What They Did Not Tell You About Talent Mobility Management

Olivier Meier
8 min readJun 22, 2021


Management books tend to depict talent mobility management as a well-defined, orderly journey to develop competitive policies while providing a red carpet experience to highly valued mobile employees. The day-to-day reality of a talent mobility manager is more complex and chaotic than that, but it is just as interesting and rewarding. Here are a few things they didn’t mention in the management books.

Human, all too human

We would like to believe that mobility management decisions are based on rational thoughts and processes, but they are equally driven by gut feelings, office politics, and endless replications of the same old approaches. A first step to address these issues is about recognizing the human aspect of management and integrating it in the implementation process. Look for “skeletons in the cupboard” — old practices and policies that were tried and tested by your predecessors — because the consequences of these experiments linger on, shading the perception of mobility by managers in the organization. Understanding the unofficial collaboration networks is useful because official org charts do not tell the whole story about how the organization operates. The second step is about improving the decision process by introducing elements of evidence-based management. Opinions are useful, but factual information and rigorous research are more valuable for improving mobility processes. Analytics and new technologies offer an opportunity to improve decision making, but only if we are able to manage them properly.

“42” is the answer

The number 42 is, in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, the “answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything”, calculated by an enormous supercomputer named Deep Thought over a period of 7.5 million years. Unfortunately, no one knows what the question is.

AI and the use of big data can lead to solutions that are difficult to explain and justify, and sometimes the relevance may be questionable. Analytics can provide a much needed boost to evidence-based management practices, but not all analytics are relevant. New questions about transparency and ethics are arising, especially linked to diversity and inclusion issues. The interpretation of the output can be especially problematic. This could stem from simple statistical and mathematical illiteracy issues. The human brain also loves cutting corners, and HR is not immune to cognitive biases from small sample effects, heuristics (generalization), confusing correlation and causation, etc.

Let us not draw the wrong conclusion here: big data and analytics are here to stay and provide invaluable tools for improving talent mobility practices. It is just that companies and HR teams in particular are not necessarily prepared for them. Upskilling is required, but there is no need to turn HR professionals into IT experts. The objective is to help them make sense of the information overload, ask the relevant questions, and make sense of the input provided by the machine. There are opportunities for HR professionals who can retain their human touch while effectively partnering with IT to produce meaningful and strategic input for management.

Time is of the essence

The different business stakeholders do not operate on the same timelines. HR teams have to accommodate the urgent requests of top management, the short-term objectives of line managers who may not look beyond their annual targets, as well as the long-term impact that decisions will have on the business.

A good short-term solution could be a bad long-term decision. This dichotomy partly explains why developing mobility policies and processes feels like a rollercoaster ride. We strive to move from simple to more comprehensive and flexible policies under pressure from management, only to retreat back to less ambitious goals when confronted with the unforeseen side effects of our rash decisions.

On the compensation side, many companies are considering a host-based approach to replace traditional expatriate packages. However, the dilemma of choosing between a balance-sheet approach (perceived as expensive in the short term) and using a host-based approach (potentially creating problems down the line if the employee goes on successive assignments) has not been fully resolved. Being able and willing to flag the short-, medium-, and long-term consequences of proposed solutions is the hallmark of a good mobility professional. It is not about excluding options but rather about achieving transparency in the decision process and providing a true picture of the real cost for the business.

What’s in a name?

Mobility can be a story of misunderstandings — between number-oriented finance managers and people-focused HR teams, and even between HR professionals. The root of these misunderstandings may be the use of jargon or obscure acronyms (watch out for the resurgence of debates about “the GM industry in a VUCA world”) but more often than not, it is the lack of common definition of essential concepts. Buzzwords become viral and reach the top of HR professionals’ mind, if not the top of their agenda, before they have been clarified.

We have often talked about “local plus” packages that combine a local salary with expatriate benefits. There is no universal definition of what should be included in such packages, and the use of a local plus approach can lead to very different cost and assignee support levels, depending on the assumptions selected. Similarly, applying a local approach to long-term assignments (the plus is temporary but the local base salary is difficult to change) doesn’t have the same implications as for a permanent moves (the ongoing cost of the plus). This should give us pause when trying to benchmark superficially local plus packages between organizations.

The ongoing debate about flexibility is confusing and mixes different solutions, from providing limited choices to a more ambitious cafeteria or self-service models. Furthermore, the flexibility could be for management or for employees to decide (or both). Two organizations can have “flexible mobility policies” but with radically different philosophies and practical outcomes.

Remote working is adding another layer of complexity to the flexibility debate. What do we mean by “working from anywhere”? Top management, employees, and HR have a different understanding about this. It is hard to make any progress without sharing common definitions. And beyond simple definitions, HR professionals need to contextualize their concepts and build the story around them to make them intelligible by all employees. Mobility professionals need to be good communicators.

What has talent mobility ever done for us?

The list of skills and range of responsibilities of mobility professionals is impressive. Few parts of HR have to deal with so many complex international issues. Sadly, mobility professionals often complain they are not viewed as strategic enough, not invited to the decision table, and ultimately relegated to admin tasks. At the same time, top management often has lingering doubts about the value of mobility — say the word “expatriate” and concerns about costs immediately appear in a manager’s mind.

Breaking this vicious circle is not easy, but HR professionals need to better understand and demonstrate the value of mobility. What is really assignment success? How do receiving business units benefit from assignees over the long-term? Too often, HR teams are satisfied when assignments are completed without problems or early repatriation. They do not have the time or the resources to dig deeper into the real impact of assignments. Many organizations do not even have a precise definition of what constitutes an assignment success.

The goal is not to calculate the ultimate exact ROI but, more realistically, to capture KPIs as well as quantitative and qualitative feedback that can demonstrate what the assignments have achieved and connect these indicators with business issues: building leadership pipeline, addressing skills shortages, managing risks and compliance, and managing business costs (not just from a mobility package perspective). Being strategic for HR people is about breaking the vicious circle: CEO will not support mobility if they do not receive clear evidence of its success, but not all mobility professionals have the time and resources to provide the required input.

Nothing is certain but compliance and taxes

Whether they like it or not, mobility professionals are risk managers — they deal with people, financial, compliance, and reputation risks. It can be frustrating to design elegant business solutions only to have them shot down or clipped by trivial compliance issues. This problem is not going away anytime soon, with the development of new types of assignments and international remote working.

Mobility teams do not necessarily need to be experts in all aspects of compliance, but they are in a unique position to coordinate the teams involved in compliance management for international assignments, identify future risks, and flag them for management. The omnipresence of these compliance and tax issues on mobility teams’ agenda can, however, sometimes impede the design of new solutions and understanding of new trends.

The mobility team says no

Mobility teams want to be known as enablers of new solutions and not as obstructions to innovation. The recent debate about international remote working and virtual assignments has illustrated this risk. Many compliance issues make international remote working difficult to implement. Some HR professionals have been too quick to dismiss it as a fad at the beginning of the pandemic (“it will not happen in my lifetime”). When they slowly started to realize that the debate would not go away, a gap had already opened between, on one side, CEOs promising the option to work from anywhere and employees envisioning every possibility of anywhere, and, on the other side, HR professionals still resisting the idea.

The concerns about compliance of international remote working were valid, but the debate was not rightly framed: it was not a yes or no question. There were always options to make remote working work: limiting the duration, restricting remote working to specific locations, combining remote and onsite working (hybrid working), redefining or even splitting jobs. These solutions might be more limited than initially expected, but that is what the business wanted: more options and not a smug statement about the impossibility of virtual assignments. The question of remote working has now reached the top of the HR agenda, and mobility managers are busy trying to find creative solutions to make it work. But the lesson remains: the mobility team is a remarkable enabler of talent mobility and should always be perceived as such. Saying no is sometimes required, but it should always be accompanied by alternative options.

Don’t look in the box for outside the box thinking

Over the years, international HR and relocation professionals have evolved a structured global mobility industry and well connected networks of practitioners. These networks provide considerable support to mobility professionals. However, in a close-knit community, opinions rapidly become mantras, and unrefined ideas become viral buzzwords. The buzz gets reinforced, for better or worse: “We must do something for the younger generations.” “More flexibility is the solution.” “Virtual assignments are not going to work.” It is difficult to go against the flow and take time to pause and reflect about what research says about generations, how flexibility should be implemented, and what we can do about international remote working. Despite many positive developments, it is sometimes difficult to come up with radically new ideas or truly understand the expectations of business when working in a siloed industry.

There is, however, a lot to learn from other parts of the business. For instance from marketing: implementing successful changes or a new policy is lot about market positioning, story-telling, and pure selling. Technology, analytics, agile project management, and more general IT trends are the keys to provide the input required by line management and finance. An HR manager could do worse than send their team members to marketing or tech events and require them to learn some skills that are not purely HR. It is a two-way street: HR and mobility professionals in particular have a lot to bring to the other parts of the business. But they will be able to make their voices heard only if they are better attuned to the needs of the rest of their organizations and grasp the latest technologies and business trends.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.



Olivier Meier

Exploring trends about people management, workforce mobility, globalization, and the future of work. www.linkedin.com/in/olivieraemeier