What makes a company truly global?

“I often ask companies if they’re multinational,” said. Lynn Dudley, senior vice president of policy at the American Benefits Council, said while moderating a panel discussion on Monday at the MetLife 9th annual National Benefits Symposium in Washington, D.C. “And companies’ representatives tell me they’re multinational — they’ve been operating outside their home country for many years — but only recently have they begun to feel truly global. And when I ask what it is that makes them feel truly global, it is the fact that they have implemented a benefits strategy that supports their ability to respond to the needs of their employees all over the world.”

Joining Dudley on the panel were representatives from IBM, Disney and Air Liquide, who agreed that benefits is a key distinction separating multinational companies from truly global ones.

Sheri Virani, benefits director for Air Liquide USA, said that “even the understanding or the very definition of benefits varies outside the U.S.” Sometimes the trick, she said, is to tether or integrate benefits to an initiative that’s already in place, for example safety, which is “a common language” to her firm, regardless of borders.

“By making our global benefits strategy about safety and about increasing productivity,” Virani said, “we’ve found that we’ve changed the perspective of our parent company in France.”

Global employers have to combine their company’s international philosophy with localized best practices, Virani said. Marianne McManus, director of benefits at IBM, agreed and added that leaders should align themselves with goals they know they will always want to achieve, and let geography have an input in the details.

“It’s the how that really varies country by country — how we function as a benefits team has kind of evolved … from one that comes very much from a U.S. perspective, to one that works very seamlessly across borders,” McManus said.

Jeffrey Shapiro, vice president of employee benefits at the Walt Disney Company, went even further, telling attendees that employers must solicit local input for an international benefits strategy to work. “It becomes truly global when the design of the strategy takes input from all the countries in which you operate, and the people who do the day-to-day activity,” Shapiro said.

Shapiro and McManus both spoke to the unique challenges of benefits required to attract expatriates — meeting American expectations, but also to sweetening the pot. All three panelists talked about seeking unknown opportunities, such as finding a vendor in another country willing to take on a task a company might not have anticipated. They also cautioned, though, to expect unforeseen challenges as well. Don’t assume, for example, that socialized health care in a given nation means that an employer isn’t required to provide a level of health benefits.

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