When the Finance Professional Works Abroad

As a 24-year-old chartered accountant, Vic Tan had the opportunity to work in Papua New Guinea. “I just jumped at it,” he recalls. “I felt if you worked in another market, you were going to get a lot more experience and responsibility in your career.”

Today, Tan is Vice President, Finance & Operations Asia, at global luxury brand Ralph Lauren. So far, he has been stationed in six markets in addition to Papua New Guinea and Singapore: Solomon Islands, Fiji, Tonga, Myanmar, Indonesia and Hong Kong, a recent assignment that included responsibility over Greater China and Southeast Asia.
Tan’s story is included in a new study, “International Talent Mobility,” by executive recruiter Robert Half and ACCA. (He holds an FCCA designation – Fellow Member of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants.)
The survey of 1,438 finance professionals and HR practitioners in Hong Kong and Singapore found strong interest to work overseas – 67% in Hong Kong and 73% in Singapore expressed a desire to be assigned abroad. Other markets such as China, Malaysia and the Philippines were not included, but the level of interest in these jurisdictions is almost certain to be comparable – or even higher.
The survey provides useful insights “into what employers are looking for and how to increase your chances of landing an overseas assignment,” said the report (5% of respondents in Hong Kong and 7% in Singapore were HR professionals). These include possession of the following attributes:
  • Appropriate skills and job knowledge
  • Adaptability
  • Collaboration skills
  • Cultural sensitivity
  • Leadership skills
Wanted: Assignments Abroad
There are two routes open to the finance professional who is interested to work abroad: ask the company to post him or her to another unit overseas or leave the company altogether and join another one in the foreign market.  
In Hong Kong and Singapore, the survey found, the first option is limited: only 8% of Hong Kong companies and 13% of Singapore firms provide regular secondments. “Employees may need to look to a new company in another market to gain the international or regional experience they want,” the report concludes.
This should be a concern for companies that are fretting about finding and retaining the right finance talent, which the survey says include 93% of Hong Kong employers and 97% of those in Singapore. “Companies concerned about turnover may want to consider offering secondment programmes, as this can be a useful retention tool,” advises Pallavi Anand, Director of Robert Half Hong Kong.
The pressure is on for companies to do every little thing to help in recruiting and retaining finance talent. Asked what their career plans are over the next two years, 44% of finance professionals in Hong Kong and 47% of those in Singapore say they will move on to a new employer. Fewer people (43% in Hong Kong; 40% in Singapore) plan to stay on.
Pay and Perks
Why are many finance professionals eager to work overseas? According to the survey, the top reason is career growth (24% in Hong Kong; 27% in Singapore), followed by expectations of a better salary (21% Hong Kong; 22% Singapore).
They also expect a lot of perks from an overseas posting. Asked what benefits they believe they should get, at least 64% in both Hong Kong and Singapore expect housing allowance, medical insurance, moving allowance, home country return visits and tax preparation assistance.
They might be expecting too much, though. Of the 70% of companies in Hong Kong and 49% in Singapore that do not expect to hire from overseas, the main concern is the high cost of relocation.
But for some companies, the cost of sourcing people from abroad, whether from within the broader organisation or outside of it, is worth it in view of the benefits. “As an international company, it is part of our retention strategy to provide our employees with opportunities to work in other offices around the world,” says Elaine Loh, Vice President of Corporate Reporting and Group Financial Control at luxury retailer DFS in Singapore, which hosts the company’s worldwide transactional, financial, accounting and reporting functions.
“We provide assistance to help [international assignees] get acclimated,” says Loh, who was interviewed for the report. “We offer a pre-assignment orientation trip for the employee and spouse to ensure they can assess housing and schooling options. Our other relocation benefits include housing, education, home leave passage and relocation support, where applicable.”
The payoff for DFS is not only higher retention rates. “People have to step out of their comfort zones when they are placed in a foreign environment,” says Loh. “They tend to become more broadminded, less risk averse, and more willing to explore and learn new things. In short, they acquire a different mindset.”
Insights and Tips
So what do you need to do to get a job abroad or a coveted international posting? The report has several tips:
Have a global perspective as well as an international CV. Companies value employees with global or regional experience, says the report. If you are not getting that exposure, “it may be time to find another employer.”
Be realistic about what you expect to receive. The real benefit goes beyond the monetary. “Gaining invaluable experience doing business in the global marketplace will hold an employee in good stead when the jobs with the big packages are on offer,” the report points out.
Be flexible and open to compromise. The company may not be able to meet your monetary expectations, but may offer non-cash incentives, such as logistical help with the move. Consider these offers seriously.
Get up to speed on the other country’s rules and regulations. “Employers are concerned that new international employees will be unfamiliar with local accounting and reporting procedures,” the report notes. “Being able to demonstrate an understanding of how different countries do different things will help an employee secure that new job or that elusive overseas secondment.”
Ask for it. “When choosing between equally qualified candidates, may employers will give the job to the employee who has shown the most enthusiasm,” says the report. When you actively request to be posted abroad, you are demonstrating initiative, confidence and ambition.
When you finally get the overseas job, be sensitive and keep an open mind, suggests Ralph Lauren’s Tan, who consciously engaged with the local team in his various overseas posts. “There are a couple of gaps you need to fill immediately, like understanding tax laws and local accounting requirements,” he adds. “So talk to the auditors and find out what is required.”
A sense of adventure also helps. “I like different cultures, to learn new languages and to try new foods,” says Tan. “If you are receptive and willing to learn and experience new things, you will know what’s required of you in three to six months. It won’t take long.”
“But if you are a person who refuses to learn, and always wants to be with your own nationality while in a foreign country, then you will never learn anything.”
About the Author
Cesar Bacani is Editor-in-Chief of CFO Innovation.

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