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.

25 April 2012

Expatriate, Your Religion is Costing Us Money!

Did you know that in Germany, persons who declare a religious preference pay more money in taxes than others?  The money goes to the religious institutions and not to the country coffers.  There goes separation of church and state!  Each country has it's own eccentricities, and it pays to know them.

A partner at KPMG once told me, "You know, I could save some money for the company, but you won't want to touch it with a ten-foot pole."  That is the day that this topic took hold of me and I haven't figured out a way to drop it.  Money, Politics and Religion - it's all of the 'deadly topics' combined into one!  He was right, but I got my ten-foot pole out and nudged it ever so slightly.

Most U.S. nationals who go on assignment overseas are tax equalized.  It's called a home-package and it holds the U.S. expatriate to U.S. compensation and tax on a hypothetical basis.  Because, in reality, the overseas taxes must be paid - but they don't feel it.  The foreign-taxes are paid by the company on their behalf and a deduction equivalent to U.S. taxes is taken from their U.S. pay.  The intention, that from a tax perspective the assignee is no better and no worse off for having taken the assignment.

It's an expensive benefit that most assignees don't realize the extent of investment the company is making in them.  This is a big reason why the typical assignment will cost the company four times as much as a local hire.  The foreign taxes paid by the company are also seen as income and taxes must be paid on the taxes.  But the assignee is not really pocketing that money - they are keeping their net pay status quo.

There are several more reasons that this is done (which I won't go into here) but the implications of this are that U.S. nationals who then declare a religious preference into Germany will essentially cost the company more money, due to the higher tax burdened by the faithful that is levied by this tax regime.

Which left the only thing that I could do.  Let it frustrate me?  No, the only thing that I could do as an expatriate manager was to ensure that this point was covered, in passing, during the expatriate tax briefing as a point of information.  There was nothing we could do to ask them to keep their religion to themselves.

Though the issue drove me crazy, yet - at the same time - it really is one of the reasons that I enjoy expatriate management so much.  It's learning new frameworks and then seeing the downstream implications that fascinates me about this field.

 The hardest thing to understand in the world is the income tax.

- Albert Einstein

23 April 2012

Cross-cultural Training: Another Inconvenience or Time Well-spent?

There are common misconceptions of what cross-cultural training is and how necessary it is to the success of an assignment.  It's yet another of many intrusive obligations foisted upon assignees at a time when so much is changing in their lives.  And sometimes something has to give.  We can't blame people for not wanting to surrender a whole or half-day to this training when the precious time could be better spent elsewhere.

Just a Few of the Tasks that Must be Done Pre-assignment...
  • Dealing with the bureaucracy of obtaining immigration paperwork. Finding and translating marriage and birth certificates.
  • Breaking lease agreements on vehicles or selling car(s) and buying in the new location.
  • Selling or renting their home.
  • Ensuring medical records are transferred, required physicals are done, vaccinations given with enough lead time for them to be effective.
  • Enrolling children in international schools.
  • Preparing family animals for assignment.
  • Transitioning home-country job responsibilities.
Though we recommend to the business that there be at least four-months lead time from approval to assignment start, the average was about two months. Many assignees also feel pressured to get into the assignment as soon as possible.

Reasons Why Assignees Skip Cross-cultural Training:
  1. "I just don't have time right now, I'll do it later!"  True and later may not happen.  
  2. "Isn't cross-cultural training common sense?"   Maybe and people selected for assignment are have ample amounts of intuition and adaptability to support them.
  3. "Is it really that necessary?" Their manager in the host location doesn't understand or support the training.
  4. "Just what could be learned in a 4-6 hour session?"  A valid point, the best way to learn is going to the host location and learning it on-the-job.
Persons who participate in the training usually offer glowing reviews. 

But this program, like others, needs to be carefully managed.  A badly-run orientation - or one that doesn't fit its audience - may do more harm than good if it, for example, focuses too much on stereotypes.  This is the only complaint that I ever received on the training - - - and it was only one family of hundreds.  

Three Quick Tips for Expatriate Program Managers
  1. Offer cross-cultural training for the assignee as well as the accompanying family members.
  2. Set-up a training session for yourself or for your department to see what is discussed.  It usually is preceded by a personality test which is then reviewed during the session.
  3. Get buy-in for the program by providing information on the program to departments with high international traffic.
  4. Follow up with assignees who were offered the program, but never scheduled the session.
Better three hours too soon, than one minute too late.

- William Shakespeare

22 April 2012

More Than Ten Things New Assignees Should Know About U.S. Immigration

If you're on a non-immigrant visa into the US sponsored (or about to begin your assignment) here's some things that you should know.  With all the factors in your move and checklists you are no doubt receiving, please stop your multi-tasking for a moment and add a few things to know to your list of "To Dos."  Learn about your status in the U.S. for heaven's sake.
  1. Don't go into auto-pilot and expect your human resources department to handle all immigration concerns for you.  It will be you (and potentially any accompanying family members who run the risk of being dragged into secondary inspection.
  2. Do not start your assignment until you have your work visa in place.  In the U.S., you need the ever-loving social security number to function - and you won't get that until you enter with your work visa.
  3. Do not rely on your host department for visa advise.  The assigned legal counsel and/or expatriate manager should be on your contact list on your phone, and use it.
A few more things to watch for:
  • When you enter the U.S. for the first time and receive the I-94 card, remember to write your name exactly as it appears on your visa stamp.
  • Ensure the date is entered MM-DD-YYYY, not the European format.
  • When you go through customs, ensure the date of maximum stay entered there (handwritten BTW) is not today's date, but set for in the future. Do not overstay that date.
Things that expatriate's do that I love:
  1. Come to HR or the Expatriate Manager with your questions.
  2. Complain about bad service from any service providers who are paid by the company to assist you.
  3. Give compliments to people who provide excellent service loudly.
  4. Take an active role in advocating for your needs.
  5. Talk to people you know who have worked internationally and keep that network active.
  6. Make your family's needs in the first month your first priority.
  7. Participate in any cultural training that is offered to you.
There's more to add to this list, but these are things that I have pointed out to hundreds of assignees, so much so that I have created template e-mails to advise people and to ensure that I cover it in my one-on-one sessions.

Tomorrow, my blog will cover the many benefits of cross-cultural training.

If you like this article, please subscribe, RT and leave your comments if you have anything to add to this list.

“Forewarned, forearmed; to be prepared is half the victory.”

- Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra quotes (Spanish writer, author of the masterwork 'El quijote', 1547-1616)

21 April 2012

Four Rules for Managers in Hosting Foreign National Employees into the U.S.

A big part of my role as International Assignment Manager is training.  Training managers working on global teams in the in's and out's of immigration compliance.  A incorrect approach can put the whole company's ability to sponsor visas in jeopardy.

If in doubt, always get advice from your legal department or your immigration law department.  I am not a lawyer, but have counseled enough managers to know some basic rules of thumb.

For U.S. Managers 
A few questions will start to get to the bottom of whether a work or visitor visa is required and none of them have to do with assignment duration:
  1. Will the employee report to a U.S. supervisor during their stay?
  2. While in the U.S., will they deliver a tangible 'work product' that could have otherwise been done by a U.S. employee?
  3. Is there a posted U.S. job description that they are filling?
  4. Will they lead and/or supervise U.S. employees while in the U.S.?
Even if the employee will only be in the U.S. for a short time, any 'yes' answers will mean to involve legal experts.  If it is determined that a work visa will be required but there is no time, then the employee must limit their activities.  They may:
  • Engage in knowledge transfer with the host department.
  • Attend business meetings (not lead them).
I find that, in many cases, the same basic rules apply for determining 'work' versus 'visit' will apply.  However, I always advise that (whenever possible) the overseas host and their local counsel - as they are accountable for maintaining compliance there - always take the lead in making this determination.

For H.R. Practitioners
For human resources professionals responsible for managing global mobility, it is important to be seen as a partner and adviser to managers - not the police or someone who is an obstacle to getting people where they need to go.

My goal is always to get in with your training to key global stakeholders early.  Start by hosting training sessions (with the support of counsel) departments with global interactions as a priority.

Many will assume that because sourcing visas at a previous company was either not enforced or took too long that it would be better to float under the radar.

Keep it Simple Supervisors

Any company working internationally should have, depending on it's size, someone internal that takes accountability for ensuring that the policies are well articulated and that managers are trained to apply these rules of thumb.

In the next post, we'll look at what foreign-national employees should know about their own status in the U.S.  Spoiler alert:  Everything.

“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” ~ Harry S Truman