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.