More and more companies are consolidating operations into regional centers, using a base in one country to manage businesses in multiple markets. This makes good sense for several reasons:

  • Efficiency – regional offices eliminate duplicate resources and allow organizations to focus on customer-facing positions in smaller markets.
  • Expansion – a regional approach allows for gradual expansion into new markets, permitting “testing of the waters” before entering a market.
  • Local knowledge and expertise – staff in a regional center are usually familiar with more than one of the markets in the region, so can often help bridge market, language and cultural differences.

Regional offices sound like a great model for many companies. But how does a regional role impact compensation? This is a subject of considerable debate amongst compensation professionals.

Here’s my take:

Regional roles should be benchmarked against the market where they are physically located. So, a regional role based in Kenya, focused on East Africa, should be compared to the Kenyan market. Now, I know some of you would suggest I’ve got this wrong — you think a blended approach using data from multiple countries would be better. Why?

A blended approach could result in a lower number since lower-paying, less developed markets come into the mix. In the East Africa example, would you include Ethiopia? Rwanda? Tanzania? Uganda? Burundi? In Central America, would you look at data from all six countries for a position in El Salvador?

I believe a better approach is to use local market data for the regional office location. It’s usually the largest and most sophisticated market and typically has a more robust (but not necessarily the highest-paid) labor market. But how do you match regional jobs with local country roles? What if there are insufficient regional positions in your survey for a good measure of the market?

The simple solution is a regional “premium” which usually takes the form of an increased grade level. For example, in Kenya, if a country-based Brand Manager is an internal grade 8, a regional Brand Manager might be slotted as a grade 9. This reflects a premium for the regional role to compensate for added complexity, multiple market coverage, more customers, etc. You may debate if this is enough — that really depends on your business and how the jobs are actually structured.

This is a better approach because you end up using solid benchmarks to build your country market profile, and then overlay the regional jobs using mostly internal criteria. This makes sense because each organization structures their regional roles a bit differently, and none are really solid survey benchmarks.

Another point-of-view argues that a regional position competes for talent across many countries, so all of the countries are appropriate to consider in deciding on compensation levels. But, each country market is separate, impacted by multiple factors besides availability of talent. Consider standard of living, exchange rates, tax and social insurance differences and benefits, to name a few. It’s impossible to reconcile these factors into a truly blended regional pay rate, unless you are willing to just take the highest country as the starting point. Even if you could create a blend using multiple country data, there is a high likelihood that for more senior level professional roles, the sort that are usually regional, there won’t be clear benchmarks from every country of the region used in your blend.

One more issue to think about is how to treat foreign nationals in a regional office. Most regional offices will recruit nationals from neighboring countries. Are these incumbents expats, even if there is no possible role for them in their home country? Many will have previously migrated to the regional office headquarters and are then hired; will you provide any special benefits? How should expenses such as schooling be treated, especially if languages are different (for example, a Uruguayan in Brazil, or a French national in Germany)?

My view is “it depends.”

It depends on each unique situation, and sometimes it will be necessary to provide something extra. Generally, though, I would discourage treatment of locally-hired foreigners as expats, and even for those recruited from the region, a modified local-plus approach makes more sense for the company.

By now, you are probably thinking that this stuff is getting really complex. You’re right – this is a complicated subject. What is your experience managing pay for regional roles? What pitfalls have you encountered? What are your “better” ways?

Warren joined Birches Group in New York as a partner in 2007, following a long career in Compensation and Benefits at Colgate-Palmolive. He held the position of Director, International Compensation for 10 years immediately prior to joining Birches Group. Warren has broad experience working across the globe with clients on local national and expatriate compensation projects. He leads our Business Development and Client Services teams and manages our strategic partnerships around the world. Warren previously held leadership positions for the Expatriate Management Committee of the National Foreign Trade Council and was president of the Latin America Compensation and Benefits Forum.