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1998 Global Outlook Optimas Award Profile Royal Dutch_Shell Group of Companies

February 1, 1998
Four years ago in West Africa, Andy Johns called on memories from two international assignments as he dutifully filled out a questionnaire about his expatriate experiences. Three weeks later he would be offered a new post in the Netherlands with responsibility for addressing the concerns raised by the survey. Talk about being careful in what you wish for.

The corporate HR team of Royal Dutch/Shell Group of Companies, a 100-year old organization based in offices in The Hague, Netherlands, and London, conducted the "Outlook Survey" in 1993. It was distributed to 17,000 current and former expatriate employees, employees who had declined international assignments and employees' accompanying partners.

Johns, head of expatriate employment policy and services, says, "We wanted to say to our employees that we're listening to them in an organized way. We also needed hard facts to share with very technical managers -- to show them that something needed to be done." Participants were clearly enthusiastic about providing the data HR was looking for: The survey registered a phenomenal 70 percent response rate.

Although there weren't many surprises in the responses, the survey was successful in determining which stumbling blocks in Shell's expat program were the most problematic. Two issues emerged as key detractors from international mobility: separation from children during secondary education and the loss of spouses' or partners' careers. Other important issues included recognition of the partner contribution and access to more thorough relocation information and assistance. The underlying message: The family is the basic unit of expatriation, and Shell could do more to show that it recognized this.

Shell's HR pros assembled six task forces in 1994 to look closely at these concerns. It implemented significant policy changes the following year. Today more than 5,500 expats of 70 nationalities located in more than 100 countries are benefiting from the new policies and programs.

How unusual is this undertaking? Rita Bennett, managing partner of Chicago-based consulting firm Bennett & Associates has assisted HR at many organizations with surveys. She signed on with Shell to help with some of the follow-up work. "In my professional experience, I've never been more impressed with the commitment of a company to see the results through to fruition," she says. "Many of the companies we work for certainly do conduct surveys, but often the outcomes of the surveys are some response or some interventions, but nothing as significant as what Royal Dutch/Shell did. [Senior managers] took that survey seriously and were willing to invest in making change."

Shell wins the Optimas Award in recognition of both parts of this project: the survey and the follow through. There's no clearer way to illustrate the success of this venture than to look at the strategies Shell implemented to address the two top relocation blockers.

Expats want alternatives to boarding schools.
The Shell survey revealed that the one condition most likely to make or break the deal with potential expatriates is the local availability of schools for their children. Respondents wanted to know they could keep their families together through all stages of their children's education.

To this end, Shell has instituted two options for primary school children. First choice: Shell locates a reasonable local school and grafts onto it specialized education for children of different nationalities. Where this won't work, and the numbers make it feasible, Shell builds a company elementary school.

But creating local options for older children in secondary schools has been more of a challenge. The traditional solution for British and Dutch families, by far the majority of Shell's expat workforce, had been to send their children back home to attend boarding schools at ages 11 or 12. But the survey showed that changing attitudes were making this an unpopular choice, often resulting in expats asking to be reassigned to their home countries.

Jacqueline Turner, executive vice president of Princeton, New Jersey-based International Schools Services, works with companies to help them assess the educational options in overseas locations and, in some cases, helps interested organizations manage the process of creating company schools. She explains that with the typically small number of high school-aged students in many remote locations, the cost per student of running an effective high school -- complete with science labs and all the other necessary facilities -- is just too great to make creating a school a reasonable alternative.

So rather than building junior high and high schools, Shell acts to strengthen existing ones. The company contributes a $50,000 annual sponsorship to Geneva, Switzerland-based International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO), a nonprofit group that provides schools worldwide with a set of rigorous, internationally recognized academic standards. Member schools comply with IBO guidelines in offering any of the IBO programs, including Middle Years Programme for children aged 11 to 16 and the Diploma Programme, for students in their last two years of secondary school. These programs incorporate elements such as community service, critical thinking, mandatory acquisition of a second language and in-depth exposure to the cultures of other countries.

The Diploma Programme is offered by roughly 800 schools in 94 countries. The newer Middle Years Programme is currently offered at 100 schools worldwide. A large portion of the Shell grant is dedicated specifically to supporting the rapid growth of this second program.

Shell's support of IBO ensures there are a growing number of high-quality schools available to its employees around the world. But that's not enough if parents can't afford them. "In the past our policies [offered] a pretty generous education allowance provided employees sent their kids back home," Johns explains. "But if they had children with them, all the support they would get would be the average cost of a local education. That normally doesn't pay very much toward an international education in the host city." The new policy allows parents to bring with them the educational allowance amount for their home country, and they can spend it in the host country or even in a nearby third country.

Accompanying partners share experiences.
While solving the education dilemma may do a lot to encourage mobility, HR at Shell knew it would need to do an equally thorough job answering partners' concerns. Expat spouses made two statements through their survey responses: 1) Shell doesn't provide enough predeparture information about the destination and 2) Shell doesn't listen to spouses who've been in-country and want to provide information about their experiences. Johns says, "When you put those two messages alongside each other, it becomes apparent that what you need to do is get the company out of the middle of the equation and have spouses who've been there briefing spouses who are about to go."

It requires some level of courage on the part of the company to give up control of what's communicated to new international assignees. Johns explains, "We had people at one or two locations say to us: 'You can't do that! They'll tell people never to accept housing in such-and-such an area.' And we said, 'And you think that's not going on already?'"

Out of the idea to have spouses share information, The Outpost was born. Sponsored by Shell and staffed by expatriate partners, the Outpost headquarters office opened in The Hague in November 1995. Two years later, 40 local hubs known as information network centers (INCs) have been established worldwide.

Susanne Holtam, Outpost director and a British Shell expat partner of 17 years, says: "In my opinion the strength of this network is that it's run by the families, and we're all potential customers as well. A normal posting lasts three or four years. It's therefore in my own interest to get a reliable information network in place because I'll be needing it in two years' time when it's my family's turn to move on."

One of the ambitious offshoots of The Outpost is the "Global Shell Information Network Centre Conference," held for the first time in April 1997 in The Hague. The conference brought together 49 delegates from 30 locations, including expat partners and HR representatives. The group was assembled to share the experiences of 25 INCs and to begin discussing the creation of a global framework of best policies and practices. To continue the discussion, a second conference is scheduled for March 1998.

The Outpost maintains a database of 11,000 volunteer briefers, which are families who have agreed to discuss informally their experiences with another family about to relocate to an area they have lived in. Outpost staffers use the database to find a demographic match for the new transferees. The Outpost also has formed a welcome committee for new arrivals to the Netherlands, a quarterly magazine for expat families, a library of country-specific materials and a Web site that offers details about country-specific support organizations and resources.

Nicole van Voorst Vader, an 11-year expat spouse from the Netherlands, is based in Houston with her family. She and four other volunteers bring a combined total of 60 years of expatriation experience to the Houston INC. The questions she hears most often relate to schools, the possibility for spouses to work and safety. "A lot of non-American people feel that life might be very dangerous here. So we can say, 'It's not bad at all actually,'" she explains.

Other spousal support programs include vocational assistance for job search fees, professional skills maintenance, course fees and career counseling. Shell reimburses 80 percent of agreed costs up to $4,000 per assignment on expatriation and $2,500 on repatriation.

Shell also has created the Spouse Employment Centre, which focuses on partner education and employment issues. Located right next door to The Outpost, it's easy for both groups to refer customers to each other. It maintains a database of country-specific information about employment opportunities, constraints, helpful agencies, and current and recent spouse successes. It also maintains networks with other employers.

As you might expect from a company so committed to satisfying the needs of its expat workforce, HR is beginning to think about a follow-up survey to check progress.

Whether your organization is a multinational giant like Shell or a small domestic start-up, there are three universal lessons here. First, its important to gather data to support the initiatives you plan to propose to senior managers. Second, it's a good idea to find out what your high-potential employees think of programs that have a personal impact on them. And third, once you've collected their input, move quickly to implement visible changes.

Use Shell's story as a model. The "Outlook Survey" was certainly an awesome project. And Shell's steadfast commitment to implement change is nothing short of inspirational.

Workforce, February 1998, Vol. 77, No. 2, pp. 50-54.