The real reasons behind expatriate assignment failure
Much of the discussion concerning the rationale for providing more extensive support for expats and their families revolves around expatriate assignment failure rates. However, focusing on expatriate assignment failure rates misses the main issue affecting expat ROI. Of course, every failed assignment is a loss and often comes hand in hand with a sad human story worthy of our concern.
From an organisational ROI perspective there is a bigger issue and one that we don’t see being widely addressed. Yet it’s impact on the bottom line is much greater than assignment failure.
Simply completing an assignment term does not mean that it has been an assignment success. Romero (2002) estimated that 50% of expats who do not return prematurely give low levels of performance. A more recent survey of 202 CEO’s and senior human resource professionals surveyed by Right Management found only 42% of assignments to be judged as successful.
In the worse-case scenario companies see a negative financial impact from the assignees presence as they fail to integrate into new teams with clients and ultimately do more leadership damage than good. While these worst- case scenarios may get attention – there’s a whole world of under-performance in expatriate roles that often goes unnoticed.
Reasons why this under-performance and expatraiate assignment failure occurs:
How to support expats in your business
• Companies do not have a tight talent management process attached to the global mobility function, focused on getting the right people abroad. Often, the selection process is driven by individuals within businesses pushing for the “best person” to do the job based on past performance at home. How that experience then translates in a new foreign and cultural environment can be a bit of a lottery.
• Because the assignee is needed abroad yesterday, they are given no time to think through the decision or prepare practically and mentally for the big life and career change. This impacts on the way they arrive and consequently the way they react and start work on the job.
• It is assumed that the assignee is the “best person” for the job and will therefore know what to do and how to do it in the new country. In reality the assignee needs clear objectives and support but may be reluctant to ask out of fear of being judged not capable of doing the job.
• The assignee’s partner/family may find the move professionally or personally challenging. Without other sources of support for the partner, the assignee’s attention is directed away from work and towards relationship and home challenges. But again, they probably won’t be sharing that information with the company.
• The challenge of such an enormous life and career change derails the assignee for a time. It is difficult to get his/ her head around understanding the dynamics of their new work environment. The assignee’s ability to make an impact is limited, particularly since the assignment will only last 3 years.
It is a huge life and career change for the assignee and their partner/family. Laying the best possible foundations for a smooth transition and providing ongoing support for the assignee and family not only supports them through the change process but also provides the basic structure on which they can then build their assignment success.
• Give assignees and their families support to make an informed decision understanding their personal and professional ‘why’ for making such a life changing decision.
• Set clear objectives for the assignee and provide the coaching, mentorship and support they need to accomplish them. Ensure asking for help is not viewed as a weakness.
• Give the assignee time to assimilate to their new environment on arrival. An adjustment phase that enables them to adapt to their changing roles and engage in the new work environment and ultimately perform at their best.
• Provide the appropriate skills training and technical support needed by the assignee to ensure that they perform effectively in their new role and culture.
• Support the partner through the transition and beyond to the creation of a life and career (if they want one) abroad that is meaningful, fulfilling and sustainable.
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