Due to increased globalization and cross-border projects, a growing number of companies are sending employees on short- and long-term global assignments. While this offers benefits for both employers and employees, it also makes payroll, as well as income and tax reporting, much more complex. This is further complicated because global assignments include relocation-related benefits that may or may not have to be reported. Nevertheless, employers are not only responsible for ensuring their employees receive adequate compensation and in a timely manner, but also that all local income and tax reporting regulations are adhered to.
Compliance with regulations and timely, accurate tax reporting are vital to protect both an organization and its employees from potential issues with revenue services, regardless of whether they’re those of the host country or in the country of origin. This can become highly complex, especially for companies with multiple assignment locations, a range of assignment lengths and types, different pay scales and employees with varying nationalities.
For companies with employees on global assignments, navigating the complexities of international regulations and reporting requirements can be a significant burden on their payroll and bookkeeping departments. Many do not have staff with the diverse, precise knowledge required. For example, a company might have seven employees on assignments in four different countries. If these employees are of varying levels of seniority, their wages and benefits will all be different. To enable accurate reporting, knowledge is needed of the regulations and employment tax laws of all four countries. If the employees also have varying countries of origin, the situation becomes even more complex. Additionally, the duration of an assignment has an impact on the taxability of compensation items associated with global assignments—such as household goods storage.
Even if a company does have professionals with the required knowledge on staff, the time and investment needed to ensure correct and comprehensive reporting may be a drain on resources that are needed elsewhere.
For this reason, a growing number of companies are outsourcing this business process to global compensation services providers. These are third-party service providers that assume the responsibilities associated with collecting, controlling and reporting all the compensation data of employees on global assignments on the employer’s behalf. They assist employers from the very beginning of an assignment, ensuring transparency for all parties, as well as correct and complete documentation. Furthermore, they provide accurate, comprehensive administration and reporting that complies with all applicable regulations.
A global mobility program can offer significant value to a company, not only because of the business opportunities it presents, but also because it helps to attract and retain quality talent. However, to remain in compliance with the rules and regulations of various countries, a well-run global mobility program needs accurate, timely administration and bookkeeping. Working with a global compensation services provider offers companies a cost-effective way to gain access to the expertise, manpower and resources needed to maintain centralized, organized payroll and tax reporting.
A cost projection is a comprehensive, high-level estimate of expected costs specific to the global assignment. This is based on the client's mobility and compensation policies, as well as all additional assumptions that have been agreed upon for a specific assignment. In addition to the employee’s base compensation, which consists of his or her salary and any bonuses, it includes all estimated assignment expenses and hypothetical expenses. This can involve a range of expenses such as relocation expense reimbursement, cost of living allowance, home leave, housing allowance, expatriate premium, tax services and more, depending on the individual case. It also includes a breakdown of the projected domestic and host country taxes. Costs are assessed based on reliable data sources and projected for the duration of the assignment. For assignments that are longer than two years, inflation may be taken into account. However, it’s important to understand that actual costs may vary due to economic fluctuations that impact the cost of living, as well as other factors such as hardship, emergencies, changes to family size and more.
The main purpose of a cost projection is to create a data-driven estimate of costs that the company can use to make strategic decisions regarding its workforce needs in that location. With an accurate and comprehensive overview of the required financial investment, the company can determine whether the assignment is financially viable. If necessary, it can be used as a tool to consider alternative solutions that require a lower investment such as sending a less senior—and therefore less expensive—employee or working with a local staffing agency to hire short-term, local professionals.
QUICK COST PROJECTION
A quick cost projection tool is a standalone tool that the company can use to plan and compare different scenarios. Whereas a cost projection is a detailed document that’s tailored to a specific assignment using the most current data, a quick cost projection tool uses more general data based on country-specific information. Based on the user’s input, it calculates cost of living, education costs, tax data, housing costs, health care expenses and more to create quick cost projections that can be used to compare the investment associated with various scenarios.
For example, a company might want to compare the costs of sending a senior manager with a spouse to Frankfurt for two years to the costs associated with sending a lower level manager who has a spouse and a child on the same assignment. Or a multinational company might want to compare the costs of sending an engineer from Detroit, Michigan on a 12-month assignment to London with the costs required to send an engineer with the same skills but who’s currently based in Milan on the same assignment.
Many quick cost projection tools are web-based platforms that companies can access themselves and use at any time. This makes them both easy to use and much more affordable than in-depth cost projections—although an in-depth cost projection will be required further on in the assignment process.
LETTER OF ASSIGNMENT
A letter of understanding or letter of assignment outlines the details and benefits of the assignment. It’s a legally binding document that basically serves as an addendum to the assignee’s regular employment contract and lays out any varying or additional terms that apply for the duration of the assignment. As such, it must be signed by all parties. In addition to the start and end date of the assignment, job title and location, the letter of assignment must specify all contractual agreements, code of conduct, compensation and benefits, assignment-specific benefits such as moving expenses and repatriation allowance, tax equalization and other fiscal matters.
It’s important that the letter of assignment lay out all pertinent details of an assignment in a manner that leaves no room for misinterpretation. Any lack of clarity could lead to misunderstanding, which in turn could lead to costly and time-consuming problems. This can be a drain on resources, and it can create a distraction for the employee and impact the success of his or her assignment.
INITIAL BALANCE SHEET
The initial balance sheet is typically affixed to the letter of assignment. It provides details regarding the assignment allowances the employee will receive.
CERTIFICATE OF COVERAGE
When an employee of a company is sent on an assignment to another country, he or she may be required to pay social security taxes both at the home and host locations—unless those countries have entered into totalization agreements. These are bilateral social security agreements that eliminate dual taxation by assigning coverage to only one of the countries, which is usually the one where the work is being performed. As a result, employees on global assignments and their employers are exempt from having to make social security payments in the other country. Currently, the U.S. has totalization agreements with 26 countries. The certificate of coverage is the document issued by the country that is assigned coverage of the employee’s work.
It’s important to understand social security coverage implications for global assignees. Employers need to be aware of the exact social security regulations of a country before sending employees on assignment, and if applicable, apply for a certificate of coverage before the assignment starts. This will protect both the company and its employees from dual taxation, preventing potential problems with employees who are relying on their employer to manage (or at least inform them about) these matters on their behalf. Moreover, it will safeguard the company from compliance issues.
In general, a certificate of coverage has a duration of five years. However, a country’s social security administration may grant extensions, although there is usually a processing period of four to six weeks involved. Compensation services providers can apply for certificates of coverage on behalf of their clients. In addition, they can help them track expiration dates so there isn’t a lapse of coverage.
For each global assignment, payroll instructions must be developed based on the financial data as detailed in the assignee’s letter of assignment and initial balance sheet. The first objective of these instructions is naturally to ensure that all elements of the assignee’s compensation are accurately incorporated into payroll. The second objective is to make sure that all components are accurately recorded and that necessary withholdings are made and the funds sent to the appropriate governmental bodies—something that can be extremely complicated, depending on the location.
The payroll departments both at home and in the host locations need to receive and understand each assignment's payroll instructions. Some compensation services providers not only prepare payroll instructions, they also provide training on what the content of payroll files should be, as well as what data will be needed for payroll file returns. Instructions regarding payroll reporting can be flexible, with companies receiving instructions for full payroll details per cycle or only updates about any applicable changes.
Payroll reconciliation is necessary to ensure that the payroll instructions are being carried out correctly. It verifies that the amounts are correct and for the appropriate time period, as well as that the monies are being directed to the correct accounts. When this is done by an external company, it’s an additional layer of protection against errors.
During payroll reconciliation, compensation services providers may also collect all payroll detail as a part of the compensation accumulation process.
Compensation accumulation is a critical component of a company’s global mobility reporting. Compensation accumulation is the collection of all assignment-related, off-payroll costs that are made to, or on behalf of, assignees through accounts payable (housing, for example) or finance (taxes). All reports are reconciled to the relevant assignee’s letter of assignment and balance sheet, as well as to company policy.
Compensation accumulation can be very challenging for companies that have assignees in multiple countries. Collecting the required data often involves interacting with multiple locations and departments. It can even involve interacting with service providers to whom a company has outsourced business processes. Nevertheless, it’s important to report all of these expenses accurately to remain compliant.
A compensation services provider collects the reconciled payroll data needed for compensation accumulation on a monthly basis and stores it in a central location. This keeps the process streamlined; plus, it organizes and eliminates the issues that can arise from decentralized, untimely data collection.
GLOBAL STATEMENT OF EARNINGS (GSOE)
The global statement of earnings (GSOE) provides a comprehensive, detailed overview of what was paid to (or on behalf of) each assignee. It is sent to the tax provider for ease of preparation of tax returns. In addition, it’s used as a data source for shadow payroll. The GSOE is reconciled to the U.S. Box 1 Form W-2 at year’s end.
The GSOE is critical to accurate reporting. It ensures that the company is in compliance both at home and in the host country, as well as that all taxes are properly recorded for reporting purposes. Furthermore, it makes sure assignees are paying taxes as needed and enables the employer to provide assignees with tax return preparation assistance, which can be an important benefit.
Shadow payroll, also referred to as “ghost payroll,” reports compensation that is paid to an assignee from another country. Running a shadow payroll concurrently in the host location simplifies income and tax reporting and facilitates compliance efforts.
Compensation reporting can be complex, because the various components of an assignee’s total compensation may originate from different locations. The base salary and any bonuses are usually paid from the assignee’s country of origin, but many assignment-related costs such as housing allowances, dependents’ allowances and taxes are paid from the host country. Keeping records in both countries ensures timely and accurate reporting. For this reason, compensation services providers send shadow payroll reports that show all payments made to the host location and/or the company’s tax provider. They also send an “add to earnings” file to the payroll department in the home country for the payments made in the host location. This ensures that there’s a full and accurate report of all costs associated with an assignment in each location.
BALANCE SHEET UPDATES
Balance sheet updates are adjustments to the initial balance sheet that was created at the beginning of the assignment and affixed to the letter of assignment. Balance sheet updates can be performed during an assignment for a number of reasons, such as a change in salary or family size. They’re also required at regular intervals to revise the cost of living adjustment (COLA) as needed. Compensation service providers work with the company’s data provider to obtain updated COLA indexes and exchange rates.
The fundamental principle of tax equalization is that the assignee will not suffer financial hardship nor experience a financial windfall as a result of the tax consequences of a global assignment. Tax equalization plays an important role in helping employees make a balanced decision about accepting an global assignment. Without it, an employee might not want to go to Sweden, where the income tax rate is currently more than 57 percent, while others could be lining up for assignments in countries with low tax rates like Saudi Arabia. (Learn more about tax rates by country)
During the tax equalization process, the company’s tax provider calculates what the assignee’s tax liability would have been in his or her own country for non-assignment compensation. That means that base pay is taken into account, but things like cost of living allowance, education allowance, relocation costs and other similar costs are not included in the calculation. The resulting sum indicates whether the assignee’s compensation needs to be adjusted up or down, and the tax provider prepares a settlement accordingly. Consequently, the compensation services provider processes the payment. If the employee owes the employer money, the compensation services provider will collect it and send the company the relevant reports.
Year-end reporting involves the collection of all payroll and tax reports for all assignees, as well as the subsequent filing with all relevant national and state entities. A compensation services provider coordinates the tax eligibility list with the company and its tax provider. Throughout the year, it also provides preliminary reports to the tax provider to make sure any safe harbor (estimated tax) payments are being made. When all compensation data is collected, the GSOE is sent to the tax provider. This can be done in the currency of the home country, host country or the country where the company is headquartered.