Nine Truths About Intracompany Transfers
An intracompany transfer allows you to move where you live without impacting your job. But that’s where theory ends and planning begins…
I have been most fortunate in that I had the opportunity to move from the Netherlands to Sweden, while maintaining my job. My role being of a more international character, it made sense to turn to a long-held dream of living closer to nature, where the winters still remembered what snow was. My manager approved it, and we decided to put that plan into action. But of course, things did not always go according to plan, and this led me to illustrate the nine most important truths about intracompany international transfers – where you work for the same company, and yet everything else seems to change.
First: No company is a monolithic entity
When you work in a multinational corporate environment, you might be quick to assume that because there is a direct management line, core strategy and corporate culture and financial structure that the connections between offices of the same company in different countries are pretty strong.
In reality, each office or branch is its own entity, operating independently in the market and the law system of the country it is in. While the overall HQ might be aware of the laws and financial systems in each, they are very unlikely to be able to tell you what needs to be arranged when you move from country to country.
Very large international companies often have an expert, or a team, called “Corporate Mobility” which centers around people who move around for their jobs. The standard here, however, is when people move short-term for a project and need assistance in arranging a visum or the like, or when people move on a permanent basis on the company’s request (for example to take up a C-level Management role in one of the company’s branch offices). Check beforehand with Corporate Mobility if they can, or are willing to, help you – and what information they might need to do so.
In almost all cases, international mobility means ending your contract with your employer in your old country and starting a new contract with your new country’s office. This has all the benefits, problems and caveats of actually leaving your job and starting a new job in another country, even if you keep the same role.
This brings up questions like:
- Will I be subjected to a “trial period” in my new country with the risks that involves?
- Will I lose seniority benefits in the country, even if they are the same in all countries?
- If I were to be fired, or a reorganization takes place, will my full tenure be taken into account?
- How does my salary relate to the standard of living in the target country? Can I live in the same fashion? Can I renegotiate?
Make a list of all of these questions, and check the wording on your contract clearly. Find ways to negotiate keeping the spirit of your existing agreement intact, even if you effectively sign a new contract.
It clearly helps if your manager (or even the higher management as a whole) agrees with and supports your move, because they can help clear a lot of roadblocks, facilitate negotiations and approvals.
Second: Expect to be over-prepared and feel under-delivered
People keeping their job while moving from one corporate entity to another are rare and often part of the higher-performing section of the employees. But this also places a burden of expectation on you, as a de facto project manager.
Make no mistake, moving from one country to another is a major undertaking even though you get to keep your job. In actual prep, it’s no different than moving and changing jobs at the same time.
Each of the major deliverables on your project timeline is going to have numerous dependencies, tasks, research needs and milestones to deal with. And you, as the instigator of the project, are expected to be its owner, executor and auditor at all times. You will need to realize what steps to take, push for these steps to be taken, and then make sure that they are done correctly.
Let me be the first to tell you that I am compulsively over-prepared on these things, so this might not go for you. I have seen quite some people who go on with half a plan, and they sometimes also fare pretty good. But I need to know about everything, because I know that there are preciously little people who will look over my shoulder and from the goodness of their heart correct a mistake or point out that I might benefit from something. I would also feel terrible if something this important fails because I did not put in all the effort I could.
Take a major deliverable, like your new employment contract. You will need to know what should be in that contract, and how it relates to the one you have now. Examples include your new wage, country-specific taxes and employment benefits, memberships in unions, rights and responsibilities, severance rules, and so on. But keep in mind that if the “spirit of the letter” should be that you are keeping your role, you also need to include things that reflect that. In my case, while the contract start date was the first day of working for Fujitsu Sweden, I asked to include a line that mentioned that I joined the Fujitsu Group’s service at the original hiring date back in 2006. This would allow me to stress a continuous line of employement if that would become important in the future, whether because of employment benefits or rules on reorganizations.
Another one would be housing. How easy is it to find a house from outside of the country? Can you do this with your level of the language? How do normal residents find their homes and are those options available to you? What are the rules for renting or buying a house, how do they differ from your home country? Only if you know all of that, can you think about how to tackle potential issues. Is it easy to find a home, but not from abroad? Maybe you should spend a few weeks in a hotel and find a home before moving your family over. Is it hard to find a home but can be done from another country? Get it done early. Is it hard and impossible from abroad? Maybe hire a consultant specialized in finding homes for foreigners. It might cost a bit of money but it will reduce your stress levels significantly.
Do you need a visum to enter the country? How do you get one and how long does that take? Can your company help you – and will they? If your company does not support you it might be hard to get a visum – are there other ways to qualify? Does it apply to you or also to your family? If just you, can you bring them over later? What happens if you lost your job?
When you are moving, will you bring your furniture? Is it easier to get a furnished apartment and only take your personal effects – less moving costs? Should you sell of or store what you leave behind – more costly? What is the actual volume of your goods and how big a truck is it? Should you hire a moving company or could you do it yourself?
In our case, we ended up moving with half our inventory and had a friend drive the loaded rental truck while we took our own car. She could spend some time here in Sweden on a short holiday, then she took the truck back and handed it back in at the rental company in the Netherlands. That was much cheaper than a rental agency, and we had the added benefit of increased trust in who’d be handling our goods. Could we have moved with much less? Sure – but I didn’t take enough time for myself to sort out and get rid of the stuff we had. I underestimated the time it’d take to sort through stuff, decide whether to keep, sell or throw it out. I was emotionally invested with some things (or so I thought) and once I arrived here I realised I was not – I could have sold it back in the Netherlands and saved me the hassle. That was definitely a learning point for me.
So all in all, without knowledge of the situation and how this compares to you now, you cannot make any decisions. If you only spend a little effort on it, or start late, you are likely to make snap decisions which can end up badly.
Third: Expect to be held up in dependencies
In Sweden you need a Personnummer to get a bank account, phone/internet and basically anything else. Everything you want to do will come back to having this registration number. If you have a job, you can rely on getting it relatively quick, as would your family – but for others it’s proven a nightmare sometimes. Either it took very long, or they were denied and given a samordningsnummer instead, its lesser cousin. But without a bank account your company cannot pay your salary. Without tax registration they can’t even complete your status in their registry. Without internet arranging anything is slow and torturous. Without a personnummer you can’t get an ID Card, which is important because in Sweden they don’t really trust European issued ID Cards, it seems.
But I knew that beforehand, because I compulsively overprepared. In my case I first pushed for a bank account with a fictitious number, just to have an account my company could pay me on. We had a pile of documents a centimeter thick to hand in at Skatteverket the day after we arrived, from birth certificates to employment contract to rental agreement.
When you plan your move for yourself, find out if there are any major chokepoints that must be addressed for you to move forward. Do you need a visum? Make sure you know everything about visa, its requirements, timeline, your rights and obligations. Without it, you cannot move and everything else turns to loose sand. So focus your energy on this, which is a major blocker.
Finding a home sounds important, or finalizing your contract for your new employer but look deeply at every step of your move and identify where you can get stuck permanently. One step might be a key to doing a lot of other things – it’s a bottleneck. One document lacking might block your entry in the country – it’s a blocker. You may need to have something arranged before you leave the country, because you cannot do it from abroad.
Identify these and put time and effort in how to get them done, what to do if they don’t seem to go through, and find alternatives. For internet I found a single company that actually allowed you to start an account from another country and without personnummer, and had them ship the router so that I could pick it up the day I arrived in Sweden (internet on day one is a definite plus!). Without it, I could not have arranged many other things, and would be much less available for my manager.
Fourth: Your timeline is built from moving in backwards
Don’t expect a quick fix. Even when your managers agree, and it would be easy to fix up a new employment contract, there will be a lot of negotiation behind the scenes that you don’t know about. For example, on how your status should be addressed, how to arrange for your costs to be booked, if there are any laws that might hinder your transfer, and so on.
It can, and likely will, take months.
This is a good thing, because you need that time to prepare many, many things. Many countries’ governments have sites that detail the necessary steps to migrate in or out. You need to read both your country’s emigration page and your host country’s immigration page. Often there will be deadlines and processing times mentioned, and you need to put those in your plan. Expect to be baffled by difficult speech, language barriers and pages of text designed to intimidate you and make you doubt moving to that country – I think that is by design. Find blogs about this topic by googling the specific subjects you are having trouble with.
Then make your own summary story of what you have to do, what is expected of you, and a timeline for each such deliverable.
For Sweden as an example, it could take weeks to get a Personnummer, you need to go in person and you need to pick a number and wait quite some time at Skatteverket. Banks aren’t open on saturday or sunday here, and close at 3 PM on weekdays. So if you want a bank account, you need to keep that in mind. We hired a consultant to find housing for us (because Sweden has both a difficult and inaccessible renting market) and handle the contracts. We knew we had a few months, because we had an August 1 start date for Sweden. This allowed us the time to have her look at a comfortable pace, and not be rushed having to decide a week before moving.
All in all I said I had 9 months of contract negotiations, inside which 6 months of research and 3 months of prep. I am not sure if that is typical, but it feels like this could be a good standard to work with.
Above all, give yourself time. Don’t paint yourself in a corner where something must occur on that exact date or else everything falls apart. Give yourself alternative options if possible, or spend some time and find different routes to achieving your result. Having a plan B will allow you to sleep much better at night in the week before the move, I can assure you.
Fifth: You have to start assimilation before your migration
A major hurdle in migration is the assimilation process. This is where you try to fit in, and progressively learn to behave and handle matters like a “native” would. For some, this is a quick process, others it may never complete. This relies greatly on three major factors:
- Reasons for migrating to your host country
- Differences of culture between your home country and host country
- Your efforts and willingness to assimilate
If your reasons for migrating are purely economical, for example, and you expect to return home in a decade or two, you have few reasons to fully assimilate. You’d be happy with being considered that “quaint, well-adjusted foreigner” and call it a day. But if you want to live here the rest of your life and have a productive social life, often you need to go much further.
Between the Netherlands and Sweden, there are some differences in culture but they are not major. On the whole I found Swedes actually warmer and less reserved than the Dutch, despite the Swedes’ reigning stereotype of being colder and shy. Both cultures have the concepts of “Lagom” or “Don’t act out of place” so that wasn’t a problem either. But I can see how people from America, Iraq or India fare differently, because there are some prime differences in basic social rules going on which hamper an easy integration.
Language, as well, can be a hindrance or a benefit. Swedes on the whole speak English well, but a lot of organizations like to tease you by sending huge piles of information in high-octane Swedish. Skatteverket, Vårdcentral, Arbetsformedlingen and your local car dealer all produce varying levels of Swedish-only content so you need to get familiar with it. For people who speak a related language (like Dutch, English, German) will find a lot of comfortable comparisons here and are expected to learn it quite quick. I’ve been here a year now, and I can express myself reasonably well, and people comment on how well I speak Swedish – but I still have major difficulties understanding it by ear.
On the contrary, if your native language is not related – let alone if it uses another script, you’re going to be in for quite a shock. English might work well, but if you want to feel comfortably at home here, it really pays to invest in learning the language, and that means working hard.
My advice here would be to start studying the language a while before actually moving. Use sites like Duolingo or Memrise to get some basic vocabulary, watch language- and kids’ shows on Youtube, perhaps have some basic conversations with people native to your target country that are living in your own country right now!
When it comes to assimilation, if that is your goal, you need to first become aware of the target country’s culture and learn it – way before leaving. That’s the “Cold” level of preparation. Then, you have to be willing to adapt your way of thinking and mannerisms to their culture to a degree. You don’t have to agree with everything and become “more native than natives” but at the very least respect how that culture came to be and pick your fights wisely when it comes to what parts of your cultural identity you want to maintain (“Warm” preparation). Third, you need to test after you arrive what things you do might block assimilating and fix them – the “Hot” level of preparation.
This difference between acceptance and assimilation is important. For example, although it’s sometimes seen as rude and confrontational, I maintain my Dutch honesty, consciously. I know that it might keep me from fully assimilating, but it’s a core part of my identity, it has served me well professionally as well, and it’s become a bit of a trademark for me, a measure of personal branding on the workfloor. As such, it’s accepted by others, and in that it’s the next best thing to assimilating.
You can’t control how others will see you, and stereotypes and discrimination might make life harder on you, but if you prepare well and set clear goals for yourself on how you want to be accepted, you can mitigate a lot of this.
Sixth: You will encounter your country’s stereotype
You’re not aware of it at a conscious level in most cases, but each country has a particular stereotype in the eyes of other countries, and they are not always positive. Like any form of discrimination they are often low-level and invisible to the people who practice them. However, these still color your interactions with others, so you have to be aware of them.
You know how your own culture works, presumably, and would be very wise to have knowledge of the culture of your host country – and specifically the differences you need to keep in mind. But if your country members have a particular reputation in that country, you have to learn this as well and be prepared to deal with it in a constructive fashion.
For example, Dutch people are often told to be greedy, drunk and rude. The concepts of “Going Dutch”, “Dutch Oven” and “Dutch Agreement” come from this. An old joke relates “What is a bowl of tomato soup in the Netherlands? Answer: A red plate filled with hot water” to illustrate this. I wasn’t sure if that stereotype extended to Sweden, but I prepared myself as if it would. Fortunately, I found out that the primary stereotypes on Dutch people here are them being honest and direct, and really good at business.
But if your country has a strong negative stereotype associated with it, think about how to mitigate it. Make sure to present yourself in a positive light especially in that regard, “bucking the trend”. Or, steel your nerves for the inevitable joke or comment, and remember that people will get to know you for real are over time. Often people are not aware that they are making these jokes or that they are offensive or hurtful. Find whatever way is locally approved to deal with this, whether this is through dialog, anonymous feedback or speaking to a person’s superior. Each culture has its own way of dealing with such relatively minor grievances.
Be aware that this goes in reverse too; if you make assumptions about the people in your host country without having actually met them, you might make things harder on yourself. Try not to get guided too much by other people’s experiences and recounting of experiences (after all, those who are wronged or blessed are more likely to write about it) but stay your own course.
Seventh: Your loved ones and children migrate too
It can be all too easy to focus on your job and the practicalities of the move (arranging transport, goods, a place to live) without considering that you’re maybe not the only one moving. It can be scary to move, but even more frightening is moving without being aware or involved in the process.
If you’re moving as a family, especially with children, it pays to get everyone onboard as soon as possible, and give people ways to familiarize themselves with the process.
For a spouse, for example, being able to get their own work, hobbies or habits going might need research beforehand. Otherwise, they might feel passively drawn along. Feeling like they are not involved, their opinions aren’t important and they don’t have much to look forward to are devastating for a successful move, and may induce repatriation or even separation entirely.
For children, treat it as an adventure and allow them to look into things they want to do. The first year or so, treat it as a big holiday. Yes, they go to school and do homework as always, but try to prepare extra time to walk the neighborhood, visit places, try different hobbies, go to theme parks and zoos. Get them involved in learning the language if they don’t speak it, and ask them to find cool words for you to learn. Chances are that when you arrive, they’ll speak the language better than you do, and that will help tremendously in getting acclimatized.
Eighth: Trial and error will come your way many, many times
People who join the company from their own country already have a staggering amount of base knowledge, and on top of that will receive a full onboarding package when they are hired. This will tell them what their responsibilities and rights are, structure and tooling of the company, who to contact for what, how to report their time, declarations and holidays.
Many practical things which you might not get because the expectation is that, since you moved from another office of the same company, you know all these things and the tooling and structure are the same. But most often they are not, leaving you to scramble after the fact to correct mistakes or fill in overdue information.
We wanted a Handelsbanken account, and we were told we’d have to ask for an appointment, and it might take some weeks before we could come in for a meeting, since they were rather popular. Originally I felt a bit disappointed – my wife would say ornery – because I was used to having banks start up accounts digitally in the Netherlands, and there you could just walk in and ask to open an account. Here, things were different and I had to get used to that fact.
Another example would be importing our car; we didn’t want to sell it because I love the freedom of driving my own car, so we ended up importing it. The process is rather draconian if you do this while moving, because you essentially de-register you car before you go and then have temporary plates and an expensive temporary insurance. Instead, I decided to use the European right to use your car for a few weeks after being officially registered (the time I got my Personnummer) to start the process from inside Sweden. But while I researched the whole process, I somehow failed to see that I first needed to have a special examination for the car, at a hefty cost, to have the right to import it. Then, I needed to have it undergo a regular routine checkup and have temporary license plates. But those license plates also dictate when in the year you have your routine driverworthiness check – and that ended up being three months later again. So I ended up having the car undergo three checks as well as a major maintenance routine all in the same year.
Accept that errors occur and sometimes you need to fix things that have gone unspoken for a long time. Be conservative with your saving to soak up any financial consequences, and don’t push things that need doing forward on the calendar.
Ninth: You will feel at someone else’s mercy often
You have to realize that from the company’s point of view you are given a favor for allowing you to move while maintaining your current role, and this gives them a lot of negotiating power. It’s harder to negotiate your salary with the host country having a higher standard of living and the average salary being higher. After all, “you are the one who wanted to move here, and we have allowed you, so you’ve used up your credit”. You don’t really hold any ace cards, because if they refuse, what will you do? Halt your migration? Quit your job? All highly unlikely.
As a foreigner, recently arrived, you will find many situations where other people are better informed and somehow not always willing to share that information, or proactively do what needs to be done. Sometimes you will have to wait longer than expected, and many times you will stare at deadlines and people don’t start work until just before them. This is all part of the adjustment process, and it’s normal.
This means that you’re going to feel sometimes like you’re not in control, and others decide when, how and if you’re going to successfully complete your movie. When you’ve invested heavily in research and preparation, this can feel like a cold shower.
Never be afraid to ask a second opinion if you think something is going wrong. Find people who went through the same process and ask them of their experiences. If you’re not sure about an answer you got from an organization by phone, contact them again by phone and email and ask the same question again.
If you feel a process is being postponed or pushed to the brink over and over again, voice your powerlessness to your manager or the people involved. Those in charge of running the process might sometimes forget the importance to those who are experiencing it, often due to familiarity with it and a lack of sensitivity caused by repetition. Reminding people involved that they are impact a Human life often helps to bring perspectives back in line.
“I understand that to you it’s a problem that I do not have a bank account yet and so could not receive my salary, but without it, I cannot pay rent or eat this month. Please, can we figure out a solution?”
No matter how prepared you are, unexpected things can come up which delay or hamper progress. Don’t try to bear the weight of everything on your shoulders, and see if others can help you; your family’s support, friends, colleagues. Remember that the move itself does not mark the end of the process, but that period of comfort and rest once all the administrative circus dies down and you return to “business as usual”.
These are nine things to keep in mind when next you plan to move to another country while maintaining your job. Keep in mind that it follows all the rules of planning a project, including knowing your team, clear and concise communication and a hard sell on the deliverables.
Questions? Sharing your own experiences? Feel free to leave a comment below!