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Mobility Basics: The assignment lifecycle - pre-assignment

It is often underestimated and unappreciated how many processes are set in motion the moment a company elects to send an employee abroad. Anyone not involved in the process could be forgiven for thinking it may be as simple as sorting out a very long holiday – book flights and accommodation, pack some stuff, don’t forget your passport... how hard can it be?

Those of us working in global mobility (GM) know there is a lot more to it.  So much more in fact, that organisations will set up dedicated teams, invest in software systems and tools and partner-up with various providers, consultants and experts to make sure that sending individuals across the world and back is a smooth, compliant and efficient process that contributes to the financial and productive wellbeing of the business. 

The following infographic illustrates the first stage of a typical assignment lifecycle. It is a high-level glance into what needs to happen when a company wants to send an employee from country A to country B, based on best practice as well as what typically happens in reality. In this example, we follow ‘Anna Signee’, a Canadian employee, and her family (husband Ian and their two children) who are being sent to China. It shows the process that the organisation would normally have in place, from recruitment and selection of the individual through to pre-assignment preparation and relocation (the next stage of the lifecycle, from on-assignment management up to planning the end of the assignment will be covered in a later post).

Ideally, the GM team will be involved from the start in the recruitment phase, although in reality this does not always happen, and GM can sometimes even be, to everyone’s frustration, the last ones to know about the assignment. Candidates selected from within the organisation will be chosen, possibly from a specific talent pool, based not only on their technical competencies but on their ‘softer’ skills such as adaptability, cultural awareness, interpersonal skills and actual willingness to work abroad – factors often overlooked and yet critical to the success or failure of an assignment.

Organisations then typically have policies in place that enable them to easily determine the type of remuneration package their assignees will receive, in a consistent fashion. Said policies will take into account factors such as the reason for the assignment (strategic, developmental, self-initiated, graduate etc), duration and location, as well as employees’ seniority and objectives. Whichever remuneration approach the company decides to include in its policies (home-based, host-based, hybrid, select country, international salary spine, etc), they will be aiming for the salary packages to be competitive (incentivising the employee to become mobile) whilst at the same time achieving equity between the assignees and their home and/or host peers and/or local employees.

Anna is to set up and run a new operation in China for three years, meaning she will fall under the company’s Long-term strategic policy. In this example, she will be paid a home-based package, meaning she will be tax equalised and provided with a cost of living adjustment, mobility allowance and a location allowance, all of which will contribute to her annual net assignment salary. This will be added to the value of the additional assignment benefits she is entitled to according to the policy (such as housing, children’s education, home leave, shipping etc), to generate a full cost estimate for the business to sign off before the assignment goes ahead.

At this stage the terms and conditions (T&C’s) of the assignment can be discussed with Anna. Assuming the assignment will be a success, with Anna gaining valuable international experience, the organisation will most likely want to keep her in the company when the assignment ends. Wherever possible, we would recommend discussing what will happen at the end of the assignment at this stage. Will Anna have a job upon her return, will she be sent on another assignment, will she be localised? Having these discussions early in the process demonstrates the company’s commitment to the employee and helps to manage expectations.

Once the T&C’s have been discussed, Anna will receive her assignment letter or contract  and visit the assignment location to look at properties and schools, often with the help of a destination service provider. For obvious reasons, this trip will be critical to Anna’s decision as to whether she accepts the assignment or not. Failure to find suitable housing or schools for children or other personal concerns about the host location are common reasons why many assignments do not actually go ahead. 

If, following the visit, Anna has concerns about accepting the assignment, the company may, either at its discretion or by following its policy exception system, add a sweetener to the package to incentivise her to accept the T&C’s and sign on the dotted line.

Once she has signed, the rest of the relocation preparations kick in. A raft of specialists, providers and consultants are called upon for their services and expertise in immigration compliance, medical checks (crucial for visa approval in certain countries), security, language, culture and tax. Relocation agents will initiate shipping arrangements and other physical aspects of the move with the assignee, and meanwhile all necessary work permits and visa applications will hopefully be approved. Before they know it, the Signee family is miles high over the Pacific Ocean on their way to China. Depending on the immediate availability of their newly rented home and/or the arrival of the shipment of their belongings and furniture, they may have to stay in pre-booked temporary accommodation for a few weeks. In any case, this life-changing and hopefully successful assignment has now officially begun – but the involvement of the company’s global mobility team does not end here, as we will see in the second part of this post in coming weeks.


ECA’s International Assignment Guides help to prepare employees and their families for the realities of an international assignment. There are guides for three scenarios:

Planning to Work Abroad – for consideration before accepting an assignment

Together on Assignment – for one partner to consider the implications of the other’s assignment

Returning Home – to prepare for repatriation

The International Assignment Guides can be provided directly to your mobile population through your company intranet and combine anecdotal advice and worksheets with real-life case studies to raise awareness of issues that should be considered, discussed and resolved before committing to an assignment. 

  Please contact us to speak to a member of our team directly.

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