By Olivier Meier, Mercer
Linking talent management and mobility is one of the main concerns for companies, alongside cost and family issues, when managing international assignees. The most obvious issues arise upon repatriation when companies struggle to find suitable jobs for former assignees and face high levels of attrition. Moreover, a lack of alignment between talent management and mobility can impact the whole assignment lifecycle and limit the benefits of having a global mobility program.
The challenges of succession planning
Managing key talent throughout the assignment lifecycle. Once an employee is away on assignment, are they ‘out of mind’? Who is in charge of tracking the career of assignees? Career tracking implies coordination between the home and the receiving business units and the risk for assignees to fall in the cracks is significant. The receiving business unit is commonly involved but might have only a limited understanding of the assignees’ previous experiences and long-term career path. The home country of the relocated employees might be involved in the process but might not be able to judge the performance on assignment without detailed input from the receiving business unit.
This issue is especially important when managing the career expats / global nomads going on multiple international assignments. They can easily fall off the talent management radar if there is no central point of contact to monitor their career. Falling off the radar doesn’t necessarily mean they are not managed at all, but it often means that their international achievements and potential are not known and recognized.
Furthermore, employees increasingly want their managers to know them personally and understand their professional development journey. The recent 2019 Mercer Global Trends Study shows that “thriving employees are three times more likely to work for a company that understands their unique skills and interests, compared to their non-thriving peers.”
Avoiding skills mismatch. The skills and know-how developed during an international assignment are not necessarily the same ones required for a job in the home country. This leads to a paradox where mobile employees are more skilled than before but less employable for the type of jobs that are being offered at home. Completing skills assessment prior, during, and at the end of assignments is a good way to mitigate skills mismatch and identify potential gaps in terms of competencies, knowledge, or business network resulting from being abroad a long period of time.
Mitigating job level mismatch. Assignment can have major impact on the promotion of mobile employees compared to their local peers. International assignees might be promoted faster than their home country peers, or they may remain at a lower level on assignment while their colleagues at home get promoted. If former assignees are passed over for promotion, this can send a negative message about the mobility program. Faster promotion of assignees can, on the contrary, make finding a suitable position back at home difficult.
Addressing the absence of suitable positions in the home country. The higher the level of the employee, the harder it will be to find a job, especially in countries where the company has only a small operation. Companies cannot always guarantee a job upon repatriation, and they need to be transparent about what’s feasible for returning assignees.
The discussion about the next steps for the assignee needs to start prior to departure and continue during the assignment. It’s a good practice to do mid-assignment or even yearly review rather to wait for the end of the assignment to discuss finding a job. The expectations of the assignee and potential job openings in the company can evolve during the assignments.
Defining assignment success and evaluating performance
Evaluating who did a good job. The lack of clear definition of failed assignments is a problem when trying to evaluate performance: in Mercer’s Worldwide Survey of International Assignment Policies and Practices, 52% of respondents indicated they didn’t have a definition of failed assignments.
The organizations who do have a definition commonly use criteria such as assignment completion and “meeting business objectives”. However, these criteria remain vague and don’t capture all possible scenarios. Failed assignments are not just about employees terminating assignments prematurely. They are also about low productivity while on assignment, assignees who leave the company shortly after the end of the assignment, or even the lack of succession planning in the host location.
Companies should include assignment-related goals such as:
- Training the local workforce by transferring knowledge and skills, as well as the company culture.
- Preparing a local peer to replace the expatriate.
- Developing the assignee’s own skills or following a personalized development program.
- Ensuring that the improvements and changes brought by the assignees are sustainable over the long-term.
- Mentoring new assignees.
A timeline can be established for these goals. The beginning of the assignment might be about integrating successfully in the host business unit and becoming operational quickly. During the assignment, the goals might shift to achieving specific business outcomes or changes and training the local workforce. In the last year of the assignment, the priority could be to select and prepare a successor while securing the sustainability of the new measures and changes implemented by the assignee.
Understanding the value of each assignment in terms of career and learning. The assignment-related goals can be refined further by the type of assignments. We tend to think of segmentation as a way to differentiate policies and packages, but performance also has to reflect assignment segmentation. A developmental move would emphasize personal development objectives with clearly a defined learning point and milestone, while a strategic move might be more focused on creating sustainable changes and business improvements.
Ensuring talent affordability for all business units
Understanding who is benefitting from mobility. The business unit that benefits from an assignment is usually the one that should cover the cost of it. If the purpose of the assignment is to address a business issue or develop the host country business, the receiving country should cover the costs.
Conversely, if the assignment is a developmental move and the main objective is to develop talent, the cost should be covered by the home unit that will benefit from that talent upon repatriation.
In reality, not all business units can afford to cover the cost of international assignees and much of the debate about mobility costs is about the affordability of mobility for specific parts of the business as opposed to a general discussion about the cost of assignments. Companies sometimes establish a central fund or allocate the cost of assignees to a central business unit to facilitate moves to host locations where the business could not afford mobile employees.
Talent mobility requires an integrated people strategy to deliver on its promises. Just like local employees must understand the implication of their performance on their career progression, internationally mobile assignees need to be clear about the impact of their assignment performance on their opportunities within the company. Similarly, all internal stakeholders and HR teams need to understand the objectives and details of the mobility program and what is required from them to deliver a smooth talent management experience.