In light of rising expat costs and problems linked to mismatched assignments, more HR leaders are taking extra measures to ensure proper fits between expats and their assignments.
By Carol Patton
With roughly 50,000 employees worldwide, reassigning professionals each year is a common scenario at Chevron, an energy producer headquartered in San Ramon, Calif.
Fiona Hewlett-Parker, the company's upstream capability HR manager, says that out of the 31,000 employees supported by her division, approximately 1,000 individuals are reassigned every six months, either domestically or globally.
For the past decade, the company has supported a global pre-determination process that has worked so well, reassignment failures are rare.
"We have a process that we use particularly for international jobs, but it also includes a lot of our domestic senior jobs," says Houston-based Hewlett-Parker. "We get very good business continuity and [are able to] concentrate on getting the right skills in the right place at the right time."
Whether it's due to the already high and rising cost of expat assignments or because problems resulting from mismatched placements are more prevalent, global-mobility professionals are adding an important layer to their relocation procedures, typically called a pre-determination process. Working behind the scenes, some mine employee databases, searching for unique skills or experiences. Others form committees or elaborate networks of high-potentials who travel the globe, developing a deep knowledge of employees in their business unit. No two programs are alike, but they seem to share one critical element: face-to-face conversations between HR or mobility departments and company leaders about each business function's needs.
While there's no perfect solution that guarantees success, this process helps companies make near-perfect matches that meet key goals and move employees along their chosen career paths.
At Chevron, the process is fairly complex. The company has separate personnel-development committees for most in-house functions such as petroleum engineering or earth science, says Hewlett-Parker. The PDCs meet anywhere from two to five days every spring and fall, depending on the number of job assignments that need to be filled. In the past, the number of assignments at any given time has ranged from 20 to 500.
Each PDC has 20 to 40 members or personnel-development representatives who are business leaders, not HR professionals.
"It's their role to know the individuals within their business unit with a degree of detail," says Hewlett-Parker. "They know their strengths [and] weaknesses [and have] read their career-development plans ... . So they come together with a great deal of background regarding the pool of individuals they might [relocate]."
Even with this focused pre-assignment attention, every job is also posted on the company's intranet. However, employees can only apply after being pre-approved by their unit's PDR, who is familiar with each job's qualifications.
To help monitor the progress of PDCs, another 20 high-potential managers are reassigned as sponsors, who fulfill two-year positions that are highly valued and honored, Hewlett-Parker says. During their temporary assignments, sponsors report to an operations-capability manager in HR and travel extensively, meeting people worldwide in their own business unit to develop a mental inventory of their skills and experiences.
During PDC meetings, sponsors or PDRs can add other names to the list of candidates, even those who didn't apply. HR business partners within Chevron also attend the meetings, supporting the committees throughout the relocation process by ensuring that established corporate practices and in-country laws are observed.
"This is a tried and trusted process that's been proven to work," says Hewlett-Parker. "The fact that we get very few failures means that we're actually using Chevron's money wisely when we place people."
The number of employees relocated domestically every year appears to be rising, based on results from Atlas Van Lines' 46th Annual Corporate Relocation Survey. Approximately 415 corporate relocation professionals responded to the online survey. More than one-third (36 percent) saw relocation volumes increase while 30 percent also experienced budget growth.
Up to now, the selection process for relocations has generally involved a "tap on the shoulder," says Ed Hannibal, global mobility practice leader for North America at Mercer in Chicago.
He believes it's critical to implement a pre-determination process that's linked to succession planning. He says many organizations start the process with annual surveys that ask employees about their interest in domestic or overseas assignments.
"The reason you need an annual vehicle is that everyone's personal life may dictate when family units may be mobile," Hannibal says, adding that HR can also maximize the onboarding process by asking new hires the same series of mobility questions. "Companies need some sort of vehicle ... throughout employees' careers ... to ask those kinds of questions to start developing that pool of candidates."
He suggests HR also explore online self-assessment tools to help identify employees who may be ready for an assignment. How would someone fare when dealing with uncertainty? What about learning a new language or adapting to a new location or local customs? He believes such tools can give HR a strong indication as to whether employees have the right personality for a new assignment, if the timing is right for them or their family, or if there are other factors influencing their ability to relocate.
Hannibal says information from online assessments, surveys, talent reviews and other vehicles needs to be entered into a mineable database so HR and company leaders can make better matches and add high performers to the company's pipeline -- both of which are important components of a succession plan.
If HR is to succeed at feeding the talent pipeline with the right relocation candidates, it can't afford to overlook the crucial role that business leaders often play in the pre-determination process. Consider WD in Irvine, Calif., a subsidiary of Western Digital Corp., which designs and manufactures storage devices, networking equipment and home-entertainment products. It supports 60,000 global employees, relocating between 75 and 100 employees domestically or globally each year.
When new assignments develop, the company's business leaders sometimes approach Roseann Schaefer, global mobility program manager, with the names of employees they want reassigned. She says managers are expected to recognize their team members' strengths and weaknesses, which is an inherent part of the company's culture.
"Although we're a large [company], we're kind of entrepreneurial," she says, adding that after identifying potential candidates, managers obtain verbal consent from all leaders involved in that assignment and then complete a formal business-justification form that is typically approved by WD's president, Timothy Layden, and the CEO of Western Digital, Steve Milligan. "Our execs know their teams so well and are very good at selecting people who can be successful in a foreign environment," Schaefer says.
Two years ago, the company created a new position -- global mobility specialist -- responsible for international assignments. Tracie Pham, named to the role, partially invests her time meeting with managers who are requesting assignments. She gathers information from them about the need being addressed by sending an individual on assignment, length of time needed to accomplish the goal, name of employee being proposed and why, and the employee's skill set that fulfills the assignment's purpose.
"Tracie will question if this is the right candidate" or was chosen simply out of interest, says Schaefer. "Then she guides [managers] through [a] business justification form and coaches them on the type of information [that] will be most meaningful to senior management in determining if the assignment is truly needed." Schaefer says.
"If I could clone her about three times, I would," says Schaefer, adding that she deals with all levels of management. "She's well-branded and networked. People in our Asian offices who want to send people to the United States or (to other Asian countries) now come to her. Her reputation is definitely growing."
Apparently, one of the most important steps of the pre-determination process is good old-fashioned conversation between HR and business leaders.
That's something Cisco never takes for granted. The company annually relocates close to 3,000 of its 68,000 global employees, says Katherine Marrufo, director of talent-delivery services at the San Jose, Calif.-based maker of networking products and services.
Although Cisco's mobility department reviews information about potential assignees from HR's talent database, she says, the key is not data mining or performance. It's having "high-touch," i.e., routine, face-to-face conversations, about the objective of the assignment and the anticipated assignee's experience with leaders tied to workforce planning who ask a series of questions: Where are you growing? Where do you need talent? What kind of talent?
Typically, her staff develops a short list of roughly five employees or business leaders who are vetted by her staff. Based on ongoing talent conversations, she says, her staff already knows who is ready for rotation and needs this type of assignment for their career development.
"The look at talent has to be truly global and regional," Marrufo says, adding that more people are now being relocated from Asia, Europe and emerging markets to the United States than in the past. "We know who our top talent is, we know who our high-performing talent is, so that piece is usually pretty easy to decide and move through."
However, HR professionals sometimes make mistakes throughout the process, Marrufo says. Some enable managers to hold on to existing talent without considering such individuals for assignments that could meet company needs or advance the employee's career. "Nobody owns talent," says Marrufo. Others relocate talent based upon availability or convenience versus skill or experience.
Although leaders may have identified the ideal candidate, they still can't go off on their own and make the assignment. They must contact Marrufo's department to avoid placing the company at risk for a number of issues such as violating tax or immigration laws. Early on in the process, she says, her staff also converses with the employee's current boss and potential new manager, evaluating whether there is a strong business justification for the assignment that's tied to the employee's developmental needs.
So far, Cisco's pre-determination process has mainly focused on assigning executives, primarily directors and above. Marrufo says the next hurdle is to develop a process for early career assignments. That will be a difficult task, she says, because it involves collecting data from the masses, literally thousands of employees, about their unique skills and career-development plans.
Meanwhile, she says, any pre-determination process can be simplified by observing solid talent management practices and discipline. She believes that's the reason why more than 95 percent of Cisco employees would go back on an assignment.
"A global workforce is going to be key to any company's success," Marrufo says. "So doing this well is really important ... . Knowing how to serve the whole enterprise will be critical."