A new international assignment landscape is challenging traditional compensation approaches
For many years, expatriate compensation has been focused on a dilemma: having assignees on expensive home-based expatriate package versus localization - which is about replacing expatriates with locals or at least transition expatriates from an expatriate package to a local salary. Many predicted that the traditional home-based balance sheet approach would gradually disappear. The predictions of the demise of the typical expatriate approach have been greatly exaggerated. We are witnessing the emergence of new compensation challenges instead, due to the complexity of having to manage multiple types of assignments and assignee categories.
The home-based approach still retains its utility for certain kinds of moves (e.g. business-critical assignments or moves to hardship locations). Local strategies are becoming more common but, due to the difficulty of applying them consistently in all transfer destinations, they are used only in some cases (moves between similar countries, developmental moves) and take multiple forms as “purely local” or local-plus approaches. Additional approaches like international compensation structures have emerged to address issues of global nomads.
The challenge for HR managers is, therefore, not so much to find the best approach applicable for all assignments as to deal with individual assignment complexity, envisage greater mobility policy segmentation and, if relevant for the company, map each compensation approach to a particular assignment in a consistent way.
The increasingly complex international assignment landscape: One size does not fit all anymore
Expatriates vs. Locals
One size fits all?
Let's localize assignees as soon as possible!
Rise of the third-country nationals
Need to add a cost efficient category for junior employees/developmental moves?
Local or local plus?
Foreigners hired locally
Commuters (cross-border or regional
Multiple types of short-term/project/rotational assignments
Increasing number of home locations
Reviewing international assignment approaches in three steps:
Step 1: Understand the options available
Approaches linked to the host country (local or local-plus)
While these approaches sound logical and natural (when relocating assignees to a new country, they will be paid according to the local salary structure in that destination country) their practical implementation is often tricky. Few employees accept a salary decrease when moving to a low-paying country. It is often difficult to reintegrate assignees relocated to a high-paying country into their original salary structure due to their inflated base salary.
The host approach was historically not the most common for assignees on long-term assignments. However, we have witnessed a growing interest in recent years in host-based approaches – either a host approach or local-plus approach (host salary plus selected benefits or premiums) – as companies are trying to contain costs and as significant salary increases in many emerging markets make host strategies more attractive.
Approaches linked to the home country ("balance sheets")
Home-based approaches have been traditionally the most commonly used to compensate international assignees. Assignees on a home-based approach retain their home-country salary and receive a suite of allowances and premiums designed to cover the costs linked to expatriation. The equalization logic behind the balance sheet approach (no gain/no loss) encourages mobility by removing obstacles. Retaining the home-country salary facilitates repatriation. The balance sheet approach can, however, be costly. Many companies either look for alternatives or try to reduce the benefits and premiums included for less significant moves.
Hybrid approaches attempt to combine the advantages of the home and host-based approaches. These often mean running a balance sheet calculation and comparing the results with the host market salary to determine what solution would make sense. A hybrid approach can work well for a small assignee population but it can generate inconsistencies when companies expand globally, and the assignee population grows significantly.
Finally, some companies rely on international compensation structures that do not use the host and the home structures at all. These might utilize the average salary in a selected group of high-paying countries where the companies operate. This approach facilitates mobility for global nomads and highly mobile employees. It is, however, often very expensive and doesn’t solve all assignment-related issues (e.g., currency issues, pension, taxation). It is typically used in specific industry sectors (e.g., energy and engineering) and for a few assignees (top level managers and global nomads.)
Step 2: Assessing assignment patterNs and business objectives
Are assignees moving between countries with similar salary levels, which would make the use of local or local plus easier or, on the contrary, are expatriates sent to host countries with different pay and benefits structures (low-paying to high-paying, or high-paying to low-paying country moves)? Are moves for a fixed duration – e.g., assignments lasting one to five years – or will the company rely on permanent transfers with no guarantee of repatriation?
Are assignees coming mainly from the headquarter countries (typical for early stages of globalization) or is the number of third-country nationals already significant? A growing number of multinational companies report that the number of moves between emerging markets (“lateral moves”) is catching up with or exceeding the number from the headquarters, prompting a review of compensation approaches.
Are some assignees becoming true global nomads who move from country to country without returning home during their career? Employees, and especially the younger generations, are becoming much more mobile, but only a minority would be global nomads. These assignees are usually top-level managers, experts with unique skills, or globally mobile talent sourced from small or emerging countries where the absence of career opportunities perspective would preclude repatriation perspectives.
Company's philosophy and sector
Some industry sectors like services and finances relocate employees between major regional and financial hubs which facilitate the use of local approach, whereas energy and engineering companies transferred employees to hardship locations are a key feature of the business – and requires comprehensive expatriation packages often based on balance sheets and international salary structures.
Step 3: Assess segmentation needs
An increasing number of companies rely on expatriate policy segmentation to reconcile the cost control versus international expansion dilemma – how to have the same number of assignments or more without increasing the budget dedicated to international mobility. Segmentation means reallocating part of the budget to business critical assignees and limits the costs of non-essential moves.
Some of the commonly used assignment categories include strategic moves (business-critical), developmental moves (which benefit both the company and the employee), and self-requested move (requested by the employee but not essential to the business).
A consistent policy segmentation approach allows HR teams to present business cases or assignment options to management and provide a clearer understanding of the cost and business implications of relocation for different assignees.
It could also help manage exceptions into a well-defined framework based on a consistent talent management approach, as opposed to ad hoc deals.
Example of segmented compensation approach: the four-box model
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