Communicating benefits across the world raises a number of issues that must be resolved, but the effort is worthwhile for international employers, says Peta Hodge
Adopting an international strategy to communicate benefits across all the countries in which an organisation operates has many potential difficulties. A multinational company might be operating in dozens of countries, each with its own legal, tax and social security systems, language, culture and social mores.
But Lee Nicholls, account director at employee communications agency Caburn Hope, says this complexity is one of the main reasons an employer might decide to adopt a global communications policy. “It is important, given the challenges of language and understanding and, quite often, the distance from the [organisation’s] headquarters, that an international workforce is given this attention,” he says.
Despite the challenges of communicating benefits internationally, many employers believe the business benefits to be gained are worth it. Ben Wells, senior consultant at Buck Consultants, says: “If employers feel they can leverage their global reputation to attract and retain people locally, they see the value of centralising communication.”
A global communication strategy can be deployed in a number of ways. For instance, some international employers might want to establish a global brand for their reward, applying it to local offerings that have been approved by a steering committee as complying with brand guidelines.
More often than not, an international communication strategy is deployed on the back of a global benefits or reward strategy that has resulted from an informationgathering exercise. A benefits audit can often be the most valuable part of an organisation’s international policy and will therefore feed any communication campaign. “It is not the outward flow of information that is so important, it is the inward flow,” says Wells.
“Employers are able to get good management information they never had before on how much they are spending in each market: ‘Wow, we are spending 20% more in India than in Saudi Arabia, yet Saudi Arabia is much more of a strategic asset for our business.’ This can really inform decision-making.”
While drawing on management information to develop an all-singing, all-dancing communications strategy, international reward professionals should be aware that, while it may be the norm to talk about benefits and reward in the UK and the US, that is not the case in most other countries. “In France, for example, it is very difficult to talk about reward. It is very much taboo,” says Wells. “Generally, in countries that are very unionised, where an employer is offering a job for life, why would an organisation want to be talking about its competitiveness compared with other employers?
“In Germany, though, this probably applies more to total reward statements where employers are providing a figure. Employers have to be very careful or employees will think they are talking about them as an overhead,” Wells adds.
But Nigel Bateman, a senior principal at Towers Perrin, plays down the importance of such cultural differences. “There is a school of thought that says company culture overrides country culture,” he says. This is particularly true for more senior staff, who may be more mobile, have a more global outlook, and are probably treated more equitably in terms of benefits. For these employees, a more consistent approach to communication can work well, says Bateman. Nevertheless, there are important national differences that must be taken into account. For a start, communicating certain benefits can have tax implications in some countries, where the perks may be provided free of tax only if they are not put down in writing.
Then, of course, there is the language issue. Even if English is the business language, it will rarely be appropriate to communicate something as important and personal as benefits in anything other than the employee’s first language, especially if the information is to be shared with a spouse or other family members.
Translation is nearly always a good idea. It is also particularly important in countries, such as Canada, where law requires a French translation to be provided.
The potential problems of communicating a reward strategy globally are thrown into even sharper relief when an organisation decides to give its staff all over the world total reward statements. Andy Blacknell, a principal at Towers Perrin, says a truly global, comprehensive, total reward statement has yet to be achieved, but there is value in undertaking such a project. “There are statements that may be missing some pieces, but which are still meaningful,” he says.
Employers must consider a number of factors before implementing multi-country total reward statements to make them effective for both employee and employer. First, the employer needs to establish whether it is important to provide statements in every country in which it operates. Cultural differences should be considered, including the fact that certain information will not be received well in some countries.
Employers should then look at how many data sources would need to be dealt with, as well as any difficulties associated with putting a value on the significant aspects of a total reward package. “Employers do not want to be leaving pieces out because they are then understating the value of working [at the organisation],” says Blacknell. “On the other hand, there are some organisations that offer discounts on the products they make. It might be undesirable to leave them out, but to put a value on them might alert the authorities to the value of that benefit.”
The method used to convey the information is another issue, with paper statements often thought to be more suitable for staff who do not have a computer at work. Online statements can provide more detailed information, while linking through to benefit application forms. Data protection also needs to be considered. Outside Europe, for example, approval must be given to anyone handling the data.
Timing is important
Timing is another issue. Employers should consider whether any upgrades planned for the HR information system need to be done before rolling out total reward statements.
However, many firms may feel now is the ideal time to reinforce the international benefits message. Although the barriers to introducing a global benefits communication strategy are considerable, it is likely that experience from internal communication programmes will help to overcome many of the problems.
10 QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER BEFORE INTRODUCING INTERNATIONAL TOTAL REWARD STATEMENTS
- Is this the right time?
- Do you need to include all the countries you operate in?
- Are there some countries where a total reward statement would do more harm than good?
- Do you need to cover all grades of staff?
- Are there tax implications for including certain benefits?
- How many sources of data will you need to deal with?
- How difficult is it to value the meaningful parts of the deal?
- What are the data privacy issues?
- Should it be online or on paper?
- Should it be one-off or ongoing?
CASE STUDY: Royal Bank of Scotland gives credit for local choices
Communications have been central to the Royal Bank of Scotland Group (RBS) rolling out its successful flexible benefits programme, RBSelect, to an international workforce. The solution was a communications toolkit – a suite of options from which local managers could select, according to their country’s particular requirements and budget. Jim Cowan, a senior consultant in remuneration and benefits at RBS, says: “It worked really well in terms of our ability to use a colour palette and visuals that created a consistent look and feel. What did not work so quite so well were things like sales straplines. Some of those things we found did not translate at all.”
In developing its communication strategy, the bank aimed to create a “global RBSelect experience”, but economies of scale were one of the challenges it faced in doing this. “In the UK, with more than 100,000 staff, we are better able to justify individually-tailored communications,” says Cowan. “As we expanded internationally, the populations we were looking at were much smaller. In the same way that we did not have the economies of scale when negotiating deals with individual benefit providers, we could not get the economies of scale to offer the variety of communications.”
Although all RBSelect’s international launches have been highly successful in terms of take-up, the bank is currently looking at how its communications could be improved, particularly in terms of when it is appropriate to use the local language and the extent to which decisions should be delegated to local managers.
Read more articles from: Special report (2010): international reward