You’ve got to walk a fine line when persuading your staff to take an international assignment: It won’t be a luxury vacation, but you’re not sending them to Siberia either (unless you literally are). Especially if you’re an SME with a limited number of candidates to choose from, you’ve got to convince employees that the employee—and you—will benefit from the move.
“You say, this is the business opportunity we have that’s going to grow our global footprint. You spearheading this is going to open up new markets and grow the company,” says Stephen Cryne, president of the Canadian Employee Relocation Council (CERC). A survey by CERC last year found that the average cost of an employee relocation overseas totalled $125,000; and even a cross-border relocation to the U.S. runs an average of $73,800. It pays to do it right, because an unhappy employee who needs to return home will cost an SME a lot.
Canadians aren’t so eager to relocate. In a 2012 survey for CERC, 53% of Canadian employees said they were “not very likely” or “not at all likely” to accept an international move, compared to a global average of 43%. Even our Americans and British counterparts are more interested in working abroad. But pressuring the unwilling is a recipe for disaster, which could scare other employees away from future assignments, says Cryne. Instead, present a compelling case, complete with performance expectations, details on what support will be provided and what’s going to happen when the employee returns to Canada.
Find out what matters to your candidates. You may not have to throw a lot of money at the problem. “Companies are customizing benefits based on the value to the individual, including career-development moves and family concerns,” says Ellie Sullivan, vice-president of marketing and consulting at Weichert Workforce Mobility, a company that provides assistance with home sales, home search and temporary living among other services.
Present the opportunity as a promising career path, not a detour. Offer to keep employees in the loop with return tickets for important meetings, videoconferencing and the support of a mentor. Repatriation assistance, including a guarantee the employee can come back to their former role, was the top incentive mentioned by CERC survey respondents. The allure of global management experience will be more appealing for a CEO-in-the-making than for someone in a technical position.
Consider the needs of all family members in the initial assessment, says Sullivan says. That includes helping find schools for kids, along with career counselling and employment assistance for spouses. Sullivan says the family should be included in cross-cultural training. “Oftentimes, the employee relocates to a work location where everybody in the office speaks English, but the spouse and family are forced to muddle through how to shop, how to get healthcare,” she says. Survey respondents said family and having young children (43%) far outranked the undesirability of the destination country (6%), needing a large pay increase (5%), political unrest (4%) and safety concerns (4%) as barriers to a move.
Assure candidates they won’t take a financial hit. The expense of moving, language training and visits home add up. Depending on the economic conditions of the destination, consider housing cost differentials. A 2014 Weichert survey suggests employees are more likely to accept a move when some type of home-sale benefit is offered. This benefit may be re-imbursement of home-sale costs or the sale of an employee’s home to a relocation company to speed the relocation and reduce the homeowner’s risks (the relocation company then sells the house). Employees can also find themselves paying substantially more tax on offshore earnings, so take a close look at their take-home pay and be prepared to adjust accordingly.
Provide settlement services. “Lots of companies fall down on this,” says Cryne. “They’ll say, Go find some temporary accommodation,’ and the employee spends half the time trying to settle themselves, and the job is now secondary.”
Sell the destination. More than a third of CERC survey respondents wanted a chance to see the country first. In politically volatile or dangerous countries, the offer of security guards and an emergency exit plan may take the edge off an assignment.
Leverage the demographics of your talent pool. Employees with roots in a region may be more receptive to moving there. Young people, especially those at the beginning of their careers and those who haven’t started families, may have less resistance to an overseas adventure. A 2010 PwC survey suggests that 80% of Millennials actively want to work overseas. Yet older workers with empty nests—including those who have the management skills you need—may be seeking a late-career challenge. Offer to relocate them to their retirement destination at the end of the assignment. “There’s a whole bunch of people age-wise who are anxious to experience international travels and experience, and they may not warrant a lot of benefits,” says Sullivan.
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