HR leaders from Amgen, Kerry Group, Roche Diagnostics, T-Systems, WE Communications, and Wunderman reveal to Jerene Ang the top considerations for selecting expats, the dos and don’ts, and much more.

Stemming from globalisation and overseas expansion, talent mobility has come a long way in the past 50 years. Eight years ago, PwC released its Talent Mobility 2020 report, detailing the next generation of international assignments. It covered how international assignments have evolved from being mostly driven by large multinationals based in the US and Europe between 1970 and 1990 to the emergence of the mobile worker and technology-enabled virtual assignments to meet the demands of globalisation between 1990 and 2010.

PwC’s report predicted that in the move towards 2020, global mobility will continue to grow in volume, becoming part of the new normal. At the same time, it pointed out while technology will play a key role in global working arrangements and help to support compliance obligations it will not erode the need to have people deployed “on the ground”.

As we inch towards 2020, Santa Fe Relocation’s Global Mobility Survey 2018 revealed about 20% of organisations’ total employee headcount are internationally mobile. Today’s global mobility teams are managing at least one million business travellers and about 250,000 international mobile assignees.

As for whether or not technology will erode the need to have people deployed “on the ground”, Kasia Garvin, senior manager of global mobility at Kerry Group, says: “Our global mobility proposition is well defined and specific to the extent where we use it for talent development, to fill the talent gaps in the regions, and for senior strategic positions to drive business expansion. Technology is always very supportive, but it cannot replace face-to-face interaction and on the ground hands-on training and learning.”

Agreeing with Garvin, Foo Wah Teng, human resources director at Amgen Singapore Manufacturing, adds: “There are skills that digital technologies are still not able to fulfil, and virtual conferencing cannot entirely replace the value of an employee that is fully embedded in an organisation’s local office and culture.”

That said, Foo feels technology can improve the expat experience from several perspectives. This includes helping in easier communication with loved ones back home; and stronger collaboration with colleagues in the expat’s home office which can facilitate better business outcomes and important cross-cultural exchanges. From an HR perspective, he says: “Technology has certainly helped our employee mobility team to better manage our expat management end-to-end process.

“By eliminating cumbersome administration, the team is able to free up more time to better support our relocated employees with the help and support they need to get adjusted to their new environment and work responsibilities.”

Overseas assignments often come with challenges, making it important to identify the right candidates who can succeed in an environment that takes them out of their familiar workspace and comfort zone.
- Foo Wah Teng, human resources director at Amgen Singapore Manufacturing

The expat factor

With the importance of expatriation intact, how should organisations select who to send on assignments as well as ensure diversity in the assignee pool? “Overseas assignments often come with challenges, making it important to identify the right candidates who can succeed in an environment that takes them out of their familiar workspace and comfort zone,” Foo says.

Hence, for Amgen, top considerations for selecting assignees are personality, open-mindedness and flexibility. “Finding your place in a new country’s work culture can be a humbling experience, and it is important to find someone who can adapt to new ways of doing things.”

Similarly, Brandon Lew, VP of human resources at T-Systems Singapore, says: “What I would consider is: What makes them the best candidates for the assignment? How would they contribute to the local team? How would the local assignment develop them? And does the company have the financial capability to support the assignment?”

In the same vein, Goh Chor Lim, head of human resources at Roche Diagnostics Asia Pacific, says: “When selecting candidates for overseas assignments, care is taken to see the person fits the profile, has the necessary skills and expertise, and lastly, will be able to grow and develop as a result of the assignment.”

Apart from the candidate’s adaptability and ability to add value to the business, Jalaine Wong, HR business partner for WE Communications, adds to the list, saying: “We will also consider the costs involved to support the expatriate/overseas assignments as well as the candidate’s culture fit and language capabilities.”

Adding more considerations to the mix is Lynda Ong, talent director for APAC at Wunderman, who says: “There has got to be a match between the aspiration of the individual versus that of the business (especially in the host country). Also, the employee has to have proven commitment and performance in the organisation – there should be an ongoing symbiotic relationship to build.”

Strength in diversity

When asked about the importance of diversity in the assignee pool, Ong says: “It is super important to inject diversity in a business, as it brings about different ideas and perspectives to the table. This has a direct impact to our business as it ensures employees can serve our clients better.”
By industry, the construction sector globally has the least female assignees (92% male, 8% female) followed closely by automotive (88% male, 12% female).
Unfortunately, according to Santa Fe Relocation’s Global Mobility Survey 2018, injecting diversity into the assignee pool is still something organisations are struggling with.

Despite the matter being high on the agenda for global mobility teams, the gender ratio of mobility assignees is still heavily skewed towards men. Only 25% of international assignees are female. By industry, the construction sector globally has the least female assignees (92% male, 8% female) followed closely by automotive (88% male, 12% female).

On the other hand, the consumer products sector reports the highest number of female assignees (64% male, 36% female). In contrast to the above statistics, at Kerry Group, the gender mix on assignment is nearly 50/50. Garvin reveals: “We have about 46% women and 54% men who relocate.”

When asked about how this is achieved, she says: “Our global workforce is also pretty evenly split when it comes to gender, which certainly helps in achieving this balance in our mobility programme.”

At the same time, when selecting a candidate, Kerry Group always looks for the best person for the job regardless of gender. “When searching for the best person for the role, we would never consider whether it is male or female, we look for the best person to do the job. The best candidate always wins regardless of the gender.”

The global ingredients company also strongly focuses on supporting families on assignments, offering various benefits such as school search and education assistance, partner support, language lessons and intercultural training.

“We actually have a number of female assignees with ‘trailing spouses’ who gave up their jobs temporarily in their home locations to go on assignment with their wives, and to look after the family. I think this is still not a very common picture in the global mobility world so we are proud of that.”

It’s difficult to manage an international workforce. There are a lot of complexities and a lot of people typically need to be involved – home and host HR teams, managers, talent team and global mobility team.
- Kasia Garvin, senior manager of global mobility at Kerry Group

The dos and don’ts of managing expats

Selection is only the first part of the expatriation process. Some may even say it’s the easier part. Once the assignee is deployed, the way they are managed may very well determine the success of the assignment. Garvin says: “It’s difficult to manage an international workforce. There are a lot of complexities and a lot of people typically need to be involved – home and host HR teams, managers, talent team and global mobility team.”

For her, a top “do” when managing expats is a close collaboration between the home and host teams. “Home and host need to work very closely together, including talent and global mobility. Make sure there is a career path for that assignee, a repatriation plan, performance, and potential is monitored and measured properly, and that the assignment goes as planned.”

WE Communications’ Wong adds to the “do” list, saying: “I think managing expectations of expatriates is very important. It is becoming increasingly common that we offer expatriates local packages with support for the first three to six months in terms of a housing allowance and a settling allowance. Thereafter, these expatriates are expected to be self-sufficient.”

She points out this is unlike the past, where expats were being provided for very well with housing allowances, children’s education allowance, etc, all taken care of by the employer during their employment stint.

Among the other dos include checking in regularly and giving the expat a local point of contact, as Foo, of Amgen, advises.

“Open communication is important throughout the assignment. Schedule regular check-ins to find out how the assignee is coping and the challenges he/she is facing,” he says.

“At the same time, the difference in cultures and working styles can be daunting. Hence, it is crucial companies make an effort to help the assignee settle in. Local HR personnel and the employee’s teams in the respective countries can be a good resource point for expats.”

On the flip side, things to avoid when managing expats include three key areas: making relocation an HR-only function, making assumptions, and having too many exceptions.

For the first two points, he explains: “HR personnel are of course critical to facilitating overseas assignments, and lead on many of the crucial logistics to make expat roles happen. However, the employee’s team and managers should be an equal part of the process to ensure their time is strategically leveraged and they adapt to the new location well.”

He adds organisations shouldn’t assume there will be no issues with repatriation or assume a candidate’s success at home can be replicated abroad. “End expatriate assignments with a deliberate repatriation process. Repatriation is a time of major upheaval, professionally and personally for expats. Amgen recognises this fact by providing their returning people with career guidance and enabling them to put their international experience to work.”

On the replication of successes, Foo says: “Companies that manage expats successfully use a variety of tools to assess cultural sensitivity from casual observation to formal testing.

Amgen assigns international posts to individuals who not only have the necessary technical skills, but have shown to respect diverse viewpoints, are enthusiastic and have the drive to assimilate in different cultures.”

As for the third point on exceptions, Kerry Group’s Garvin elaborates: “When you see a lot of exceptions in your mobility programme, it might be a good time to review it to establish if it’s fit-for-purpose. Exceptions can be very expensive, are hard to track and measure, and can cause major dissatisfaction among your assignee population.”

Fresh off the plane

With the above considerations in mind, to help you formulate some new mobility initiatives, Human Resources had HR leaders from Wunderman, Amgen, Roche Diagnostics, T-Systems Singapore, and Kerry Group reveal some of the innovative initiatives they have tried.

Wunderman: Focus on the employee

As Wunderman grows rapidly through acquisitions with new expertise verticals, the global digital agency is moving talent (especially specialists) across the world to build and scale certain capabilities globally. These employees are being moved on shorter three to six month stints to provide speed and agility – something much needed in an industry with massive dynamism.

Ong says: “With our core talent strategy revolving around YOUtime (where we focus on you, the employee), we have launched a global exchange programme (YOUSwap) where our high performing employees are exchanged between markets to provide an immersive experience for a shorter period (one month) as part of their development and introducing diversity into the various workspaces.”

Amgen: Moving to fuel employees’ potential

At Amgen, business is constantly evolving, hence the need to proactively invest in staff to develop skills, experiences and leadership capabilities needed for future leadership roles.

Among the various talent development initiatives that help propel the company towards its aspiration of becoming the best place for talent is the global “FUEL Your Potential” programme. The programme provides guidance and tools to help the employee build a successful career and is designed to help them find their competitive edge through understanding the power of diverse leadership.

“Our global ‘FUEL Your Potential’ programme is one such initiative for our manufacturing operations employees to be enrolled under an 18-month talent development programme to develop talent for key roles,” Foo says.

“Between rotating assignments in different Amgen offices throughout the world with the aim to build different skill sets and to learn from different cultural approaches in each new region, employees are able to take ownership of their own career development and take advantage of all the resources available to unleash their true potential and to discover their passion.

“These include targeted efforts that combine on-the-job development, job rotations, mentoring, career development resources and structured learning. This holistic learning approach not only enables Amgen to develop talent in the long run, but empowers employees for their career progression.”

Roche Diagnostics: Taking the express route

In a global company such as Roche Diagnostics, employee mobility is encouraged. In fact, some of the firm’s most successful leaders have multi-market experience.

However, employees may be reluctant to work overseas for family reasons, including leaving elderly parents behind or uprooting the entire family, Goh reveals.

“This, in some measure, took away from the thrill and positive experience of being in a different country. So we decided to introduce a new way of doing international assignments called ‘Express Development Opportunities’ or EDO for short.” The EDO assignments typically last for three months, hence, employees need not relocate their whole family. At the same time, with these assignments, the assignee’s role in their home country is still secure.

“We launched an updated version in 2016 and since then have had close to 100 EDO opportunities, a nearly three-fold increase in the number of people opting for EDOs and countries willing to host overseas employees.”

T-Systems: Optimising costs by leveraging on technology

A new initiative T-Systems is trying out is a dual country arrangement.

Lew elaborates: “This means if an employee is from country A, they will work for country B for a year, but would only stay there for six months. They will spend the remaining six months in their home country. This optimises the costs and leverages on communication technology.”

Kerry Group: Analysing data to improve mobility

Historically, Kerry’s talent management strategy has been quite detached from its mobility programme, Garvin reveals.

Affirming it’s time for a change, the company is currently looking into creating global talent pools through a number of ways such as by reviewing the performance and potential of its assignees, analysing retention rates, reasons for leaving, leavers’ costs, and more.

“Our aim is to gain a bit more insight on how our programme has been performing and how we can improve it and make it more relevant when it comes to employee development,” she says.

“There is lot of work involved, a lot of data and analysis required. However, the results we have seen so far have been very interesting and eye opening. Having quantitative and qualitative data of this kind will help us gain insights into creating a talent programme that is really built for purpose.”

READ THE MAGAZINE: Human Resources, Singapore - August 2018 edition