Giving Employees an International Assignment: Cultural Opportunity or HR Nightmare?
It sounds like an exciting proposition…offering your employees the opportunity to move abroad. And easy too. Isn’t that what every employee is hoping for? The perception is that everyone would like the opportunity to travel and live in new locales and have their job waiting for them to do it. However, it may be more difficult than you think. Not everyone is interested, and the ones that are need to be the ‘right’ ones.
Finding the ‘right’ employee who is willing, qualified for the role you need, can get the appropriate visas and paperwork, and has the right family/personal situation that can allow them to travel with or without family as their situation requires, is not an easy task! And once you find them that’s just the beginning of a very complicated process from start to eventual finish. Whether your company is large or small, you have a large HR team or handle it yourself, or you send one employee or many, you need to manage this area of your business very carefully.
The success and longevity of an International Assignment will depend on how you manage these 5 keys areas:
1. IT’S YOU – About finding the ‘right’ employee – by asking the right questions:
- WHAT is the opportunity?
- WHERE is the opportunity located?
- WHEN is this supposed to happen? And for HOW long?
- WHO is the right person for that role?
- WILL the right person for the role, be the right person to accept this opportunity?
- WHO will manage it?
- Do we have the right team of professionals involved to help the right person?
These are just a few of the questions you need to ask to find the right person and start the conversation. In the beginning, there are many discussions that will need to happen between the company and the employee, and then between the employee and whoever is key in their life (spouses/dating partners, possibly children, parents, other family members, friends, etc). The topics will range from financial and tax implications, to social and cultural issues, to medical and safety issues, to adventure and life planning issues…
Whatever the discussion and ultimate decision is, the employee should NEVER be made to feel that they must take this opportunity. This is such a big deal, with a major impact on the life of the employee that you want to have every possibility for success, every step of the way. Don’t push someone into it or it’s bound to backfire, in costly and terrible ways.
Better to find the ‘right person’ and wait for them to come. Yes, I say that knowing full well that there may be important business factors that depend on this happening , such as having someone to run or manage or contribute in a vital role, but the success of the business situation is going to depend on the success of the employee’s experience and integration into the role and new country…and many companies have had to deal with the fall out from suddenly losing someone who was considered important or even key in the assignment.
2. IT TAKES A VILLAGE – Find the right professionals to help manage this area of your business:
You’re going to need a team of professionals who can help you manage this well! It’s unlikely you have all the knowledge experts in your existing company to assist with every area that will be impacted – Immigration, Tax, Relocation, Legal, Financial/Investment, Medical, Social, Language, Education, etc….You need to create solid, trusted relationships with people who can help you in all of these areas. The global mobility market is full of resources these days, with many options of companies and firms to choose from when considering moving employees to a new international home. Do your homework wisely though, as not everyone will be right, or will have the right experience to help you with relocation and all of its complexities.
Try to get referrals and look at their history and success rate. It’s also a bit of a ‘niche’ market for some…so try to find the firms or companies that are committed to this field. Also particularly useful is whether they have experience with the specific country you’ll be dealing with. For instance, in my tax firm, we have clients in 34 countries. Not all of them are expatriates…but most are. And we deal with some big name companies who send their teams to many parts of the world…so we know, from real world experience during 13 very successful years, what works for our clients. When choosing an immigration lawyer, for example, find out what their experience is, or ask your other trusted advisers for their referrals. When we’re asked, we try to provide 3 trusted referral names for you to check out. If you’re engaging a relocation expert to help make the physical move, make sure they’ve dealt with that specific country. And once you’ve made your decisions…let them do their job! They’re the professionals!
3. CULTURAL CHANGE IS FUN AND HARD – Help the employee and their family adapt (whether their family is back at home or is with them):
The challenges for integration in a new location are many and varied. And there are particular needs depending on the location and/or language and customs of the new country. The challenges can be multiplied if the employee has their spouse and/or children with them. There are geographic and/or religious customs to learn, possibly a language to learn and master, housing/real estate to familiarize with, new workplace role to integrate into, social community to find and engage with, education system to understand (for spouse or children), political structure to learn, medical system to navigate, financial relationships to build, and history to appreciate.
The biggest challenge is understanding how long it takes someone to integrate. The time will vary from individual to individual. Sometimes it’s easier on children, they adapt quickly, other times not. It can be the employee but not his spouse, or both, or neither. Some will want to visit back home very soon, maybe too soon, not allowing enough time to integrate and settle. Some will think they’ve made a huge mistake and want to cry or yell everyday. Some will have the emotional pull when making calls or video skyping with family members back home who just can’t accept the distance separation and make it much more difficult.
Whatever it is, it will have an impact on the assignee! It’s hard to feel good about the decision, when they or a family member here or back home isn’t handling it well. Providing some type of social assistance can be very helpful in those cases (which are many). Also having a support system of other expats who have successfully managed a similar transition can be very helpful!
The passage of time (as in days, weeks, months, and even years) can be the best ally in this area, but don’t make the mistake that ‘time’ is a magic elixir that will heal the emotional struggles. There should be tangible and timely support as well, to help them (and their families with them and/or back home) on their way.
4. DEATH (or family illness) AND TAXES – Two areas that will affect almost every expat experience:
Two of the key areas that will impact a successful, long term expat assignment will be dealing with their tax situation and the potential for illness or death in the family situation back home.
Let’s look at Taxes first (a topic near and dear to the heart of what my firm offers to our clients in 34 countries – solutions to the expat tax dilemmas). The impact of an expat assignment on personal taxes can be quite significant, and very complicated, but for many people it’s definitely not their first thought or top priority. And for some, it’s not a thought at all, until mistakes have been made and it’s time to file tax returns. You definitely want to have the right professionals involved before you make costly mistakes. There are so many questions to ask and things you can prepare for, and knowing what the tax treaty relationships are (if they exist) between home country to new country are going to make a big difference to your planning as well. The tax authorities in most countries are happy to look into these situations because they know that many people don’t solicit the professional advice they need prior to departure.
Here’s a quick overview of just a few of the questions needed to be asked:
- What’s the tax treaty relationship between the home/new country?
- What’s the scope and length of your intended stay?
- How will this affect your tax residency?
- What needs to happen in your home country before you leave, to support the tax position you plan to use?
- What about life long investments, cash, and real estate ownership?
- Who can advise and help act for you with the tax authorities?
- Are there different tactics depending on the length of assignment?
- What if you’ve decided to come back to visit in home country and stay often?
- What if you decide to come back permanently?
- Or decide to move to another country from your new country?
The tax issues are complicated and can seem overwhelming, but having an experienced tax professional in the area of international tax can make it seem much simpler and can save you more than a lot of headaches, it can save you a lot of money.
The other issue in the Death and Taxes scenario is much more emotional, and can completely change the commitment of an expat very quickly…the issue of death or illness back home! Often this is in the form of aging parents. Many expats who have been very happy, even for years, adapting and living in their new country, have had the first twinges of guilt or remorse or the need to go back to the home country as their parents begin to age or experience illness or someone passes on…
These are the situations that begin to make people wonder if it’s worth it living far from ‘home’ and those they call family. They question if it’s time to reconsider their decisions or re-evaluate their timeline and time to move back? There’s no right or wrong answer, except as determined by the person involved, but sometimes there are legal agreements that dictate timelines and commitments to a job, or there are financial considerations, or there are now new ties and roots that make the decision to move back complicated (as much as when they first moved to the new country). Having conversations about an exit plan is better at the beginning than when it’s actually needed. It’s wise to set out the ‘escape clause’ in case it’s needed.
5. YOU CAN ALWAYS GO BACK HOME – and most usually do!
When the opportunity or conversation of international assignment or individual expatriate dreams comes up, don’t let it be an all or nothing type of decision. Many people can find ways to make it work: it might be a temporary or trial move; it could be for a fixed time; it will possibly involve retiring back home; it may be a full jumping in with no ties left behind; it might be an agreement of home visits twice a year and an open door visit policy in your new home so family back home can visit often as well; or it might be a negotiation involving a new degree abroad for one spouse while the other spouse works to support it.
There are as many ways to make it work as there are expats! If you want to make this work, for your company, for the employee, it can be done!! Be tenacious, but understanding. Get a strong support team of professionals. Be flexible and open minded. Put people and families before profits. It could be great!
Are you currently or contemplating sending employees on international assignment or becoming an expatriate yourself? We’d be happy to help you understand the tax complications involved and design a strategy that will fit your company or individual needs.
Debra Dowdell, CEO, Trowbridge Professional Corporation
Trowbridge is a firm of Chartered Professional Accountants who specialize in International Tax for companies and individuals. Headquartered in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, they also have offices in Vancouver, Calgary, Montreal, and London, UK and have clients living and working in 34 countries!
Trowbridge is an independent member of the Global Tax Network www.GTN.com
Trowbridge. International Tax. Simplified.