Confessions of a benefits manager: Staying silent for international rescue


There is a perception that if you get sent on international assignment it is akin to winning the lottery. Our expatriates seem to expect penthouse apartments and limousines wherever they go. They want to double their salary and have the pick of the best benefits from either country as recompense for the desperate hardship of having to live somewhere else. Cindy, our international mobility expert in the US, is now responsible for all that so all those squabbling demands are no longer my problem. Yet, international mobility feels like some kind of virus that I just can’t shake off, as everyone still seems to refer to me.

Cindy has been asked to review the policy, and as I wrote it in the first place she keeps sending me emails about it. The first thing she has been asked to look at is hypothetical tax. The Higher Beings have suddenly worked out that we are spending three times the cost on expatriates than on even the greediest local executive. However, in an American company there are times when only an American will do. The Higher Beings, our executive management, are not about to stop parachuting them all over the place; they just want to do it more cheaply.

One of the biggest costs appears to be tax, but tax isn’t something you can avoid without nasty penalties and public shaming. So, what the Higher Beings in their infinite wisdom have requested is an ‘expatriate-light’ policy where they can put someone on a local contract and only pay a few additional living expenses on top.

I know it won’t work; only the most ignorant American would accept coming out of their home tax system to work in, say, China for a quarter of the salary. And although it is often the most ignorant American who gets sent on these assignments, I find they generally have their wits about them when it comes to money. I feel very pleased it is no longer my remit, but all the same I am miffed the policy (my policy!) is being messed with.

It seems the expatriates are also complaining about their level of pay and benefits, which is really a bit rich. For the most part they get what is literally the best of all worlds, as they get paid in the home, often higher-cost, country and live cheaply in the host country. They also generally benefit from local holidays, benefits and perquisites, often more generous in the host country. So what are they complaining about?

I really don’t see what Cindy can do, other than reiterate the market competitiveness of the expatriate policy. I point her at one of the expatriate surveys. Isn’t it great we have such an expert on board to deal with this? Do I sound bitter? Well I am a bit. It all very well handing over part of your role to someone else, but not if you still have to do it while they take the credit.

The other new demand of the Higher Beings is a typical costing for various types of assignment to help managers determine if they should even consider a transfer in the first place. I am mystified. There is no such thing as a typical assignment; each one is unique, based on the circumstances of the assignee, the country they are going to, and where they are coming from. Indeed, we pay Eager and Keen Tax Accountants a fortune to provide individual costing data at the start of each assignment.

Now, poor Cindy has been asked to make a cost template, showing costs for a ‘typical’ married director-level American earning moving to France based on a long-term assignment, with this new ‘light’ assignment, and as a fully local transfer. Fine, but that’s going to be completely irrelevant and confusing data for much of the time. How on earth is that going to help someone decide whether they should send an engineer from the UK to India, for example? Still, Cindy isn’t one to push back and now she is in a flap trying to work out how to deliver what they have asked for. I suggest she makes up a fictitious assignee and pays Eager and Keen to do it. Easy.

Finally, the Higher Beings want to review the process as expats are complaining about the service they get at the beginning of the contract. Luckily, it isn’t Cindy (or me) that they are complaining about, it is the house-hunting support that is going wrong. Frankly, I am not surprised. Big Bad Boss and other Higher Beings insisted we work with Eager and Keen for the whole process end-to-end, even though it was clear to me that its international capabilities were just so much spin.

In fact, its operational side of expatriate management is very thin, consisting of an office in only a handful of countries. I now suggest the change I had wanted at the time, which is: wherever possible, local HR provide initial support, either in-house where they have the resources, or using local relocation agents engaged by them. Someone on the ground in the actual city will be far more informed about the local housing market and they are likely to be cheaper too. Eager and Keen’s ‘extensive network of destination services professionals’ would only be used as a last resort in random places where we have no contacts.

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Of course, local HR won’t thank me for the extra work, but as the suggestion will be coming from Cindy, I am in the clear. I rather like being the silent hand of change. Perhaps there are few more niggling things I can get on to while I am at it…

Next time…Candid gets productive in France.