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Morality & Me - Episode 2: Global Mobility, dilemmas without borders

The next leg of my journey through morality at work, revisiting my own career to date through the lens of moral reasoning, is taking me to cover my first 10 years in the UK, during which I have undertaken a number of roles in the area of global mobility, for various large global companies. First, for those not indoctrinated into the very special world - and big family - that is global mobility (or international mobility), this is about the management of expatriates who move to other countries on assignment or permanently, to take on a role, and are supported practically and financially by their company to do so. People who work in global mobility tend to "acquire a very particular set of skills", to use the words of Liam Neeson. It's a unique blend of working with numbers to manage assignment compensation, project management to follow all the complex steps required to manage a move, and all parties involved, and interpersonal skills to support people, and their families, going through what tends to me particularly stressful times - and this is probably still not completely doing it justice, as there are plenty of other facets to the role.

Now for the usual question: what has morality got to do with any of this? Although on this occasion, it probably isn't a massive leap to connect the management of these complex and very personal situations, with matters of "doing the right thing". Going back briefly to some of the concepts I shared in the prologue, there were many cases in my experience which would illustrate situations of moral dilemma, and lead to either take a utilitarian (pragmatic and based on the best possible outcome for all involved) or deontological (based on moral principles of not deliberately causing harm to others) decision. Here are a few of these illustrations.

And before I start, I feel a disclaimer is in order for all GM professionals reading this - I have now stepped away from roles in GM 8 years ago, and therefore my account relates to these "good old days", knowing that circumstances might have well changed since then.

Crossing boundaries

Supporting people who get ready to move, or have moved, themselves and their families across the world to take up a job, brings people in Global Mobility (GM) very close to their expats, and very intimate with their personal details, and situations. To the extent that, sometimes, it makes you wonder where to draw the line, and it is easy to get conflicted between wanting to do what you can to help, and sticking with what, on paper, your role is meant to be. One of those situations led me to temporarily feel like I was acting as a marriage counsellor for one of my expats. The toll expatriate moves take on accompanying families is one that really cannot be underestimated, as with the stress of unfamiliar surroundings also comes worries about missing family, children needing to adjust, or feelings of loneliness if the spouse remains at home in this unfamiliar place while the expat works long days and establishes themselves in their new working environment. On this occasion, the pressure of the move was putting a great amount of strain on this expat's relationship, as their spouse was generally unhappy, including with practical aspects such as their accommodation. The expat confided that the relationship was badly affected, and asked me whether I could speak with their spouse, who at that point was close to leaving, listen to some of their grievances, and provide whatever support I could. And this is where the dilemma kicks in: on the one hand, this was clearly a very personal, delicate and emotional situation, and working it by the book, there were specialised people better trained than myself to provide this emotional support, I had already fulfilled my end of the deal in terms of practical support, and ran the risk of exposing myself to more challenges. On the other hand, someone in distress is asking for my support, not as a means to deflect their own responsibilities, but as a genuine cry for help. Taking this up a level, you can consider that the company has fulfilled their part of the deal by providing the support they committed to. But wouldn't there also be a moral duty of care when people's personal lives get affected? This moral reasoning led me to accept to have this call, which took place a few days later, during which my main skill in the end was just being there and listening, and perhaps just making a couple of simple suggestions. Thankfully, things eventually settled for this couple - although I would never claim that I saved their marriage!

Bearer of bad news

Expatriates, depending on the terms offered by their organisation, get supported and compensated for a variety of things, and sometimes end up with quite complex package build-ups, accounting for cost of living differential, tax treatment, exchange rate, etc. For those supporting them within GM teams, this means needing to master the calculation (although of course it has got increasingly automated), and the explanation of such allowances, and their variation. And this is where it can get tricky... Because of fluctuations in cost of living, exchange rates, or just changes in policies, packages can change, upwards and downwards, and you become the one, in the case of the latter, needing to explain why someone is going to start getting less money. On the face of it, it is perfectly understandable, and based on objective criteria and data, and consistently applied policies, which the expat signed up for. When it comes to talking about it to an actual person, what you are faced with is someone who isn't always in a position to even go anywhere near the objective side of it, as they struggle to move past the fact that they are getting less money. This isn't exactly a case of moral dilemma, as ultimately you are there to ensure the consistent implementation of policies. It is more a case of moral conflict, potentially, and finding a way of justifying to yourself that you will defend the argument of decreasing someone's compensation. And this is where different people will adopt different strategies:

  • For some, it will be a question of procedural fairness, and above all ensuring that everyone is treated in the same way, with the same rules and processes, which justifies the outcome

  • For others, it will be a case of focusing on the purpose of the process and calculation, and for example that it is the moral thing to do to spend the company money reasonably and therefore adjust compensation where applicable

  • Others still will go as far as deflect and do the equivalent of "blaming the victim", with thoughts such as "you've had it good for a long while"

  • And of course some will be genuinely empathetic and understanding, and these are the ones who will experience a higher degree of what is called emotional labour, and risk feeling themselves overwhelmed overtime, as these situations will tend to use up their personal resources.

Exception, Exception, Exception

Anyone who worked in GM will have experiences with expatriates requesting exceptions to policy, regarding what they are supported with for their move. Some companies are stricter than others in even considering exceptions, and I have always worked in environments where special circumstances would typically be accounted for. Seeing the differences in the way people's lives are shaped, what their needs might be, or life events they might experience, it is no surprise that all of it cannot be accounted for in a standard policy. With that said, most will have stories of extravagant requests which, with hindsight, seem far-fetched, but in the mind of those who requested them, came from a totally rational place. Some of the ones I or colleagues came across included someone adamant that their daughter's horse had to be relocated with them to central Manhattan, several requests for exotic or far-flung accommodation choices (to be fair it would be tempting to use a London-based allowance to rent a small chateau somewhere far away..), VIP treatment for a cat to be relocated (and I do mean VIP - pets often are a great source of concern, and there too, understandably so - although I am sure Mittens didn't need an individual limo..), and a myriad of more than questionable expenses (it doesn't seem to bother certain people to claim for pay-per-view porn, arguing that it was the company's responsibility to keep them "entertained" while on their house hunting trip..). I was particularly fascinated to see, as a manager, how exception requests would be presented to me by the team, and how this reflected the team member's own reasoning mechanism. Of course I would always expect them to come with an initial review and recommendation, and the way this was done would often be a good reflection of their own personality. As an organisation, we need to be objective and consistent on things like these, and this is why there would be several layers of approval, depending on the scope of the exception, and governance processes, as I think it would be naïve to expect personal moral standards, levels of empathy, and perceptions on duty of care not to influence someone's reasoning and views on what the outcome should be. Add to this personal affinities with expatriates, as in some cases they would build great rapport. There too, the emotional side of such cases should not be underestimated.

Bigger cultural and environmental considerations

So far, I have mainly considered moral challenges that are related to the interpersonal side of working in GM, in the relationships between the GM professional and their expatriates. And during my own time in GM, this would be the primary source of moral reasoning, together with balancing these with demands from the business. There are however a number of other areas in which, being a little older and wiser now, and seeing recent changes in the world, I think could easily be involved nowadays.

The first one come from an environmental perspective. Having developed a much more acute sense of responsibility towards environmental sustainability over the past few years, I could see how one might be conflicted about the carbon footprint involved in moving families and their goods across the world, and I can't help wondering (having lost touch these last few years) whether this is something which companies now think about when making expatriation decisions, and weighing up needs and impact.

The second one comes from another sensitive perspective, and that is the perceived need to send Western workforces across to other countries, which in some cases still had a certain colonial feel to it. That said, most companies are undertaking efforts to develop local capability and have nationalisation agendas. Even then, still, the narrative around these initiatives can oscillate between simple compliance to local national requirements, or a sense of "favour" the Western organisation does to the host country, rather than a genuine acknowledgement that it is the right way to go.

And a third aspect would concern the expectations some corporations would put upon individuals, and potential pressure to take roles as expatriates. Yes, people are typically well looked after, and these are fantastic opportunities for personal development and growth. However offers, or requests, from companies to take on an overseas assignment can be met with a degree of pressure, a feeling of inability to say no, and even the view - if not clearly expressed - that it is a necessary step for anyone wishing to advance their career. This poses a challenge in terms of diversity and access to opportunities, but also in some cases in the degree of personal sacrifice one might feel is expected as part of corporate life.

These are all considerations that 2022 me would probably be reflecting upon a lot more frequently if exposed more closely to the world of GM; however not exactly something which would have crossed my mind a great deal back years ago.

Here we are, a look back on another part of my career through the lens of moral reasoning. Thinking about it from the perspective of a particular professional area, global mobility, made me realise the extent to which, within a profession such as this one, considerations of morality do take a great place, and require a lot of resources from the people working in it. This probably extends to other roles where people support customers at critical points of their lives, or through challenging situations, and the demands this puts on these individuals, and additional strain it can create. Something which may not always be sufficiently acknowledged, accounted for, or supported. And it may be for that reason that I have experienced within GM teams a degree of personal support, humour, empathy and care for one another which I have rarely witnessed anywhere else.

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