A conversation between Prof. Dr. Benjamin Bader of Leuphana University of Lüneburg and Mercer’s Olivier Meier
Global mobility has long been a prominent subject of interest for academic research. Over the years, the results of studies conducted around the world have provided invaluable guidance for HR practitioners trying to better manage their international assignees. At the same time, these studies have also allowed all sorts of companies to optimize and gain more value from their various talent mobility initiatives.
Professor Benjamin Bader of the Institute of Management & Organization at Leuphana University of Lüneburg is one of these researchers who have acquired a wealth of experience surrounding international HR and mobility issues over the years. In addition to his first-hand experiences living and working abroad in countries as diverse as Denmark, the United States, and (in the near future) Canada, a large majority of his professional work has been dedicated to studying international assignments and managing a global workforce. His diverse and enlightening findings have been published in a number of academic journals, demonstrating his extensive knowledge of these topics.
Currently, Professor Bader is serving as an Associate Editor at the International Journal of Human Resource Management. He also recently collaborated with a like-minded group of colleagues to publish a research-oriented book on expatriate management from a distinctly European perspective. Benjamin kindly accepted the offer to have an in-depth discussion with Olivier Meier, a global mobility principal at Mercer, on a wide array of global mobility topics ranging from hardship locations to mobile employee expectations to diversity and digitalization, and much more.
Mobility in a Dangerous World: Managing Assignees in Hardship Locations
Olivier Meier, Mercer: The global mobility field is fast changing. New trends are emerging, like millennials requesting more moves on their own, locally hired foreigners taking more and more jobs overseas, and rapid advancements in virtual mobility redefining what’s possible within the field. However, traditional long-term assignments won’t be disappearing as long as companies need to develop their operations in emerging markets and low-cost locations—especially hardship locations where assignees are likely to experience a decrease in their quality of living.
For years, increased compensation and benefits (or “hardship allowances”) have been used to motivate assignees, but companies have a wider duty of care and ongoing need to protect the well-being of their employees and families during these moves. The HR teams have to directly or indirectly manage a range of security, compliance, financial, and reputation risks linked to international assignments.
Prof. Dr. Benjamin Bader: Thank you Olivier, you are absolutely correct. Global mobility is on the rise, but the host country locations are not necessarily determined by where the expatriates “want to be,” but rather where they are needed. Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, or parts of India are considered such places by many people.
I started my academic work with studies on managing expatriates in high-risk countries and due to my interest in this field and its practical relevance, I am still doing some research on that topic. For instance, in a study on expatriate social networks in hostile environments (Bader & Schuster, 2015), we investigated the impact of social network characteristics (e.g., network size, diversity, frequency, and closeness of interaction with the network partners). We observed a strong difference in the impact of people who are back home (e.g., family, close friends) versus those who are in the host country (e.g., other expatriates, host country nationals) regarding safety perceptions. Interestingly, there seems to be a strong contagion effect transmitting anxiety and fear to expatriates by those network actors who are not abroad and get their information from news or other not first-hand sources on-site and rumors.
In general, we found that having a large and diversified social network is beneficial for psychological well-being. Especially in hardship locations, social networks can unfold an even stronger positive impact. In other words, when the surrounding conditions are hostile, the social network becomes more important. We are currently working on a follow-up study to increase our understanding of this phenomenon. Eventually, we are able to derive practical implications for both assignees and organizations to help them better tailor and maintain their social network.
Since you mention compensation and hardship allowances, I have an interesting side-note. It is very common to pay these extras. In my studies, I was looking into that a little closer and found that people who are particularly sensitive to terrorism cannot be “bought with money.” Higher compensation does not increase work attitudes, and consequently, has no effect on performance. Thus, hardship allowances – at least in hostile environments – are standard for those who are willing to take the risk. However, they are not qualified to incentivize people in a way that they will work better. Some people might take the assignment just for the money, yet, if the company wants a highly-motivated and engaged workforce, other things are far more important, such as credible duty of care and organizational support.
Diversity and Gender Parity in the Mobile Workforce
Olivier Meier, Mercer: When it comes to managing a global workforce, diversity and gender parity is a business imperative. HR professionals often underestimate the role that mobility can play to foster a more diverse and inclusive workforce, especially at managerial levels. Our 2017 Worldwide International Assignment Policies and Practices Survey showed us some shocking results related to this. For example, we found that the overall percentage of women in the expatriate workforce was only 14%, with the best performing industries and countries lingering somewhere in the 20-30% range. This served as confirmation that, in the absence of change, true gender parity amongst assignees is still a long way off.
So, if mobility is a way to reach top management in many multinational companies, the continued absence of diversity in the expatriate talent pool can put a significant break in the career progression of women and minorities. Global mobility is part of the problem, as a lot of diversity-related issues are still not being addressed in spite of the mounting public debate and growing evidence of disparity. In addition, there still seems to be a lot of unconscious biases surrounding the capacity of women or minorities to go on assignments, at least in certain locations. At the same time, there is a clear disconnect between diversity policies developed at a headquarter level and the reality of what assignees actually experience.
Considering all of this, there is a need for an objective assessment of barriers to mobility for women and minorities. There also needs to be more vocal and proactive support for parity. There’s definitely a business case for encouraging diversity teams and mobility teams to work hand in hand. Would you agree?
Prof. Dr. Benjamin Bader: What you mention is exactly what we see in our data. International assignments are still a very much male-dominated field and from a career-perspective, it is still more a part of the problem than the solution, even though more and more companies are becoming better in this regard and starting to tailor their global mobility programs to be more attractive for women.
For those women who have accepted an international assignment, a lot depends on the host country. While I am not saying that everything is fine in the Western world (just look at Donald Trump’s “locker room banter”), there are certainly countries that are far more challenging. The OECD regularly publishes the Social Institutions & Gender Index (SIGI), which is a measure of discrimination against women in social institutions (formal and informal laws, social norms, and practices), covering 160 countries. In a recently published study (Bader et al., 2018), we surveyed expatriates in 25 host countries ranging from low to high values in the SIGI. Our results show that:
- Women experience more gender harassment at the workplace than men.
- In host countries with strong institutional-level gender discrimination, this effect is particularly strong.
- All of this leads to frustration and lower job satisfaction for women.
These are shocking findings. We are talking about women, in the year 2017, being on international assignments for their Western employers and working in Western employers’ subsidiaries! And still, many employers cannot ensure an environment free of discrimination and harassment. Thus, we find large-scale evidence of societal problems that should not exist anymore, and that clearly affects global mobility.
When you say that there is a business case for encouraging diversity and mobility teams to work hand in hand, I totally agree. However, I would go a step further and say that this collaboration needs the full and unconditional support of the top management team as well. If the CEO and the board do not make this a top priority, chances are that the effort is lost. We need a lot more research on this topic, and I think academia and practitioners have a great chance to work on this together and contribute to achieving true gender equality.
Assignee Expectation Mismatch
Olivier Meier, Mercer: One of the lessons I’ve learned from my years in international talent mobility is that mismatched expectations are one of the main causes of complications for companies and assignees alike. While I rarely see policies that are totally way off compared to market practices, I do often see a disconnect between the official company message about international mobility (“mobility is good for you and your career”) and the realities of mobility for employees (i.e., “I am being passed over for promotion,” “I don’t feel supported,” etc.). Naturally, this eventually leads to employee retention issues and increased dissatisfaction.
Prof. Dr. Benjamin Bader:You bring up a very good point here. I’ve had numerous conversations with both global mobility professionals and expatriates, and neither group was entirely happy regarding matching expectations. And, to be honest, I can understand both sides (not to bring in the department manager who might actually be the one not holding up to promises made before the assignment).
The thing is, international assignments are a great way to gather experience, both professionally and culturally, grow personally, do something different, and eventually also to prove oneself outside of his or her comfort zone. However, let’s be honest: not everybody who goes on an assignment is automatically on the fast track for the C-suite. In fact, many assignments do not even have a developmental character; they are simply intended to fill a skill gap abroad or to have somebody on-site who is socialized in the headquarters.
For instance, let’s assume that a medium-sized organization needs somebody, for about three years, to oversee the expansion of business in a foreign country that is not too attractive in terms of living standards. The person also needs to function as a communication outpost for headquarters. Clearly, this is an interesting and challenging job with a lot of responsibility. Hence, candidates for such a job are most likely not too junior, because they need a certain level of experience on the job and in the company. On the other hand, it’s probably not a job for somebody very senior either, because these people would be more likely to head the subsidiary or at least be deputy. Therefore, the pool of candidates shrinks to those who are in their mid-career stage, where it’s clear that now it’s the time for them to prove themselves and make the next step on the career ladder.
It’s only natural that the implicit assumption of people in the candidate pool might be: “If I do this now, the company will reward me with a promotion once I return.” However, what if there is simply no option for hierarchical promotion because the next step would be the position of the former supervisor of the expatriate who is still in the company and doing a good job? A workaround might be to pay more money or award a nicer job title, but that surely doesn’t make up for the expected next-step-on-the-career-ladder. So whose fault is it if the expatriate is frustrated? Is it the company, for not explicitly stating, “You will not get a promotion no matter how good you are?” It is unlikely that this would motivate people to do the job, so they often rather might just say nothing – or be vague and postpone the discussion to the time of return.
Or, is it the expatriate’s fault, for making an assumption and having expectations without checking whether the company sees it the same way? In a previous study among about 300 repatriates, we found that almost 40% left their company in the first year after coming home. Part of the reason for this is that not even half of the companies offer pre-departure briefings, including expectation management. In the same vein, one in two expatriates said they had no clear position definition for the time after the assignment before they went abroad, and that’s where the company should be absolutely clear in its message and start being more proactive and transparent.
Needless to say, the expatriate-to-be should also be carefully listening to this message. If nobody ever mentions a career-progression after returning home, neither global mobility nor the line manager, the expatriate might have to bring it up and ask what the plan is afterwards – at least if he or she expects a promotion in return. The implicit assumption you mentioned (“mobility is good for you and your career”) cannot be a reason to avoid this kind of conversation. When both sides explicitly discuss their expectations and, ideally, also write down their agreement, the expatriate can make a much more profound decision because it is based on facts, not assumptions. However, as I said, these kinds of conversations do not happen very often.
This is actually where a current research project starts. While every employee typically has a written contract that is very explicit (e.g., job description, compensation, working hours), researchers argue that each employment relationship has a so-called “psychological contract.” This is an implicit “contract” where the employee formulates a set of expectations towards the company – and keeps it to him- or herself. If there is a mismatch, it leads to frustration and possibly turnover. To make things more complicated, in the context of international assignments, the expatriate typically has more than one psychological contract: one with the assigning headquarters, and one with the receiving subsidiary. We are just at the beginning of this project and trying to better understand the respective consequences. What we know for sure by now, however, is that there is a lot of room for improvement.
The Future of Work and Digitalization
Olivier Meier, Mercer: Digitalization is another one of the buzzwords that’s currently dominating mobility management discussions. HR teams cannot escape this trend, lest they risk being disconnected from the expectations of their assignees (especially newer generations) and the technological roadmap set up by management.
In a mobility context, digitalization could mean automatizing tasks that were previously done manually or outsourced. With the rise of self-service solutions, it also changes the way in which HR programs are delivered and communicated.
It seems as though adopting new technology is as much about understanding the workforce’s mentality and its capacity for change as it is about identifying new tools. Auditing where the company stands on these issues is an important first step on the digitalization journey.
Prof. Dr. Benjamin Bader: Exactly. It definitely needs to start with finding out about the status quo. While digitalization surely is inevitable to a certain extent, it’s not that everything needs to go digital immediately. One thing we are going to look into more closely in the next few months is the correlation between digitalization and leadership.
We already know much about the beneficial effects of, for instance, transformational leadership. A transformational leader creates a vision, guides change through inspiration, and supports his or her followers, while also increasing performance through a variety of mechanisms like personal interaction. Transformational leaders are also very charismatic.
Now, in times of location-free working and digitized communication, it is not entirely clear if (or how) these mechanisms are affected. In other words, can a leader convey a transformational leadership style, when personal interaction is limited due to physical separation? Or, in a global mobility context, what about an expatriate who works as a boundary spanner between two organizational units in different countries, but is physically present in only one unit? Does this matter in terms of leadership?
Moreover, besides automatizing tasks, digitalization can also be used as a tool for leadership training, both in a domestic and a global mobility context. For instance, we’re working on a new project in collaboration with Leada, a company who developed an intelligent assistant system for executives via a Smartphone App. It keeps leaders informed and motivated by measuring certain predefined attitudes and behaviors, analyzes that input, and provides leaders with suggestions on how and where they can improve their behavior. It also has a database with tips and suggestions about what others have done in certain situations. This is a great way to implement what typically happens in leadership training workshops (off the job) into a daily routine. Now, it’s possible to have this assistance system exactly where and when it is needed, i.e., when the leader is doing his or her job. From there, it’s a small step to extend this logic to leadership in a cross-cultural context.
We all know about intercultural challenges in theory. However, if digitalization could help to avoid at least some of these pitfalls, that’d be a great first step of how digitalization could further make its way into global mobility. Still, we are just at the beginning of this development. As you say, there are many more things – chances and challenges – that come with digitalization, and it is exciting to see where we are heading. Hopefully, our research can make a small contribution in the right direction.
Olivier Meier, Mercer: Thank you, we’re very grateful for you taking the time to analyze this critical global mobility issue with us. It seems that collaboration with outside sources can only help to advance your research and work towards accelerating the change that’s needed to fix many of complications we’ve discussed.
Prof. Dr. Benjamin Bader: Thank you very much for this interesting conversation. And yes, we are always looking for project partners who are interested in working with us on these topics. So if anybody is interested to discuss potential collaboration opportunities, please feel free to approach me.
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