Olivier Meier

Olivier Meier

Principal at Mercer | Helping Companies GoGlobal | Consulting, Data and Techn… See more
18 articles 

By Olivier Meier, Mercer


The current war for talent is intense, and highly skilled mobile professionals are in high demand around the globe. One of the main objectives of global mobility is to tap into new talent pools and enable companies to develop an effective international talent strategy.

The art and science of talent mobility is as much about expanding your talent pool as it is about designing policies and packages. A limited choice of candidates for international assignments could drive costs up and lead to assignment failures.

I have been discussing with multinationals that are particularly skilled at managing their extended international talent pools about best practices to attract and retain internationally mobile talent.

6 Things I Learned

From targeting specific talent groups to managing their mobility brand actively, here are some of the tips I learned from them:

Re-joiners: Ignore Them at Your Own Risk

In the context of global mobility the concept of re-joiners cover different groups. Each is worthy of attention and should be the target of specific strategies. Successful companies know how to tap into these additional talent pools.

Ex-employees from your own company. Some companies go to great lengths to maintain a link with their alumni. These alumni are viewed as the best ambassadors of the company and of its mobility programs.

Another equally valid reason for caring about alumni is that they constitute an important talent pool for companies. International assignments can create situations where the companies cannot guarantee a job upon repatriation, or where assignees prefer to stay in the host location or move to another non-business essential location. Carefully managing the departure of these employees and keeping a link with them leaves the door open for future cooperation.

The future of work is about changing employers frequently, switching between career paths, and allowing individuals to market themselves globally. Under this model the ability to attract and retain gig workers or re-employ high performers multiple times is a differentiator. Alumni, and your former international assignees in particular, should be carefully managed as a part of your extended potential talent pool.

Trailing spouses. The inability of employees’ spouses to find work in the host location is one of the greatest barriers to global mobility. Spouses of assignees might have to stop or slow down their careers. Offering them a chance to work during the assignment or helping them rejoin the workforce upon repatriation is a win-win scenario for assignees and companies. It can also help attain the diversity objective by increasing the participation of women in the expatriate global workforce. And it’s not just about women: the number of men in the trailing spouse group is bound to increase as more women join the expatriate workforce.

Work permit issues, the lack of resources of the company, and the specific requirements of the business might limit the potential to find and hire trailing spouses. However some of the most successful companies address these challenges by networking with other organizations operating in the same locations. This networking approach can take the form of informal exchange of information or more structured efforts to collaborate on recruitment issues.

Older workers: The future digital world will also be a world with a much older workforce – not just in Europe and the United States but also in many growth economies like China or Brazil. In spite of the hype about the preferences of the millennials and generation Z, people over 50 are increasingly shaping our economies – affecting policy decisions and constituting a large and growing segment of the consumer market and of the workforce.

From a talent perspective, ensuring the inclusion of older workers, prolonging their participation to the workforce, or bringing them back for specific projects is a useful weapon in the talent strategy arsenal. Achieving a balance between generations is part of the diversity objective and an important step to address talent shortages.

Industries like energy, IT, and pharma are cyclical: during downturns in the cycle, fewer experts and engineers are trained and when the activity picks up again, the result is talent shortages. We witnessed this 10 years ago in the energy sector when companies had to bring back retired engineers into the workforce.

Older workers who don’t have family responsibilities might be more flexible than younger employees with children. Furthermore, experienced silver assignees can bring valuable skills and experience – particularly in terms of intercultural negotiations and international management skills.

Bringing back talent could also be about facilitating moves for individuals who are moving back to participate in the growth to their countries of origin.

Returnees: Unsung Heroes?

The returnees are employees who lived and studied abroad and are returning to their countries of origin. This is major trend underpinning the fast growth of the emerging markets and constitutes a virtuous circle: highly skilled employees move back to help the economy of their country of origin grow. Their successes encourage more skilled individuals to make the journey back, thus fueling on-going growth and better integration of emerging markets in the global economy.

Chinese returnees are good success stories. They are over-represented at top managerial levels within Western subsidiaries and increasingly within local companies, as well as in research and academic circles. They have played a major role in bringing new managerial practices and ultimately making the Chinese economy more competitive. From a mobility perspective they have bridged the gap between Western expats and local staff. We can now witness the same phenomenon in many other emerging countries in Asia, Latin American, and Africa (for example, in India, Mexico, Rwanda, and Morocco, to name just a few).

This doesn’t mean that returnees don’t face headwinds. Returnees constitute a heterogeneous group and the added value they can bring to companies can vary dramatically depending on their background and level of expertise. Their reintegration in their “home” country can also be a bumpy one. While they usually have a greater knowledge of their country than the average expatriate, returnees can be culturally disconnected from local markets they have left so long ago or have never really known. Returnees sometimes struggle with red tape and practices they are not familiar with, or might have given up their original nationality which is triggering immigration issues.

From a mobility compensation perspective, returnees don’t fit in the traditional compensation models. They are not really expatriates, not fully local; they don’t fit easily in pre-defined compensation models. In a way, they exemplify the future of mobility, which is about managing a growing grey area between expat and local compensation and attempting to develop various forms of local plus packages.

Taking the Move out of the Equation: Locally Hired Foreigners

Is mobility really about relocation? It is not always possible to remove the barriers to mobility due to family, dual income, and cost issues. If relocation is problematic, is it possible to take it out of the equation? Companies are increasingly focusing on people who have already moved.

Locally hired foreigners represent a fast growing group within the international talent pool: according to Mercer’s 2017 Worldwide International Assignment Policies and Practices Survey, 45% of companies planned to increase the number of locally hired foreigners in the next two years (up from 38% two years ago).

Many locally hired foreigners are likely to be in the categories we have been discussing: trailing spouses, older workers who have retired and localized in the host location, returnees, and former expatriates who left a company because they could not or did not want to find a job in their home countries. The fact that mobility is increasingly being driven by individuals and not just companies means the challenge might be more about supporting those who are already living in destination locations rather than just focusing on the initial relocation itself.

As with returnees, managing locally hired foreigners reminds us that assignee compensation is not just about the opposition between an expensive home-based expatriate package and a pure local host salary. The diverse background of locally hired foreigners means that their individual situations must be analyzed before attempting to put them in pre-defined categories.

Remember That Up is Not the Only Way: Lateral Moves

Companies cannot always offer an employment guarantee to expatriates after their repatriation. There are objectively not enough jobs of a certain level available in every single country. International assignments tend to increase the skillset of international employees and in some case accelerate promotion – but that leads to increased expectations and ultimately to a retention crisis when employees reach the bottle neck in the managerial path.

Lateral moves (one of the current mobility buzzwords) are about moving between types of jobs as opposed to being promoted with the same job family (vertical moves). Lateral career moves can be important for repatriated assignees: facilitating lateral moves instead of trying to implement straightforward promotions following an assignment could be part of the solution. Lateral moves are also a way to build up talent within the company by exposing high potential employees to the realities of different departments.

Part of the problem is that lateral moves are not always viewed positively: only 14% of employees respond that it could improve their work situation (source: Mercer’s 2017 Global Talent Trends Study). They are not always actively supported by management due to lack of global integration of career management teams globally and lack of interaction between mobility and talent teams. A greater degree of recognition and acceptance of lateral moves by both employees and management or at least a reflection of the pros and cons of such moves is required.

This concept of lateral moves can also be used to describe another mobility phenomenon. Lateral moves are about moving employees between subsidiaries rather than from the headquarters of the company to a subsidiary. It also means that moves between emerging markets are growing faster than moves from developed countries to emerging markets. The rise of lateral moves is a feature of globalization and a sign that global mobility has become more mature as well as an indication of the ever greater participation from employees from emerging markets in the expatriate workforce.

This phenomenon is not new and many companies have progressively moved away from sending assignees mainly from the HQ. Organizations performing well in terms of international talent management are often those that are the most advanced in this process.

Nurture Your Mobility Brand: If You Thought HR Could Ignore Marketing…

One of the essential skills for mobility managers is to understand how to market your mobility policies internally and externally. A mobility policy is not a mere set of guidelines designed to address administrative and practical issues – it can be a powerful recruitment and retention tool.

What is the promise behind your policy and can you articulate it clearly in a couple of words? Here are some examples of how mobility programs could be positioned:

  • The goldmine. This vision of mobility is not for everybody and has had bad press in past years with good reasons. Global mobility cannot be viewed as a gold-paved road allowing employees to make a lot of money just by becoming international assignees. The days when companies solved their mobility issues by purely throwing money at expatriates are long gone – at least for many types of moves. However, this positioning is still valid for specific types of assignments in some industries. It could be the case for companies operating in high hardship locations and is about allowing employees to significantly boost their savings in exchange for accepting a temporary decrease in their quality-of-living.
  • The caretaker. some of the largest companies in the energy and fast moving consumer goods industries attract and retain assignees not just because of how much they pay but also because they provide extensive support to their assignees and their families. As one assignee was telling me: “During my time with my previous companies I had to repeatedly ask for support for all kinds of issues. With my current employers, I know that everything is being taken care of – they take care of all the details, have a great support network to help me, my wife, and the children integrate in the host location.” This type of red carpet experience can be very attractive for employees but not all companies can and want to provide such hands-on support. It takes time, investment, and a certain degree of maturity of the mobility program to achieve this type of positioning.
  • The fast tracker. The focus is on career progression. Some of the big brands attract assignees with a clear career path, a promise of fast promotion, and learning. Employees know that they will go to a series of assignments and that if they succeed in their jobs they will climb quickly through the managerial ranks. This positioning requires integrated talent management. Not fulfilling the promise in terms of career expectation would lead to retention problems.
  • The lifestyle facilitator. These companies frequently advertise overseas job opportunities and develop exchange programs. The employees know that their company will try to accommodate requests to relocate when possible. This model is popular in the service sector operating in international financial hubs. Packages might not be as attractive as in other sectors but the key word is flexibility. This positioning plays well with the expectations of the new generations – it might not be suitable for companies who need to operate in more challenging locations and whose business requirements don’t allow for so much flexibility.
  • The gateway to adventure: An engineer working in the mining sector describes the appeal of the mobility program in his company like this: “I knew by joining I would be traveling all the time to destinations that I would not have visited by myself.” Unlike in the lifestyle positioning, the company is driving the moves, but the incentive for employees is also the lifestyle and the experience.

These examples are erring on the side of caricature and mobility programs’ positionings are usually not so clear-cut. They can be a mix of these elements: many companies might try to offer a mix of the caretaker approach, career fast tracking, and cash incentives. However, companies cannot promise everything and should be clear about what they promise.

The danger is the lack of congruence, as marketers would say – i.e. having part of your communication or policy not aligned with your mobility positioning could create misunderstandings, false expectations, and ultimately dissatisfaction.

Know Your Key Influencers: It’s a Networking World

The communication and eventually the feedback about the mobility program are channeled to the wider employee audience through a small group of highly influential people. Individuals that marketing experts would identify as “key influencers.”

There is a lot of truth in the cliché about international assignees talking to each other and comparing their packages and the support they receive (and most of the time, they are not comparing apples for apples). Maintaining an on-going contact with “expat community opinion leaders” can prove invaluable. These opinion leaders are not necessarily just top managers: assignees who have been in a host location for a long period of time, have gone on multiple assignments, or are particularly active in supporting and communicating with their peers could also be qualified as influencers.

Whenever possible, assignment success stories should be widely communicated and involve the successful assignee. The importance of role models should not be underestimated, especially when trying to encourage women and minorities to go on assignments.

The same approach is valid with internal stakeholders. Within companies the view about mobility is often shaped by a limited number of individuals who might have been on assignment, have managed assignees, or whose business units have to pay the costs for assignees. Their opinions, either positive or negative have a disproportionate impact on the companies’ views about mobility.

When preparing a new policy, demining the field by talking to the key influencers within the company can smooth the process and help uncover skeletons in the closets (i.e. failed policy attempts that still negatively affect the view about mobility within the company). Beyond simple communication,mobility managers need a detailed marketing plan for their mobility programs.