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Dear Workforce Are We the Only Company Laboring to Manage Our Expats?

September 7, 2011

Dear Gone but Not Forgotten:

First of all, you are not alone in trying to deal with this situation. Many corporations, regardless of whether they have tens or hundreds of assignees, wrestle with these issues with expats. The key factor in managing this process is to have a well-documented operational handbook that covers all the elements. Creating and documenting such a manual is a very dynamic and fluid process. Be prepared to modify or make additions to the procedures on a regular basis.

Why? Each assignment tends to have its own variations from what you establish to be the "norm."

The key elements in establishing a procedural guide fall into the following categories:

• Establishing the assignment criteria

• Recruiting and selection process

• Compensation and benefits

• Establish global mobility services

• Repatriation, localization, or reassignment procedures

• Involuntary termination and resignation.

The central theme embedded in all of the above is: "Expect the unexpected and establish a process or hierarchy to deal with it." Just when you think things are going smoothly, a request will be made that may seem to be off-the-wall to you—but is significant to the expat. It is important to document all exceptions for future reference.

The two areas that corporations have the most difficulty dealing with are: (1) recruitment and (2) re-entry of the expat after the assignment is complete. Most companies report that the latter is a serious issue and that re-entry is generally not handled well. Books could be written about this aspect alone.

The critical work starts with establishing a detailed basis or need for the assignment. Companies tend to do this very well. Technical proficiency, experience, job descriptions and domestic compensation are all aspects of hiring at which human resources personnel excel. They perform this work domestically on a regular basis and have significant experience in replacing positions that turn over. The frequency of interviewing and employing expatriates is low (probably 1,000 or more domestic hires to one expatriate), and there is little or no room for failure. Given the cost of the assignment, the visibility of the employee internally and internationally (the expat is not only the face of your company but an ambassador for your country), HR should choose wisely. History is littered with examples of technically superior expatriates who take an assignment overseas and fail. This happens to good employees because they do not have the complete skill set required to live and work in a foreign country.

Consider the following as additional qualifications for an expatriate position:

• Has the employee or recruit lived overseas?

• Will he or she fit culturally in the host country?

• Is cultural/language training or orientation required?

• Is there a family involved or are there other special considerations?

• Are we capable of supporting an expat from here?

• Who will be the host country liaison?

If you are considering an internal transfer, you will have more valid information and performance history than you would with an external hire. External candidates need to be reviewed more diligently; this should include background/security checks, financial status and an intense review of previous employment history.

What's the best overall advice? Since you are going to spend anywhere from $300,000 to upwards of $1 million on each expatriate assignment, why not invest 10 percent of one assignment with a dedicated consultant/resource? A good adviser deals with these issues on a regular basis and can assist in building a structure that you can utilize into the future. In this way, whenever you hear these six dreaded words—"We need to hire an expat"—you know exactly how to approach the challenge.

SOURCE: Ed Dombkowski, director, global special benefits practice leader, Buck Consultants, Berwyn, Pennsylvania

LEARN MORE: Relocation is now viewed as part of long-term talent development, but companies face new challenges in getting employees on board with the idea.

Workforce Management Online, August 2011 -- Register Now!

The information contained in this article is intended to provide useful information on the topic covered, but should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion. Also remember that state laws may differ from the federal law.

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