Michael Grover, Mercer; Charlene Solomon, RW3 CultureWizard
Gaining international experience can be an enormous career boost for employees eager to reach the top tier of management, yet some groups within the workforce often miss out on, or are reluctant to volunteer for, plumb overseas assignments. This article explains the importance of diversity in the mobile employee population, and highlights how global mobility professionals can help their organization find the best candidate for positions, regardless of age, gender and sexual orientation.
The global war for top talent has never been fiercer, but despite more than 200 million people being unemployed globally, more than a third of employers are struggling to fill available roles. A dearth of key skills lies at the heart of this issue, with technical, supervisory and managerial skills being in particularly short supply, especially in certain sectors, e.g. oil and gas.
While building and buying in talent can help plug the gaps, both options are time-consuming (once training and orientation time is factored in) and there is no guarantee of success. Borrowing talent from elsewhere in the business – reducing oversupply in one area to ease a shortfall elsewhere – could be a win–win all around, however. Not only could it improve mobility among previously overlooked sources of talent, but it may help the bottom line too: 30% of US firms lost out on international commercial opportunities due to shortages in leadership skills according to a recent survey. The business case for mobilizing new and diverse talent sources has never been stronger.
Three Key Groups
Although female workforce participation has increased significantly over the past 40 years with half of middle management positions held by women, few make it to very top: just 4.6% of Fortune 500 companies have a female CEO. All too often women are simply not gaining the international experience they need to attain executive roles: just one fifth of expats are women and given that so few (6%) organizations actively encourage mobility to members of minority groups, that situation is not likely to change quickly.
2. Four Generations in the Workplace
Perhaps one of the biggest catalysts for workplace change in the short term will be the impact of Millennials ("Gen Y"), who by 2020 will account for half of the employee population. The values and expectations of this cohort, born between 1980 and 2000, are strikingly different to their more mature colleagues' and are likely to transform their employer organizations over the coming decades. For example, career progression is Gen Y's top priority, and they are keen to join firms that will facilitate the overseas assignments they need to progress: indeed 70% want to work outside of their home country. Diversity, in particular workplace equality, is also important to them, as are a good work/life balance and flexible working.
Older workers are still a force to be reckoned with, however, and their skills and experience remain valuable. In some sectors, Baby Boomers and Millennials may be working side by side for some time yet, and employers will need to balance their contrasting expectations and approaches.
3. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) employees
Sexual orientation continues to impact employees' career prospects, as the results of a recent LGBT diversity survey show. Indeed well over half of Generation Y LGBT employees reported to that survey that they had gone back into the closet when they took up their first job. Mobility is a particularly challenging area given prevailing cultural norms in some locations: almost a fifth of respondents reported that their sexuality was a barrier to career progression, particularly in locations with homophobic laws in place, or where same-sex marriages/civil partnerships are not recognized.
Barriers to Mobilizing Diverse Talent
Candidate selection: unconscious bias
Contrary to popular belief, equal numbers of men and women want to gain international experience, and both face the same challenges, from maintaining their family life to managing spousal support and dual-career issues. Yet common assumptions about the availability, suitability and willingness of diverse candidates –"unconscious bias" – can have a huge and negative impact on candidate selection. All too often Global Mobility teams believe (without checking first) that genuinely qualified candidates will not want to take up an overseas assignment purely because of their gender, sexual orientation or age.
Dual career/family issues
Mercer research shows that the most challenging aspect of managing a successful transition to a new host country is helping the accompanying partner also settle in. Although more than 40% of organizations surveyed in recent polls did provide some type of allowance to partners, only a third offered work visa assistance and just a fifth job-search assistance. Given that the spouse will not have access to his or her usual network while abroad, and even that their qualifications may not be recognized, this support does not go far enough, and may explain why so few accompanying partners find employment during assignments.
Few role models
Role models can play a vital role in boosting diversity on corporate mobility programs. For example, almost a third of respondents to a recent poll cited a lack of visible female assignees as a reason for declining an assignment, and poor female representation in the host country expat/business community only compounded the situation.
Ineffective internal communication around mobility also exacerbates low diversity rates, and it is crucial that opportunities and their values are clearly spelled out. Using the "success stories" of returning expats from minority groups should be top of the internal marketing agenda.
Global risks to the LGBT community
Research conducted by Mercer in October 2014 revealed a wealth of significant data on the risks likely to affect LGBT assignees, and threw some employers' lack of knowledge into stark relief. For example, almost a quarter of respondents stated there were "no barriers" to LGBT mobility, yet a worrying 61% were unaware of the local cultural and legal conditions for LGBT staff in all the locations in which they operated. Given that over 90% did not restrict LGBT employees' deployment, their staff could well be sent to an inappropriate host location. That said, 42% were offering cultural training and a legal briefing to mitigate the risks to LGBT assignees. Perhaps the most crucial finding from the survey, however, was that 64% of companies did not offer training to managers on LGBT/diversity issues. Unless this situation changes, the overall picture is not likely to improve.
Summary: Mobility and Diversity Top Tips
There are certain things that mobility professionals can do to widen access to international assignments for diverse groups. However, in other areas, LGBT professionals also need to bring their influencing skills to bear and work with their mobility colleagues to bring about positive outcomes. For example:
- Recognize talent diversity as a competitive advantage in mobility: it really is integral to the talent equation.
- Encourage employees to be open about their personal circumstances.
- Suggest line manager training (home and host) on managing diverse teams
- Encourage mentoring and other coaching programs for women, and find in-house role models to light the way. Informal networking events can be a great way of spreading the word about positive assignment experiences.
- Use data on assignment and talent demographics to provide insight and raise awareness of diversity – or the lack of it.
- Partner with talent management/D&I colleagues to promote the value of global mobility in developing talent.
- Promote mobility opportunities to minority groups and profile expat success stories.
- Introduce buddy systems for expats and spouses/partners to help them integrate into the host location.
- Review GM policies to ensure they are inclusive, flexible and family-friendly. Be aware of the negative impact of unconscious bias: training may be useful here too.
- Improve diversity training and awareness in your GM team.
- Gather accurate/up-to-date intelligence on repatriation: the experiences of a female assignee in Dubai, for example or a male spouse in Mexico could be incredibly enlightening.