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The Cost of a Failed International Assignment & What to Do Instead

Posted on April 9, 2015
Mary Browse BloodWritten by Mary Browse Blood | Email author

Though international work experience has definite benefits for both employees and the businesses they support, the cost of a failed assignment cannot be ignored. Depending on the assignment package and location, some international assignments can cost a company three to four times the base salary. Failure can come in many forms:

  • an employee may repatriate early;
  • jump ship to a competitor; or
  • simply under-perform.

Lack of cultural preparedness ranks among the top reasons for assignment failure. Smart companies who are looking to maximize the return on their investment in international personnel have long provided cultural training as a part of their employee development.

While training modules are common to help relocating employees adapt to everything from business customs to new languages, cultural competencies should ideally figure into the hiring process. In the same way that behavioral interview questions help employers predict how candidates will react once in the work environment, Recruiters and Hiring Managers should look for skills and competencies in candidates that indicate a willingness or aptitude to adapt to new cultures.

3 Best Questions to Ask Candidates When Determining if They are a Fit for an International Assignment:

  1. Tell me about a time when you’ve worked successfully in a culturally diverse environment.
  2. How have you coped in the past when cultural differences have affected professional communications, and what have you learned from these situations?
  3. How have you professionally benefited from cultural diversity in the workplace?

    how to best prepare for international assignments

It should be noted that a candidate does not need to have had prior international work experience to be successful. In the same way that online tests can identify key performance indicators (KPIs) for job success, software can also help pinpoint candidates who are most likely to be effective in a different cultural environment.

Once your Top Candidates are Selected for an International Assignment

Once selected, cultural training should be integrated with the onboarding process. Again, there are many out-sourced providers who can supply everything from in person language training to online business etiquette workshops. If your budget requires a more frugal option, one of your best resources could be repatriated employees. No one is in a better position to advise on how to be successful in a new environment than someone who’s done it before. Former expatriates often feel that their international experience is under-appreciated or misunderstood, so it’s a perfect opportunity to engage them helping to mentor successive teams of international assignees. Country managers should also be aware of the four stages of culture shock:

  1. honeymoon;
  2. culture shock;
  3. adjustment; and
  4. mastery.

Researchers have identified this classic progression, though it’s important to note that stages may overlap. Many experts agree that it can take a year or longer for an employee to reach the mastery phase when sent to a new country. Once an employee has onboarded and arrived in country, there are still many things that the employer can do to help ease the transition:

  • Destination Service Providers are typically local companies that provide an array of logistical and practical resources for employees sent to a new location. The services vary based on the package and the destination and range from helping parents scout new schools, to setting up bank accounts, to providing full service local “fixers” to help in dealing with tedious bureaucracy. Destination service providers can be very expensive but especially for key personnel, they can add real value by handling administrative and domestic tasks and thus allowing the employee to focus on job responsibilities.
  • Social Club Memberships is another common perk, especially in countries with established expatriate communities. If your business is operating in a locale without built in social opportunities, you may consider starting a formal mentorship program or sponsoring social activities for employees.
  • Another benefit typically given to international assignees is a home leave or travel allowance. No matter how well adjusted an employee becomes, most will always want to return to their primary residence for holidays or PTO. Many companies provide home leave allowances and stipulate in company policy that an employee on home leave is also expected to complete training or attend meetings at corporate offices. Lastly, reverse home leave can be granted for employees whose dependents or spouse have stayed behind.

Many companies resist the idea of robust cultural training or assimilation services because it can be expensive and time consuming but when considered in comparison with the possibility of a failed assignment, it’s a smart investment.

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