words matter, so make sure you control your message. Control the content but also who is passing the message. Do host HR and line management truly understand the policy?
If you are outsourcing: beware that your suppliers might not understand the message you are trying to convey.
Making It Viral: Know Your Key Influencers
The communication and eventually the feedback about the mobility program are channeled to the wider employee audience through a small group of highly influential people. Individuals that marketing experts would identify as “key influencers.”
There is a lot of truth in the cliché about international assignees talking to each other and comparing their packages and the support they receive (and most of the time, they are not comparing apples to apples). Maintaining an on-going contact with “expat community opinion leaders” can prove invaluable. These opinion leaders are not necessarily just top managers; assignees who have been in a host location for a long period of time, have gone on multiple assignments, or are particularly active in supporting and communicating with their peers could also be qualified as influencers.
Whenever possible, assignment success stories should be widely communicated and involve the successful assignee. The importance of role models should not be underestimated, especially when trying to encourage women and minorities to go on assignments.
The same approach is valid with internal stakeholders. Within companies, the view about mobility is often shaped by a limited number of individuals who might have been on assignment, have managed assignees, or whose business units have to pay the costs for assignees. Their opinions, either positive or negative, have a disproportionate impact on the companies’ views about mobility.
When preparing a new policy, clearing the field of landmines by talking to the key influencers within the company can smooth the process and help uncover skeletons in the closets (i.e., failed policy attempts that still negatively affect the view about mobility within the company).
Beyond simple communication, mobility managers need a detailed marketing plan for their mobility programs.