Cafe Classic: He Said / She Said is Always Expensive

Editor’s Note:  Today’s Classic features some timeless advice from Chuck Csizmar on documenting the terms and conditions of an expatriate’s overseas assignment.  Ultimately much smarter (and more financially viable) than waiting for the inevitable game of “he said / she said” to erupt.

Recently I was asked by a U.S. client why I recommended that they create an international assignment letter for their expatriate employees.  After all, they only had a few employees overseas and previously had resisted the call to “play the lawyer card.” They felt that management could effectively deal with the circumstances of expatriate situations as matters came up, and were reluctant to lose what they considered their prerogative – to set terms and conditions as they thought appropriate for each employee.

This is not the first time I’ve been asked that question, as it’s not unusual for small companies or non-profit organizations to send an employee overseas with little more than a verbal agreement and a series of vague assurances.  These organizations wish to avoid bureaucracy and move quickly.  However, often these casual and hurried arrangements have proved painful and expensive experiences:

  • The shock faced when coming to grips with actually living in a foreign country, vs. visiting.  The realities of daily life, combined with cultural differences compared against “back home” become quite a wake-up call when no longer insulated by the transitory nature of a business or vacation trip.
  • The constancy of unforeseen and confusing local situations (medical claims, driving licenses, bank accounts, schooling, language, etc.) proved such a frustrating distraction that employees lost focus on the job – the reason they were there in the first place.
  • Relationships with headquarters suffered as the employee asked for repeated consideration (increased payments) to redress what they considered coverage gaps in their terms & conditions.  The trust element was weakened as employees felt they were being short-changed by management.

Coming from an environment where every expatriate was given a detailed assignment letter “before” getting on the plane, I was at first taken aback by the client’s question – because the absence of mutually agreed terms and conditions is almost certain to prove expensive to companies trying to take a “short cut.”

So why is providing an assignment letter a good idea?

  • Protection:  Like any contract, confirming the terms & conditions of the assignment protect both parties from misunderstandings, misinterpretations and assumptions – before expenses are incurred.
  • Clarity:  Accepting an overseas assignment is a major step for any employee, as well as for family members.  The more you clarify the terms and conditions of the assignment, the more likely you are to ensure a smooth assignment for all parties.
  • Cost control:  Defines expenses that the company will pay for and conversely what they will not.  An agreement here will mitigate issues rising once the expatriate is on the ground in the host country.  Concerns raised once the assignee is relocated usually result in increased company costs, as negotiating leverage is lost and the company feels compelled to avoid alienating an expensive investment.
  • Standardization:  Your international policy should strive to treat expatriates in the same fashion.  Unique circumstances do occur but the basic principles should be followed for every assignee.

So how bad can it be, playing it by ear and leaving terms & conditions to be developed over the duration of an employee’s assignment?  Aren’t flexibility and quick thinking positive management traits?

Yes, but when courting the inherent risks that accompany an undocumented assignment, you should be prepared for:

  • Higher and unbudgeted costs.
  • Frequent negotiations to improve the expat’s situation.
  • Disgruntled assignees and / or affected family members.
  • Greater risk of failed assignment.

Short cuts usually limits the financial and emotional protection the employee and their family will rely on, while the company has committed  substantial monies to place them overseas.  That is not a good management practice.

Terms and Conditions

When preparing an international assignment letter, the following  key elements should be included.

  • Title, compensation and assignment duration – critical elements of status and reward in the host country.
  • Housing and cost of living allowance – should include the amounts involved and frequency of review.
  • Benefit coverage (medical, dental, life, vacation, holidays etc.) – how will home country benefit protections be handled in the host country.
  • Relocation –coverage for the employee’s home country residence, to include overseas movement of household goods.
  • Property management (as applicable) – what will happen to the home country residence?
  • Tax preparation – employee obligations in both countries.  Usually a statement of company liability for “additional” taxes.
  • Home leave – how often, and under what circumstances?
  • Schooling, language, cultural orientation (as applicable).
  • Repatriation – a balance is usually struck here between the employee’s strong concern and the company’s natural vagueness for what the future might bring.

The items listed above represent only a portion of the questions that your expatriate candidate will have.   So should your company consider taking a casual approach to sending an employee overseas, unsupported by a signed assignment letter, be aware of the risks involved.

Chuck Csizmar CCP is founder and Principal of CMC Compensation Group, providing global compensation consulting services to a wide variety of industries and non-profit organizations.  He is also associated with several HR Consulting firms as a contributing consultant.  Chuck is a broad based subject matter expert with a specialty in international and expatriate compensation.  He lives in Central Florida (near The Mouse) and enjoys growing fruit and managing (?) a clowder of cats.

This post originally appeared on Compensation Cafe
Author: Ann Bares