18 September 2012

Employment Eligibility Compliance: The Big Uneasy

As a new HR person one of the first things I learned was the importance of the I-9 "Employment Eligibility Verification Form."  I started my career working for a small private school that offered me the position of HR manager after a couple of years of working as an Executive Secretary to the Dean.  A natural choice as I was already doing some of the tasks that HR would do (mainly staffing type functions) in addition to my other duties.
The Conjurer, Heironymous Bosch (circa 1450-1516)

The school had grown in three years from about 35 employees to about 100 employees.  Someone on the Board of Directors at the school knew it was time to have a dedicated HR person.  I received excellent training from Fairfield University - they had a comprehensive HR Management Certificate Program at the time that met for a full year two times a week.

On the surface, the I-9 form looks pretty easy to complete. Yet it has been estimated that roughly two-thirds of these forms at both corporations large and small have errors.  And ones that are not easily corrected.

I prepared a presentation which is available online for an area law firm recently to explain how to ensure your I-9 form is completed appropriately and which also provides information on the E-Verify system.

A few points to mention from this on correcting errors:
  • Do not use white-out.  If a mistake occurs during completion of the I-9 form, cross out the error, initial and date it, inserting the correct information.  Note:  Only the person responsible for the section with the error may correct that section of the document.
  • Only the employee may complete, sign and date Section 1.  Corrections to this section may only be made by the employee, initialed and dated.
  • According to the I-9 form, "federal law provides for imprisonment and/or fines for false statements or use of false documents in connection with the completion of this form." 
And those fines can really add up:

Fine per occurrence
Description of error
$110 – $1,100 per form
Improper completion, retention, storage or if not available for inspection
$250 - $5,500 per worker
plus criminal prosecution
Knowingly hiring an unauthorized
$375 - $3,200 per document, first offense
$3,200 - $6,500 per subsequent offense               
Knowingly commits or participates in document fraud

Even a small firm can end up with sizable fines as a result of an audit of their I-9 paperwork.  The best way to address this issue is by doing an internal audit of your I-9 paperwork.
"Just a small fine or a slap on the wrist is not a deterrent...we see more robust criminal cases...the prospect of 10 years in prison carries much sharper teeth than just a small fine....We want to send the message that your cost of business just went up because you risk your livelihood, your corporate reputation and your personal freedom." 
"....individuals who have profited from hiring illegal aliens....we're going after their houses, their Mercedes and any money that they have, as well."
-Julie Myers, Department of Homeland Security Assistant Secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Previous Director of ICE)

08 September 2012

Presenteeism: Misery loves company

In April of this year, Speechly Bircham and King's College London published its annual "State of HR" survey.  It reports that the problem of employee 'Presenteeism' has taken the lead over employee engagement as an area of key focus for the human resources function at top organizations.

The Schoolmaster, Rene Magritte, 1954
Presenteeism is just what it sounds like, people working too many hours due to job insecurity - or coming to work ill.  The motivation to work longer hours for the same pay seems to be a result of staffing issues and/or people feeling pressure to show their value to corporations that are looking to trim staff.  Just because an employee shows up early and stays late doesn't automatically mean that they are more productive.  Laura Kirkhaar, MBPsS, BSc, MSc in an article she published on occupational-psychology.com claims:
"This does not mean that productivity could be enhanced if people were advised not to show up for work when they are ill, but rather indicates that while productivity loss from absenteeism may be high, productivity loss from presenteeism is probably even higher, because it is more prevalent then absenteeism, but much less accounted for."(1)
Six years ago, people who weren't happy were more likely to find a job somewhere else.  Now these same people are showing up and could be bringing everyone down with them.  Statistics reporting the number of employee relations have been on the rise since the downturn with HR directors polled expecting these to continue to increase.

In an extreme case of workplace violence, a man shot his former supervisor in the shadow of the Empire State Building last month.  It's a cold reminder of how desperate people will risk all to take out their revenge.  One longtime former co-worker of both men was quoted by the New York Times as stating the cause of their animosity was, “...chalk it up to two guys being around each other too much.”(2) Sounds like 'presenteeism' to me...

Another dynamic of this case was that the shooter was 17 years older than his supervisor.  I'm not suggesting that this is toxic in all cases, however, an older person reporting to a younger boss is an exercise in humility which could be a difficult obstacle to overcome.  SHRM reported in 2011 in an on-line survey of its members that 26% of workers are now older than their boss.(3)

This will only happen more and more as people are less and less able to retire.  Surely the desire to do leave service is still there, but the savings is just not.  According to USA Today, people are expecting to work until they are 70 or older.(4)  While less than 20% of employers provide developmental training for older workers according to the same State of HR survey mentioned earlier.  The challenge is how to engage workers who may not feel that they are as valued as they used to be.

The stress associated with job insecurity combined with working longer hours and perhaps feeling less valued creates a strained environment for everyone.  There is no one size fits all solution to this (or any other problem really). This part of what demands HR practitioners to be creative, innovative and what also makes HR so challenging.

Fact is, many times people achieve manager status by working their way up from lower positions.  This doesn't always mean that they have obtained the special skills required for managing others along the way.  It's not easy to change a PTO policy, as it is to invest in helping managers to be more effective.  

If I could pinpoint one area that, no matter what's going on in the world, could always benefit from attention is the relationship between manager and boss.  I believe that managers, for better or worse, set the tone for the whole organization.  Time spent in ensuring effective relationships between manager and employee is a great investment.  It's not a popularity contest, rather good managers keep the right people happy, effective and secure and quickly and defensibly remove those that aren't a fit.

Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.   
- Winston Churchill

21 August 2012

The High Cost of Expat-Lite Programs

M.C. ESCHER (Dutch, 1898-1972), Rind, 1955.  

Current economic conditions have forced companies to take a look at their policies to see what can be trimmed.  For expatriate programs, corporations that did not already have a pared-down assignment program may be interested in incorporating one now as a result of an effort to introduce across-the-board austerity measures.

But to incorporate expatriate programs with a reduced benefits structure may actually increase the number of assignees that you probably wouldn't or shouldn't have sent in the first place and thereby inadvertently increase the overall cost of your international assignment program.

As many have learned the hard way, an attempt to save money while sending people on assignment almost begs to be thwarted.  In the end, what you may find is that you've done is actually introduced a more expensive program to move individuals who might have otherwise accepted a local package.  Also you may risk adding to the administrative costs of managing your assignment program.

Before outlining a stripped expatriate package, examine the reasons you are seeking to offer a reduced package.  Are there candidates that you would gladly send on assignment if only it were more affordable?  

Generally, it's not a bad idea to have an expat-lite program as long as you are looking to move more talent internationally -- not to move the same talent at less cost.  These programs may be right for lower level employees, or for those who have elected for themselves to go on assignment.  But don't expect that typical candidates for full assignment packages will be interested in (or even should) accept an expat-lite program, though.

MBA rotational programs or leadership development programs can work well if implemented as their own separate and distinct programs.  However, keep in mind that newer and lower level employees may have difficulty obtaining host country work authorizations in some locations.  Especially with some countries moving to tighten their borders to shore up the loss of local jobs.  Examine the candidates, their capabilities as well as likely home and host combinations ahead of time.  As with assignments, the selection of these candidates should be nominated by the company and not be open to 'volunteers' without a business case to send them.

If there is a strong desire to move talent that you may not have a solid business reason to justify one (meaning a temporary assignment with a plan to return or go onto another locale) then consider moving that talent on a local basis.  You may consider spending the time on defining a standardized local-to-local package that works.  It may be the standard local offer that includes international move benefits, language and cross-cultural support.  Key benefits to keep transferees (and you) out of trouble.
While some companies think of bringing back a deceptively simple lump sum (bucket o' money laissez faire) approach to international assignments.  Some companies are moving in quite the other direction.  They notice that offering a housing allowance rather than a housing reimbursement may encourage assignees to live in a cheaper area that could have safety issues.  Reduced oversight and management of assignment benefits may in effect 'buy' more trouble.

Wiechert Realty in their 2011 Trends report observed that some companies are incorporating a tiered approach to managing assignment benefits.  A cafeteria program that sometimes referred to as a 'Flex-patriate' assignment.  All assignees receive core benefits such as immigration, travel to the new location and tax equalization - while all other assignment benefits are optional and determined on a case by case basis.  I could see that such an approach may lead to more lost time in negotiating and then having to administer each package one-by-one.

At the same time, companies would do well to avoid the trap of sending persons who should go on a full assignment package on a local-to-local basis.  If there is a real intention for that person to return home, then to send that person on a local basis may experience costly tax implications.  In addition, employees may experience potential adverse hits to nationalized benefit programs.  The company should also clarify its approach company retirement programs as well as the tax treatment of and payment of long-term incentive plans for which this group may be eligible.  Well-run assignment programs foresee and address these issues - local offers will not.

There is either a business case or there is not - and the expatriate program is generally designed to foster international mobility.  The benefits are not offered arbitrarily and without good reason.  Paring them back in a vacuum may have unexpected implications.

A clever man commits no minor blunders. 
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

13 August 2012

Interview: Challenges for Expatriates in Saudi Arabia

In researching challenges for energy companies into key markets I had the benefit of being introduced to John Douglass, SPHR, CCP who was, at the time, head of compensation and benefits for Tatweer Petroleum.  I'd sent him some questions by email and though he was in the final weeks of his assignment in Bahrain he took the time to provide compelling and informative answers.

John Douglass, SPHR, CCP
John Douglass is an experienced human resources professional with significant expertise in leading Mideast organizations compensation and benefits strategies.  He is known for his development of domestic and international compensation and benefits programs, as well as his leadership and succession planning, and manpower analysis and planning skills.   A scholar of the region, he leverages his HR expertise with an understanding of the local language, culture, and religions in the Mideast region.  He may be contacted through his LinkedIn profile:  http://bh.linkedin.com/pub/john-douglass-sphr-ccp/4/4b4/ba5

Below are my questions to Mr. Douglass and his answers.  I am very grateful for his assistance in providing me a real and first-person account of what it's like to be assigned to the middle east and the challenges faced by companies in supporting assignments during the Arab Spring of 2011.

LS:  According to HSBCs survey of expats regarding their assignment conditions, they indicate that Expats into Saudi Arabia rate it as #1 in the way of financial advantages of that location - however, it rates as the least desirable location from an assignment experience perspective.  What are your thoughts on this?
JD:  Most Saudi employers have reasonably well-developed HR functions that allow them to understand compensation trends throughout the ME region.  They know that for expats from western cultures the leap to the Saudi culture is a long one, so they normally incorporate a premium for this in their cash compensation packages.  Most expats have no home country tax obligations – the tax break is less favorable for Americans and Canadians.   
The other positive financial factor is the propensity to save since there is little else to do during off-duty hours.  A lot depends on the social inclinations and family situation of the expat in question.  The single expat that likes the social scene after work and on weekends would find the KSA scene a chore.  Likewise the Saudi environment is no longer a great place for a married person to bring up/educate children. 
For the expat who is comfortable with compound living, the friendships made within a closely knit expat community can make the Saudi experience a positive one.  I have found the female spouses, with all the Saudi restrictions that apply, to be very special people – they tend to get together with other women and be determined to turn the overall experience into a positive one.

LS:  Do you think it's more difficult to get an American or European to accept assignments in the middle east?  Or, is it not a factor as most who are offered such roles have been there many times as business travelers and so by the time they get an assignment offer - they are not afraid of the location and have no issues with accepting?
JD:  It’s generally easier to attract Europeans with good English skills.  Skilled American workers who have not been in an expat role tend to believe fictional stories about the Middle East and look for higher compensation packages.   
Additionally, it’s just a shorter trip from Europe than from North America – flying home for the weekend is a realistic expectation for the European – and as my good friend, Paul Diggins, says:  “…it is also a lot longer plane ride here from Kankakee than from Kaiserslautern…”.  Recruiters indicate they generally have difficulty getting job offer acceptances from Americans and Europeans when they are misinformed about the region (often) and/or have had a bad experience here (rare).

LS:  We've seen a lot about the Arab Spring's effect on assignments into countries like Egypt and Syria.  An article published by SOS (an emergency evacuation company) indicates there were a record number of evacuations following these events.  Do you think these evacuations were really necessary?  
JD:  Those of us who were in the region during the “Arab Spring” found the coverage by the international press to be abysmal.  The press had the opportunity to investigate the nature of the unrest in a number of nations and educate our friends/families/colleagues in the West about the nuances and cultural differences here and blew it.  They wanted to paint a picture of a wide spread movement of democracy and the ouster of cruel despots – indeed, there was some of this, but each of the situations in the different countries was different and far more complicated. 
Evacuations in Libya and Syria have been necessary given the level of violence in the unrest.  The instability of these populations and governments made the conduct of business impossible and rendered moot the need for employees on the ground.  In other places like Bahrain where I was, the press completely misrepresented what was going on and grossly exaggerated the time and level of violence.   
While there were some evacuations in Bahrain, most of us believe they were generally knee-jerk reactions on the part of a few risk averse companies (and individuals in some cases).  The reality is that expats on the ground know exactly how dangerous things are and the areas they should avoid when they are hot spots.  Bottom line:  evacuations not necessary in large part and somewhat damaging from a business, economic, and employee psyche standpoint.

LS:  What would you say are the biggest challenges that energy companies in particular face in sending assignees into the middle east?  
JD:  The first concern is for the cultural differences.  The oil and gas companies tend to send expats who have been working the fields primarily in North America and the North Sea area.  They do so all too often without first orienting them to the significant changes in local customs, culture, religion, and language.  For many expats this is a much larger leap than they expected and the result is a poor ambassador for his/her home country and company. 
Another challenge is mercurial and unpredictable nature of local companies and their managers when it comes to expat employees and their roles in the organization.  Expats have to understand that “nationalization” takes priority and they will always be treated as temporary workers or visitors.  Multinationals that deploy many of their top people to joint ventures in international locations have to ensure that proper repatriation is incorporated into the career development and succession planning of the global company.  Local ME oil and gas organizations are often joint ventures that include national government entities, multinational professional staff, and high-level local national managers; getting everyone on the same page in this environment can be challenging to say the least.
Many thanks to Mr. Douglass for taking the time to work with me and provide me with these thoughtful answers.

06 August 2012

Nine Global Assignment Success Factors

There are some factors that facilitate a successful expatriation experience that workers can directly influence.  But then there are factors over which one has limited control.  Rather than focus on the problems that people experienced while on assignment, I would like to hone in on nine common traits shared by persons on assignment who enjoyed a positive experience.
  1. Career:  Strong home and host company sponsorship for the assignment.
  2. Career:   Invested in personal development and active in managing their own succession planning.
  3. Career:   Rationale, goals and next steps after the assignment were well planned and articulated at the start.
  4. Personal:  Handles unexpected challenges with calm resourcefulness.
  5. Personal:  Strong level of emotional intelligence and strong intuition in working with others.
  6. Personal:  Highly adaptable and flexible individuals who are grounded realists rather than idealists.
  7. Family:  Uncomplicated and/or stable family situation.
  8. Family:   Preschool children or young (and adaptable) teens.
  9. Family:   Relatively unencumbered lifestyle, e.g, no animal menagerie. 

Some of these points cannot be easily influenced by the employee alone.  For example, certain factors like having to work out something like shared-custody of children has nothing to do with one's suitability for an assignment from a career/capability standpoint.  Personal factors are something that makes candidate selection so challenging for corporations.  Management, supervisors and human resources professionals, are required to focus solely on work competencies in candidate selection.

Do you have the right stuff?

Another factor that is beyond the control of an employee is being selected for the assignment in the first place.  Truth is, from my standpoint, nothing is more off-putting than someone who is campaigning heavily for an expatriate assignment.  There was a situation where an individual at one place I'd worked arranged their own interview for an assignment in a foreign office when there was no open position nor business rationale for an international assignment.  What a colossal waste of time for all involved!

Sometimes the best decision may be to not go on an assignment.  This is why I recommend open access to tools to help employees to make an early and informed decision about their own foreign assignment suitability.  Without access to such resources, countless hours are wasted on inappropriate candidates or failed assignments.  There are platforms available through most firms that offer cross-cultural training to run self-assessments to determine one's own capacity for an international assignment.  Avoiding one failed assignment could justify access to such a platform.

Three mindful suggestions in being selected:
  • Assess personal and family readiness;
  • If the timing is right, then make openness to international assignment known;
  • Be patient for the right opportunity.
Remember that (like many things) offers of a foreign assignment is not something that can be made to happen if it's not meant to be.  And, if an individual is successful in pushing for an assignment that's lead by personal desire over true business need, then the justification will be too weak to sustain overall career continuity - if you know what I mean!

Expatriation Commando-style

If someone has a strong desire to work internationally, there's absolutely nothing wrong with this.  If that person is impatient for an international opportunity to happen, then my recommendation would be to look for open and posted positions at foreign offices in target locations.  If there is a good fit, inform management, apply, interview and, if offered, then accept the role as a 'local' hire.  Expect that the standard (rich/costly) international assignment benefits will not be included.  Among the many factors to be considered, the following should be anticipated:
  • Relocation benefits may not be included;
  • Nationalized pension schemes (e.g., social security) contributions will not continue;
  • Prepare for double-taxation - no tax equalization benefit;
  • Foreign work authorizations will have a time limitation to them, and options for permanent residency are often limited by the nationality of the employee and the country being entered;
  • International school fees, language training and settling-in services would likely not be included in the offer;
  • If things don't work out, the position is eliminated or immigration options are exhausted, there is no corporate sponsor to ensure a return role or to cover repatriation expenses.
As technology brings the world together and companies require those in leadership roles to have demonstrated global working experience, the number of assignments are only expected to increase according to a recent study by Towers Watson.1  I would advise people starting out to include some type of overseas exchange, internship or assignment to their early on in their experiential history.   The later in the career, the higher the stakes for the company and employee.
"Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength, mastering yourself is true power."
- Lao-Tzu

02 August 2012

The Global Mobility Identity Crisis

Often, the international assignment function seems to suffer from an identity crisis.  I began to notice that colleagues managing this function seemed to vary in terms of the departments to which they were aligned.  Though each alignment presents it's own challenges, I would recommend each organization to look inward and examine if the international assignment program is located to best achieve internal goals.
"Self-portrait" 1861 Henri Fantin-Latour
Resourcing Alignment
I have observed cases where the global mobility program may belong, from a reporting standpoint, to the recruiting function as some of the tasks (e.g., relocation, immigration, on-boarding) seem to relate to bringing in talent to various areas within the company.  However some issues may be present with this alignment, for example:
  • Separation from talent management and succession planning function:  resourcing is more concerned with filling gaps than planning next steps for successful candidates.  
  • The tendency for recruiting to 'bend the rules' to attract a candidate could lead to more policy exceptions which in turn can make running a consistent program a real challenge.
Tax Concerns
This group is concerned with tax compliance.  Though this is an aspect of assignment management that is growing in importance, it is not the end all and be all.  Allowing audit-fear to run an international assignment program may be a 'safe' approach, this alignment may not enable a corporation to get the most out of its assignment program.  Instead of reporting to tax, or assigning a tax professional to the function - there should be a strong partnership to leverage the support-strength of the corporate tax function.

Reporting to Compensation and Benefits
Compensation professionals have an affinity for creating global alignment between job descriptions, and they may view the expatriate program as a series of perquisites or benefits enjoyed by an elite population.  Though this alignment will enable better connection to things like bonus, multi-year incentive programs, stock options and deferred compensation program - this alignment may lead to the expatriate function moving from strategy to more of an analytic support function.  

Connection to Talent
Though not often seen, I feel that the best alignment may be to the talent management function.  I feel that an expatriate program, at it's best, is a development program for the high-potential employees within an organization.  The talent group has a strong investment in retaining key talent and planning for key leadership positions within the organization through succession planning.  Often persons feel lost at the end of the assignment in terms finding a good fit for their next role (or worse, no role at all). 

Who owns the international assignment function communicates where the values of the company are focused in terms of the benefits expected from the global mobility program.  Consider the benefits of aligning to talent management and succession planning if developing and retaining key talent is your ultimate program goal.

“You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.”
― C.S. Lewis

For more on the topic of global mobility alignment, check out this white paper written as a result of my collaboration with Mobility Services International. In the article behind this link there is a further exploration of the link to global mobility alignment and program goal achievement (see pages 5 and 6).

10 July 2012

An Inconvenient Truth: HR, you're only as good as your vendors!

All Human Resources professionals are either supported by (or at the mercy of) the providers that support their organizations.

For, among others, the following services:
    Picasso, "Girl before a Mirror" - 1932  
  • Employment Law & Immigration
  • Medical Insurance
  • Benefits Management
  • Leave Administration
  • Drug Testing
  • Work Life Balance
  • Training
  • Recruiting
  • Payroll
  • Tax
  • Relocation, etc.

It usually goes that we inherit providers selected by previous managers.  And, most of the time, the HR people dealing with the day-to-day issues with a vendor don't get to select those vendors, or learn to make up for what that provider may not do so well - as an act of preservation.  It's just what good HR people learn to do...

Much tips the scales towards one provider or another, usually its price and capabilities.  Because at most companies the RFP process is so arduous, it does save time to go with an all-in-one provider.  You may go with one provider for Relocation support and also look for the potential to add other services on an as-needed basis.

Smaller specialized firms deserve a closer look.  Some reasons include:
  • VIP Client-Status: I've observed that some larger service providers you may be one of many clients and get lost in the crowd;
  • Real Subject Matter Expertise: A law firm that only specializes in employment law or immigration just has a distinct advantage;
  • Advocacy:  These firms may have their own lobbyists to influence positive change.

This means that some specialized providers may be at a disadvantage over larger firms.  Larger firms with sales departments just as large as their customer service group.  I'm not casting dispersion on this, it's just good business.

Time and time again, the same service providers have a habit of making the same mistakes.  Human Resources will call them in with a list of areas for improvement, see service improve for a time, and then slowly but surely things start slipping again.  

But, avoid some pitfalls, if possible:
  1. Though you may be tempted, avoid asking specialized providers to do something they are not equipped to do.
  2. Don't leave them hanging.  Ensure the provider is well-connected to point people in your organization and understands your culture.
  3. Avoid being a 'guinea pig' for a new service they may be adding to their offerings.  Wait at least a full year or two until they work out the kinks.
  4. Your provider may get bought-out by another larger organization.  
In my industry, international relocation, there has been a lot of consolidation of settling-in providers in particular.  Though it takes more time, finding the best provider with local offices in your key markets is the best approach, in my opinion.  

People in the Expatriate Management business will probably know who I'm talking about - because two major settling-in providers were 'swallowed' up by one.  What I've seen is the really good local consultants are putting out their own shingles.  I think there may be a reason.  

But even before the consolidation, I had some major misgivings about the service provided by some of the formerly independent agencies.  The usual breakdown is something like the following:

The Hourly Approach
  • Half-day program for business travelers;
  • Full-day program for short-term assignments;
  • Three days for single assignments;
  • Six-days for assignees with families.
Some providers offer a flat-fee approach.  Services such as Intrepid New Yorker offers a service that for a flat rate, they will do what ever it takes to acclimate your assignee to the area.  They often have consultants that have relocated internationally themselves and have a first-hand appreciation of its complexity.  They are able to offer a real-time cross-cultural training approach to their settling-in services.  

Other firms will hire current real estate agents; and while these agents have a lot of transferable skills and knowledge that will help your transferee - I worry that their real estate agent will rear it's head and before you know it they'll be showing houses to purchase not rent - which hurts assignee mobility and causes other downstream problems seen during the bubble when housing took a nose-dive.  

  1. Negotiate a flat rate, not an hourly rate with your settling-in provider;
  2. Look for firms that only do settling-in support;
  3. Identify firms who use former real-estate agents (not active ones) and transferees;
  4. Find firms that have consultants that you can contact directly - not ones that you have to go through many layers;
  5. Ensure that assignees only have to do one intake needs-assessment and that information is shared between the relocation consultant and the settling-in service.

“Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”  
― George Bernard Shaw

13 June 2012

The Assignee has HIV: What would you do?

An article in the latest SHRM on HIV and AIDS in the workplace got me thinking.  It made me think about a scenario where someone might be selected to go on an international assignment who later was discovered was HIV positive. 

The article states that people with HIV and AIDS are living longer and capable of making valuable contributions as any other employee would, though it's true that their life expectancy is shortened by as much as 21 year's according to some reports.

Does your company do pre-assignment health screenings?
I worked for a company that offered pre-assignment health screenings overseas, but they weren't mandatory and I never saw someone refused an assignment due to the results.  We didn't request or require them for U.S. employees due to avoid issues with entering conversations to do with a person's medical records.  

I would encourage assignees to, once selected for assignment, visit their doctor for a full physical.  This would enable the employee to get up-to-date medical records and obtain any maintenance prescriptions before the assignment's start.

I'm not sure if this is something that companies may want to revisit, though.  Issues of discrimination due to disability might be raised if not handled well.  Issues of confidentiality and the employee's future might perceived to be unavoidably damaged due to the stigma.

Some issues I've faced:
  • An assignee has a heart attack;
  • Serious car accident landing the transferee in ICU;
  • An adult family member with mental retardation in the care of the assignee or in a group home requiring frequent visits;
  • An accompanying child with severe autism;
  • An accompanying spouse with mental illness;

There was nothing in our policy to require that persons going on assignment be physically fit to carry out the assignment.

It's a worthwhile exercise to discuss how your organization would handle this issue.  Perhaps involving the person charged with fulfilling the companies diversity and inclusion program.

Facts to consider:
  • Some countries (such as Russia and others) have travel restrictions pertaining to persons visiting or working who have HIV or AIDS.
  • A visit to certain countries may increase exposure to deadly illnesses and adds risk for people with compromised immune systems.
  • If symptoms become acute, this could force a premature end to the assignment.
  • There may be reduced access to appropriate medical care.
  • Consider how comprehensive your medical coverage for AIDS is...
Points for discussion:
  1. Should there be a stated policy to address, or could it be in an 'implementation guide' that would be accessible to Expatriate Managers only?
  2. What if it's a family member who has contracted HIV or AIDS?  Should there be a policy to address liability issues if the family decides that they should still accompany.
  3. Would you rule out a prospective assignee who informs you of a chronic illness?  
  4. How would you a chronic illness of an assignee discovered pre-assignment?
  5. How would you handle a chronic illness that is contracted or becomes acute during the assignment?
  6. Have you had an assignee, or accompanying family member with chronic illness?
  7. Is it possible to limit the companies liability if a person contracts a serious illness during the assignment?
  8. Are you equipped to handle a death during the assignment?
  • Develop a policy to address persons with chronic illness, or persons that become ill or disabled during their assignment.
  • Ensure that your insurance coverage (both life and welfare) is adequate for assignees needs.
  • Work with your legal counsel and plan ahead for such instances.
A case could be made that an assignee would not be able to travel freely or obtain a work visa, depending on the assignment, and this could not be accommodated - end of story.  But it's a delicate issue and it certainly gets the HR policy juices flowing I would think...

12 June 2012

Seven Ideas to Make You an HR Super-Star

First, I have some very happy personal news to share.  I'm working with Mobility Services International (MSI) on a series of whitepapers. You can bet that as soon as that link is "live" - you'll be the second to know!  The first is an article that looks at the benefits of using a third-party provider to manage expatriate payroll.

Spoiler alert:  I'm very much in favor of using this service.  I'm jealous of those firms that have already made the move.

I think it may be helpful to Expatriate Managers who may not already have the benefit of using such a service.  As a a 'baby' Expatriate Manager, I wish I'd had the foresight to go with one of these firms early in my tenure with some of the firms with which I'd worked.  

There is a tendency for organizations start out paying expatriate benefits and salary through local payrolls, even though (with few exceptions) the likelihood of making errors is high and with it the risk of non-compliance by following this practice.  

Newly hired, the expatriate manager will focus on the laundry list of issues to address by their managers.  Early on I would interview assignees to find out where their 'pain points' were.  A good source of information, but the findings may not result in the development of projects that really should be a priority.

I introduced, early on, a global medical plan with emergency evacuation services.  Not a bad thing, however, I do wish I'd focused on outsourcing international payroll.  It surely would have cleared the way for the work that most of us prefer to do.  Running payroll and ensuring tax compliance will quickly fill your days, weeks and months - stealing time from the more visible projects.

I do recall a move to a vendor to manage expense processing and invoice processing related to expatriates.  This was a beautiful thing indeed, but only part of the solution.  It gave me the unforeseen capability to introduce pilot programs using alternate or specialized vendors.  

Here are some tips to make your life easier and be the super-star that you want to be:
  1. Work with an external law firm that specializes in Immigration Law -  preferably one with overseas offices for cases where there is no on-the-ground HR to manage visa-sourcing.  Many third-party law firms try to offer one-stop shopping for their corporate legal needs.  It's nice to be able to use a firm that can do the occasional outbound visa work.
  2. Develop a good world-wide network of vendors to handle settling-in support.  Key markets should have 'go to' agents that know your company well and know your priorities for your assignee's on-boarding to the host location.
  3. Find a great international bank to support your assignees specialized banking needs.
  4. Do use a global medical program provider that offers evacuation support.  It can be literally a life-saver.
  5. Get to know your peers.  I love to network and share good ideas.  Some of the best ones have come from other people in the business.  
  6. Take the time to meet with vendors who want your business.  Many of us in HR have to deal with the sales call now and then and have learned to get them off the phone as soon as possible. Make their day and let them take you to lunch.  They spend a great deal of time learning trends, may have some great ideas, and can introduce you to other expatriate managers.
  7. Read and share great industry blogs :-)
You may already be a super-star, and if so, let's talk and share some ideas!

"Creativity, as has been said, consists largely of rearranging what we know in order to find out what we do not know. Hence, to think creatively, we must be able to look afresh at what we normally take for granted."  - George Kneller

22 May 2012

When a compliment isn't...

If I could pin-point one area of difficulty when it comes to managing assignments it would be compliments paid to employees working internationally.  Anyone who travels internationally for work on a consistent basis will inevitably be paid complements.  One of the highest being, you should work here in this country!

It's a wonderful complement, but it could lead to an employee relations issue.  Yet it goes on, because people are people.  Most of the time, though, it's an empty compliment that can't be followed through on.  For many reasons, none of which have to do with the person's capabilities.

One should instead add caveats to the statement, I would like you to work here in this country...
  • if we had the budget;
  • if it were up to me;
  • if I were the right one to make it happen;
  • if I could get approval;
  • if it made sense to the organization.  

I don't honestly know if this happens more in one country culturally than another.  From what I have learned, I would say that Americans may be guilty of the sin of making empty promises on the alter of paying a high compliment.

In my role as Expatriate Manager, I would occasionally receive calls from a employees who wanted to learn more about the global mobility policy after someone spoke to them, in passing, about the possibility of working abroad.  A natural next step to an effective employee.

Not only would it mean time spent in conducting a detailed briefing on the policy, occasionally it would mean taking up the work of damage control.  Also, by offering the briefing, it inevitably sets other 'balls' in motion.  More questions are raised than answered.  I've seen people begin looking for areas to live, international schools to send children to, when and how to market and sell homes, etc., only to find there is no means to send them on assignment.

What a let-down it can be when one is, in a way, offered the opportunity to work abroad to learn that there is nothing to back it up.
Compliments cost nothing, yet many pay dear for them.
- Thomas Fuller  

10 May 2012

Just get married already!

For some, the institution of marriage holds no compelling force over their lives and relationships.  Even having children with a partner doesn't persuade some to 'take the plunge.'  Having been a married person for over 20 years (to the same person!) I can only guess as to their reasons, but here goes:

Some reasons why a committed couple might not either choose (or be able) to wed:
  1. One (or both) may still be married to someone else.
  2. They may have a same-sex partner.
  3. They are not planning on having children and don't see the need.
  4. They haven't been together long enough.
  5. The risk of financial loss in the event of a divorce is too scary.
  6. They just plain don't believe in traditional marriage.
  7. and many more...
Though the implications of being in a non-married pair today have little daily consequence- - even unmarried partners may insure each other in most employee benefit plans.  There are certain institutions which see things pretty much black and white.

It would be no surprise to learn that one of those institutions is the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS).  To whom it may concern - the "defense of marriage" is live and well when it comes to foreign nationals obtaining status in the U.S.  Though everyday state legislatures are passing resolutions to permit same-sex couples to marry, these marriages are not recognized by the Federally-run USCIS.

The difference between being a married couple and just a couple is light-years away.  Married partners can:
  • obtain their own status as a dependent of a U.S. visa-holder.
  • depending on the visa type of the spouse, may be able to work in the U.S.
  • get a U.S. state driver's license.
  • decide to study at a U.S. college or university.
  • open a U.S. bank account.
  • and so on...
Perhaps it goes without saying that unmarried partners cannot do any of the above - they are seen only  as visitors.  It may be possible to obtain special visitor status in the U.S., but all this seems to do is give the option to remain in the country for, perhaps, 180 days instead of the typical 90-day limit.  Other than that, in the eyes of the USCIS, you're simply passing through.

Being in international assignment management, you become involved in people's lives in ways that you are happy to avoid as an HR Generalist.  Typical walls about what one knows about an employee's personal life are broken down.  Here are just a few examples of details you'll quickly find yourself knowing about an international assignee:
  • Marital and relationship status.
  • Sexual orientation.
  • Nationality of an employee's spouse and children.
  • Special needs of children and/or adult dependents.
  • Home ownership.
  • Number and types of pets.
  • Et Cetera...
So when I do learn that someone in a a long-term relationship intends to bring their non-spouse partner with them to the U.S., I simply lay out the cold hard facts about their partner's status in the U.S. and then wait for it to sink in.  Some will take some time to run the pros and cons and get married a few days, weeks or months later.  Some will have to separate.  Some will accompany their loved one and endure the implications.

I suppose, though I don't completely understand it, I admire the principles of heterosexual couples who, despite all the tangible advantages, still maintain their 'single' status.  Although the person without 'status' in the U.S. will be faced with special challenges every single day.  I do think this would affect the relationship between the pair, for sure!

I recall one couple in particular, who chose not to marry and even had children together during their assignment, yet chose not to marry.  In fact, it caused an issue when the woman overstayed her I-94 card's expiration because she was in the  hospital giving birth!  Unmarried couples have been pulled into "secondary inspection" which is a nice way of saying being intimidated and questioned by a customs official for as long as they'd like to keep you.

Then there's the same-sex couples who would love to marry, or even have married, but will never have the option of obtaining status in the U.S., unless they find their own employer-sponsor (a tough one in this job market).

These are the unintended personal consequences of going on international assignment.  All with implications vying to change the assignee's life forever.

It's useless to hold a person to anything he says while he's in love, drunk, or running for office.
- Shirley MacLaine

07 May 2012

Are you still here?

I'm sure there are still cases where companies might sponsor an international assignee for U.S. permanent residency, though I do hope it is a rare exception.  I maintain that the written intention by the assignee to accept the terms of localization should absolutely come first.

I learned soon after joining a new organization, that we had more than a few assignees whose assignments had gone for more than five years, and that some even already achieved permanent residency status in the U.S., yet still were receiving all their assignment benefits.  Nice gig!

The rationale was that previously the spouse (an L-2 visa holder) had previously not been able to work in the U.S., and so therefore the green card was sought to provide this ability to the spouse.  Recently, I did a search on this topic and could not confirm, but nevertheless, this is what I was told.

We put a stop to the practice and really received no push-back from assignees or their managers once we explained the position.  Clearly, the temporary nature of their assignment conflicted with the individual's intended immigration status - it was not a difficult position to argue.

Some assignees would soon receive their green cards.  The company no longer wished to repatriate them, but would not move them to local terms and conditions until they became U.S. permanent residents.  This position was supported by the belief that we should not actually localize anyone unless we were sure that they would receive the green card.  True, that there are no guarantees when it comes to immigration.  But never a slam-dunk case for a green card could be had - I thought we could take that 'risk.'

But here we have a scenerio where, years past the intention to repatriate the assignee has gone away, the employee continues receiving benefits that are in line with an intention for the assignee to return home.  

This situation was further complicated by the fact that we offered no 'phase-out' of assignment benefits to persons who localized in the U.S.  So with a green card already in hand, just what was I offering assignees as an incentive to localize?  Less than nothing, the localization was a true take-away.  It was pretty much, welcome to local terms and conditions - say good-bye to your housing allowance and other benefits, now sign here!

Despite having the upper hand, the assignees would still agree to localize.  Perhaps as they saw it inevitable and also, they already had years to prepare for the day.

In changing the practice of offering the option to become U.S. residents as the one and only 'benefit' of localization, we at least had something to offer in return for losing a good chunk of income.  

I would have preferred to have some sort of phase-out of assignment benefits (at least housing the housing allowance), but as I wasn't having any difficulty localizing assignees with the 'take a long walk off a short pier' approach, and so the gradual benefit step-down wasn't incorporated into the policy.

03 May 2012

Five Epic Assignment Fails

Anyone familiar with International Assignments would agree that, for an employee, taking an assignment is a risky business.  One could also argue that not taking one is also career-suicide.  The degree of risk is as much dependent upon the business' administration of its assignment program as it is on the assignee's skill in managing his/her own career.

In no particular order, here's some unfortunate collateral career damage that may occur:
  1. Point of No Return: An assignee, for whatever reason, has no position to return to at the end of the international assignment and is either localized or severed.
  2. Take this Job and Shove It: There is a position available at the end of the assignment, but it's not one that the assignee likes or wants. 
  3. Bait and Switch: The assignee was 'promised' a certain position in the home location but it was given to another individual. 
  4. Love 'em and Leave 'em: The assignee accepts a position with another company shortly after their repatriation. 
  5. Out of Sight, Out of Mind: An assignee returns after a long-term assignment and by the time he/she returns, no one in the home location knows who he/she is and therefore he/she is more likely to leave the company soon after returning. 
Still with all of these possible unfortunate outcomes, persons are still encouraged to go on assignment.  None of the programs I have worked with have ever guaranteed a position at the end of the assignment.  However, the best programs will have a central point of assignment management and frequent meetings to discuss each assignee, how things are going, and what plans there are for the ultimate return.  This will occur with the involvement of senior management.

Even with that in place, people are people, promises made and broken, bridges built and burned.

Some assignees I have worked with have been really skittish about what happens at the end, so much so that they requested (and received) written statements that guarantee that they will have a return position at the end of the assignment.  U.S. Internal Legal Departments hate these because it completely erodes the much embraced at-will employment protection provided to employers.  I really couldn't say if it helps ensure a positive outcome, if anything, the assignee might actually receive bad marks for insisting on these assurances and, in the end, the company's interest in and perception of that employee will have the biggest influence on the final outcome.

If my best friend were considering taking a foreign assignment and the timing was right for them personally and professionally, I would encourage them to take the risk.  The personal benefits to the enriching experience of working overseas are priceless.  No guts, no glory.

The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing, and becomes nothing. He may avoid suffering and sorrow, but he simply cannot learn and feel and change and grow and love and live.
- Leo F. Buscaglia

01 May 2012

Expatriate, You're Evicted!

I supported a couple of cases where the landlord, though receiving large rent payments from a family assigned to the U.S., fell on hard times and their rental properties went into foreclosure.  In both cases, we never learned the details behind why the landlords ended up in the predicament.

In fact, the landlords of these beautiful homes in the best of neighborhoods went 'radio silent' on us.  One international assignee, with three children enrolled in local public elementary schools, found out about the problem when the real estate agent that helped him find the rental property left him a cryptic message.

Another family also with children, received a letter in the mail from the bank stating that their rental home was in foreclosure.  Shortly thereafter, the home was then plagued with an ant infestation.  And if that wasn't enough, one of the worst winters experienced in the area in years damaged the home and so needed serious repair that we were certain that the unresponsive landlord would not take care of.

No calls were being returned.  Neither the landlords, the banks, nor the lawyers were sharing any information.

In the first case, the assignee had only six months left on his assignment, and only four of these months would the children need to be enrolled in school.  To prevent a dramatic visit from the town Sheriff, we could put the family in temporary housing, but there were no places for a family of five in the school district where the children were attending school.

We consulted with internal and external counsel but our options in both cases were quite limited.  With the first case, the advice was to continue paying the lease and hope that the bank would take no action until after the tenants had left.  Thankfully, and surely aided by pressure banks were receiving to slow the rate of foreclosure, the family stayed in the property to the end of the assignment.  But with possible threat of eviction hanging over their heads the whole time.

With the other case, the family had only been on assignment for almost one of three years of the assignment.  The host department ended up covering the repairs required on the home in order to keep it livable for the family until they left in December, locking the keys inside the empty home.  Since we were not receiving call backs from the landlord, we sent a certified letter to ensure they understood that the tenants were leaving the property and where the keys could be found.

Among the costly implications of the situation were:
  1. Low- to high-grade anxiety for assignee and family;
  2. Loss of productivity for the assignee now having to devote time to resolving;
  3. Loss of security deposits given to landlords;
  4. Additional expense to business of a mid-assignment move;
  5. Time spent by and on legal counsel;
  6. Repairs to home not covered by the landlord;
I still believe that the rental agreement, unless there's a tax advantage in doing otherwise, should be handled between the assignee and the landlord, despite the risk that it may bring.  Still, I'd like to ask you, what can be done to ensure that persons renting to assignees won't go into bankruptcy or foreclosure?

Surely the landlords doing background checks on prospective tenants are here to stay, but what about credit checks for landlords who'd like to rent to assignees?

In the end, I think the best thing we can do is to be sure that the assignee rental agreements to advise the incorporation a release of the lease agreement if the home is to go into foreclosure proceedings, in the same way that we recommend a diplomatic clause to leave a lease early.

29 April 2012

You're Pregnant? How did that Happen?!

I’m sitting at my desk sending out letters to assignees regarding the calculation and pay-out procedure for their exchange rate stabilization payments, when I receive an out-of-office notification back. Not unusual, but the words read, “I am currently on maternity leave, please contact Peter Wilkinson (not the real name) in my absence, I will return on a date yet to be determined.”

Did I miss something?  Indeed.  I suppose this is one of the by-products of working for a company with many sites.  The chances of bumping into an assignee, pregnant or otherwise, are slim.  Only a few had offices in the former factory that was converted into a spare mostly windowless office space that held staffing, compensation, payroll, operations, legal and finance.

Usually one has a few months lead-time to link in with the Service Center and do some careful planning.  It doesn’t happen that often, but it does occur, yet it is often something overlooked in most Global Mobility Policies.  At the time I was about six-months into my time at the company, but nevertheless, I was not surprised to learn that, though it had occurred before, there was no written policy to address an assignee and how maternity leave will be administered.

Clearly the assignee, while in the U.S. should receive the benefits in line with the host location - - but many assignees will have a dormant contract and still entitled to benefits there – and depending on both the wording of the contract and the philosophy of the global human resource function the treatment of this assignee is nebulous and precedent setting.

Several factors to be considered:
  1. How much time is left before the end of the assignment?
  2. Should the assignee be granted home or host leave maternity leave?
  3. Is there a ‘dormant’ contract and what are the terms and how should they be applied to disability and Family Medical Leave (FMLA)?

Now any human resources person is used to the unexpected.  I gave a bit of time to contemplate the implications.  As the assignee was sitting in a U.S. location, my hope was that she would simply be held to the U.S. benefit and the legal department on both sides of the pond would agree.  But if she fought for the more generous home country maternity benefit - things could get complicated fast.

A few questions immediately came to mind:
  1. Was the home department aware of her leave status?
  2. Had she gone through the standard process for the administration of her leave?  If not, the Service Center should be notified to reach out to explain the process to an employee unfamiliar with how it works.
  3. Had she notified the benefits department of the new baby?

We knew that the housing allowance along with other benefits calculated by family size would need to be calculated and adjusted retroactively.  It was not worth guessing why the host department said nothing about her status or raised any flags.

But if the assignment was ending in six-months, did it really make sense to keep her and her family in the U.S. all the while paying a housing allowance and other benefits only for the family to go home shortly thereafter?  

There are frameworks, such as rules governing the treatment of employees which are always the starting point, but then every single case is different.  And when it comes to an employee whose total package and cost to the company runs typically four-times that of a regular employee everyone has an opinion.   Quick strategic thinking must be employed to come to a fair and equitable plan.

Unfortunately, not having the up-front notification (by either the assignee or the host department) took away our ability to address these issues and inform stakeholders of the way forward and gain advance agreement to the path to follow.  Everyone involved drank some four-hour energy, rolled up their sleeves and we hit the phones, keyboards, and blackberries.  By the next day we had a plan and put it into action.  We:
  • looped in the home department as well as global HR to agree that the host country benefit would be applied.
  • worked with legal to create a guideline to address the issue for future cases, incorporating it as an addendum to the global mobility policy.
  • informed the assignee of the U.S. benefit and the steps she would need to take to get her disability and leave approved.
  • got the new baby enrolled into the medical plan.
  • breathed a sigh of relief and moved on working with payroll to get the exchange rate stabilization payments paid before the payroll closed for the week.
  • and called it a day.

Good times.

Power is so characteristically calm, that calmness in itself has the aspect of strength.

- Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton

27 April 2012

Tips for making your no-answer stick!

Many international assignees are high-level employees used to getting what they want.  Are you handling exception requests like an immovable concrete wall, or more like a pasta strainer?  

To a large extent the strength of the policies of your assignment program (or for any HR program and policy for that matter) has a lot to do with the support of those above you in the corporate food-chain.  I love it when passionate people get excited about things they disagree with, it makes for a great debate.  But their success, in many ways, is determined by their ability to influence those above them to reinforce that “no means no" stance.  

Tips for making your no-answer stick:

  1. Full Disclosure:  Each new assignee should be met with preferably face-to-face and pre-offer to learn the program and answer any questions that they may have.
  2. Give context: Explain the reasoning for the benefit or policy.  Don’t send a link to the policy and be on your way.  The time you saved in skipping the face-to-face meeting will be lost in campaigning for your position on the matter to hold.
  3. Be proactive:  Don’t wait for a big issue to come up before you link in with those above you.  
    1. Develop a training and communication plan to those who move the most international talent and key HR business partners.
    2. Wash, rinse, repeat:  When you have made the rounds with your presentation, go back and make the rounds again - this time with updated information such as assignee stats, etc.
  4. Pick your battles and don’t sweat the small stuff:  Some issues will open the floodgates while others, though frustrating, will do no real or permanent harm.

Passion makes for a great debate, but at the end of the day, the well-connected can always use their powers to have the point “reconsidered.”  And if the exception is made despite your vocal disagreement, your reputation and effectiveness will undoubtedly be called into question.

Maybe I’m cynical, but it seems like the harder you hold the line, the more likely that the matter will go over your head.  The better relationship you have with your superiors the easier it will be to run a consistent and fair program.

Do you agree with me that the most effective human resource business partners know when to be firm and when to flex?  I believe that intuitively they know that, when they do take a stand, people at higher levels will be lining up behind them to ensure the decision is final.  When they’re taking a stand, they quickly ensure that superiors are already informed of the issue and not caught unawares.

So fine, do hold the line, the only way to happily survive in human resources is operate openly and consistently. B
ut then you better have already earned the trust of those in line above you so that if, and when it comes to their attention, you won’t be overruled. It's good to be right, but it's almost better to have the ability to convince others that you are right.