Experts offer best practices for executing a more inclusive relocation strategy.
By Marta Chmielowicz
Molly is an experienced sales manager at a company that is expanding its operations to India. She is a single mother of two children—one of whom has special needs and requires therapy and tutoring. The new location has an opening for a regional sales manager, but she feels she is overlooked due to her complex family situation.
Doug is a senior computer engineer specialized in robotics and machine learning. His company is seeking a team leader to spearhead artificial intelligence efforts at its new research center in China, and Doug is uniquely qualified for the role. However, as an African- American homosexual man, he is concerned about culture fit and feels unprepared for the assignment.
Lauren is an HR director who is married to a high-level executive and cares for her elderly parents. Her company decides to open a new location in France and offers her the opportunity to hire and build a new team, but doesn’t provide any means for spousal support and other personal adjustments.
These fictional personas illustrate employees who have the necessary skills to succeed in international placements but face unique challenges. Their struggles can be found in the following industry statistics:
- PwC’s 2016 study Modern Mobility: Moving Women with Purpose reports that while 71 percent of women are interested in international work, they account for only 20 percent of relocation assignees.
- According to FIDI, only 54 percent of organizations offer cross-cultural training to transferees.
- Seventy-three percent of the cultural training offered to internationally mobile employees does not include information regarding LGBT considerations, reports Mercer’s LGBT Benefits Around the World survey.
- Atlas’ 2018 Corporate Relocation Survey shows that 55 percent of employees declined relocation assignments due to spousal employment concerns. Family issues were the most common reason to decline an assignment, cited by 71 percent of large firms, 63 percent of mid-size firms, and 53 percent of small firms.
Such non-inclusive practices have profound effects on an organization’s performance, ability to innovate, and ultimately, bottom line. In fact, according to McKinsey & Company’s 2018 Delivering through Diversity study, gender and ethnic diversity, particularly within executive teams, is directly correlated with financial performance in companies across the world.
McKinsey’s results show that global companies in the top-quartile for gender diversity on their executive teams were 21 percent more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile, and top-quartile companies for ethnic and cultural diversity were 33 percent more likely to outperform on profitability. And there is a penalty for poor diversity—bottom-quartile companies were 29 percent less likely to achieve above-average profitability compared to other surveyed companies.
In addition, Deloitte reports that 83 percent of employees are more likely to innovate if they feel included and believe their organization is committed and supportive of diversity. Randy Wilson, president and CEO of NEI Global Relocation, believes that mobility programs can be especially effective for driving this feeling of inclusion. “The fact that all employees feel valued and included in the success of the company as well as their own development is the biggest benefit to an inclusive relocation program,” she says.
But while there are demonstrated benefits to aligning business practices with diversity and inclusion goals, these initiatives often remain disconnected from global mobility programs. A 2016 Deloitte survey of global mobility leaders revealed that only one in five surveyed professionals report strong alignment between their mobility programs and their companies’ diversity and inclusion initiatives, and only one in 10 actively participate in diversity and inclusion discussions.
Companies that fail to partner these two critical business initiatives miss out on an immense opportunity to address the challenges of today’s business landscape. “We live in a globalized, hyper-connected world where diversity and inclusion initiatives are imperative for companies whose global strategies include high levels of employee engagement, growth initiatives, performance drivers, and successful branding,” says Heisha Freeman, executive vice president of MoveCenter. “This must be reflected in every aspect of the company—especially global mobility which is vital to recruiting and retention.”
Confronting Unconscious Bias
Many organizations qualify candidates for relocation opportunities based on certain factors. According to CapRelo’s Senior Global Operations Manager Glynnis Swan, these qualities may include:
- optimism and enthusiasm;
- knowledge of global affairs;
- courage in the face of challenges; and
- willingness to learn about new cultures.
“A key quality is for the individual to have a broad perspective of the world. For example, maybe he or she has already traveled or worked abroad or has experienced different cultures. Other important qualities include the ability to adapt to and engage comfortably with other cultures, and the presence of a strong support network at home and at work,” says Senior Vice President of Global Client Services at Graebel Companies Teresa Valadez.
While these traits are in themselves non-discriminatory, HR professionals can be subject to unconscious bias when determining which employees embody them best. Although they are not explicitly evaluated, Mercer’s Mobility Dilemma Series warns that factors such as ethnicity, social class, marital status, sexuality, and age can influence who gets hired, who gets promoted, and who gets selected for international assignments.
According to Freeman, “The existence of unconscious bias is the largest threat to successfully implementing diversity and inclusion in the decision process. Many companies are working to combat this by holding unconscious bias training and integrating core principles of diversity and inclusiveness into processes so they become part of the company’s culture. In some countries, it’s become routine to redact resumes so no identifying information is visible to those making hiring decisions.”
And organizations are working to eliminate unconscious bias in mobility practices as well. “Just as today’s workforce demographics continue to evolve, so has the typical global mobility assignment,” Swan says. “In addition to the traditional long-term, short-term, and localization assignments, a diverse variety of ever-evolving assignment types has emerged to address business competition, complexities, and constant change; the cookie-cutter senior executive is not always the best candidate. Commitment to diversity and inclusion among gender, generation, race, culture, education, sexual orientation, and even rank and non-traditional experiences can only enhance a global mobility program by exposing an untapped level of flexibility and innovation.”
Understanding the Obstacles
Besides tackling unconscious bias, how can organizations make global mobility more inclusive and expand access to international opportunities? The first step is to identify the obstacles that stand in the way of minority groups throughout the entire lifecycle of the international assignment.
This can be done by utilizing mobility data and conducting interviews with current and former relocation candidates. “Use existing mobility data to identify and understand trends within specific demographics, barriers to success, and where employees are not wanting to go. Interview repatriates, both successful and failed, to obtain a complete picture,” says Swan.
Some of the most common themes that prevent participation in global mobility programs include:
• Issues of cultural fit. “Typically, the most common obstacles are visa and immigration requirements and timelines, language barriers, and cultural differences,” Wilson explains. “Companies can mediate these obstacles by planning ahead to align visa and immigration timelines with the timeline of the business need and by offering language and cultural adaptation services.”
According to Swan, other common obstacles include employee concern about the host location’s acceptance of social and cultural differences, such as sexual orientation, and worries of social isolation and feelings of being “disconnected” upon the assignment’s end.
• Career concerns. Employees want to ensure that an international assignment will have a positive impact on their career path. “Another obstacle is the perception that working away from headquarters might hinder the person’s career. There’s the fear that being out of sight is like being out of mind,” says Valadez.
• Personal family challenges. The third and perhaps the most complex barrier to overcome is family matters. Wilson says that the most frequent family concerns include situations like:
- A single parent moving away from their support network.
- An employee supporting elderly parents.
- A same sex couple whose relationship may not be legal in the destination location.
- A spouse that might not qualify for work permits in the new location.
- A spouse that does not desire to put their career on hold.
- An employee whose religious beliefs require an atypical work week.
“These obstacles often do not get discussed in detail and are lumped under ‘family reasons,’” she explains. “A company may not have the data for specific reasons the employee has declined. The mobility industry also does not generate this level of detail in surveys. These obstacles may be more difficult for a company to mitigate, as often an employee does not fully share the reasons for declining.”
Developing a Plan for Success
Once organizations identify the possible barriers that diverse candidates confront in relocation programs, HR can begin to evaluate their existing programs. The results of this assessment can provide guidelines by which diversity goals for a global mobility program can be set and communicated throughout the organization.
HR leaders need to ensure that these goals are unambiguous, specific, and consistent with greater organizational diversity strategies. “A weak program framework that includes poorly communicated policies and procedures cannot support the structure required to collaboratively strategize, increase levels of efficiency, or ultimately execute a strong, global vision,” Swan says.
A top-down approach that is spearheaded by organizational leadership guarantees the best results. “With the globalization of business, having the continuity of the organization’s diversity and inclusion strategy starting at the top—the CEO—makes it more likely to be completely ingrained in all aspects of the business,” says MoveCenter’s Freeman.
Wilson of NEI Global Relocation agrees that securing an executive sponsor to advocate for the initiative and approve suggested strategies is essential. A collaborative and flexible team with a clear leader is most likely to deliver the best results. “When an executive sponsor is identified, business leaders can then identify the stakeholders from various departments within the company, such as talent management, diversity and inclusion, and global mobility. This initial group will outline the objectives of the company and develop a preliminary strategy for approval by the sponsor,” she explains.
Once approved, this strategy should be developed into a well-designed plan that addresses diversity across three stages: the selection and decision stage, the pre-move planning stage, and the on-location stage.
A diverse sourcing and selection process that features unconscious bias mitigation efforts is essential for fair sourcing of relocation candidates. The 2015 Global Mobility Trends Survey by BGRS found that 78 percent of companies don’t utilize any type of candidate assessment, formal or informal, for selecting individuals to go on international assignments. To aid with this process, assessment tools can be used to great effect.
“There are a variety of assessment tests available to aid employers in selecting their expatriate personnel,” says Freeman. “They focus on key areas such as flexibility; open-mindedness; global knowledge; strategy; people skills, including their ability to bridge cultural differences; and the candidate’s motivations for seeking or accepting an international assignment or permanent move. The profile results aid savvy employers in selecting a candidate whose intercultural adjustment will be most successful.”
Although assessment tools provide very useful feedback regarding employee competencies and their ability to succeed in relocation assignments, Graebel’s Valadez believes that they should be used as tools for insight rather than decision-making.
“The learnings from these assessments help increase awareness and identify cultural and work-style opportunities. The assessment tool is not necessarily a deciding factor for the assignment. It’s more about making the assignee’s HR team, manager, and receiving manager aware of qualities and opportunities that will help the individual succeed,” she explains.
Optimizing Pre-Move Planning
Effective pre-move planning can alleviate many of the cultural and career concerns that relocation candidates face when considering an assignment. Some of the key elements that organizations should deliver when preparing employees for relocation include:
- Education. Valadez says it is critical for team leaders to “foster an inclusive office environment while also learning about the host location’s cultural and societal landscape. Don’t leave it entirely to destination services or cultural awareness vendor partners; be able to share knowledge and awareness with employees.”
By providing pre-decision location briefings for relocating employees, organizations can help take the strain off of transferees and their families. Sharing knowledge about the assignment and the new location gives employees the tools and confidence they need to make an informed and collaborative decision.
“The company should provide cultural awareness training for the individual as well as any spouse,” Valadez adds. “This will help the entire family adapt to the new location and culture. They will have better, more satisfying experiences, making the assignee happier and more engaged at work.”
However, it’s not enough to simply educate the relocating employee and their family. In order to create a culture of diversity at the foundation of the relocation program, HR leaders must also educate all stakeholders.
“While many programs include language and cultural competency training primarily for relocating employees and their families, it is equally important for the host/receiving country managers and perhaps even colleagues to participate in a similar type of training. With this approach, all parties can work simultaneously to alleviate cultural gaps,” Swan explains.
- Program flexibility. Although it may be difficult to understand and respond to family challenges that limit global mobility program participation, offering a diverse variety of relocation benefits and policies can make a huge impact on program diversity and inclusion.
“Developing policies to support the variable needs of the diverse candidates for the programs, while being cost effective and consistent, is an on-going challenge as the goal of consistency does not always support diversity or inclusion due to each employee’s unique needs,” says Wilson. “There will be nuances to each region of the world, so it is important that the team and its leader remain flexible. One single global program will not meet the needs of all global regions.”
- Planning for repatriation. One of the top concerns of candidates for relocation is the impact that the experience will have on their careers. Inadequate planning around repatriation creates uncertainty and fear among employees, and the perception that they will be “out of sight, out of mind.” According to BGRS’ 2015 Global Mobility Trends Survey, 82 percent of respondents reported that they didn’t have a career management process for assignees, and 86 percent indicated they didn’t have a formal repatriation strategy linked to career management and the retention of international assignees.
By providing concrete timelines and plans for repatriation, employers can offer a measure of comfort and stability that will enhance program participation. According to Valadez, “To help overcome the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ perception, the company should share clear expectations about the assignment, including the value and skills it can bring to the assignee’s career and the value it contributes to the organization. There should also be a timeframe associated with the assignment and plans for repatriation to answer the assignee’s important question: ‘What happens after I return?’”
Providing On-Location Support
While sourcing diverse candidates and providing the necessary education, flexibility, and career planning can greatly improve relocation program diversity, organizations must provide support throughout the duration of the assignment as well. Connecting assignees with local affinity groups and mentors is a solid approach.
“For the assignee, the manager can identify a host and home country ‘work buddy’ or mentor to help keep him or her engaged, connected, and involved in both locations,” Valadez explains. “Managers should stay close to their assignee’s experience, setting expectations for the current assignment while developing opportunities for the future. This will give the assignee confidence that repatriation will be successful, while ensuring a greater probability of retention.”
Companies that are able to follow through on their diversity goals across these three levels of the relocation process will see profound results in their business and the happiness, productivity, and diversity of their talent.