How to Combat International Assignment Failure

Nov 22, 2017

Global brands spend an incredible amount of money on overseas assignments. On average, over $300,000 including comp is invested annually in the practice, either for the purpose of transferring employees to fill empty job roles or to have senior staff take over foreign domestic management.

The benefits of international work assignments are numerous, hence the large commitment and expenditure. Employees already operating successfully within a brand are thought to have more value than those who have yet to be onboarded. They have internal connections, they know how the business functions and they have a proven track record.

Yet, those HR professionals who have worked on international project management know the practice is fraught with danger. Far from being the golden goose of success, 40% of all overseas assignments are actually deemed to be failures. Despite the apparent benefits of internal moving, a high proportion of assignments prove a waste of valuable time, money and resources.

Learn From the Failures

To seemingly contradict this point, however, I argue that this should not deter businesses from overseas assignments, nor should it mean HRs push back against proposals. This high benchmark of failure should, instead, be a lesson. Internal relocation can leave a brand poised to reap the benefits of an experienced and successful employee moving to an area that is seeking improvement, but it should never be assumed that they are capable of simply taking the reigns without prior considerations.

Global business executives who’ve experienced overseas failure have been vocal about what their primary barriers were, and with knowledge of their mistakes, we can look to overcome them on the future. But what exactly were the mistakes?

Technology Hasn’t Changed the Failure Rate

Many researchers who have studied data as far back as 1965 identified a failure rate of between 25-40% for international assignments in all decades leading up to the new millennium — figures matching our current problem. Despite the expansion of communication technology, our ability to travel and an explosion of global networking, brands still struggle with achieving the same success today as they did before man landed on the moon.

This leads us to face an unfortunate truth: the world of international work is not evolving. The same struggles and strains that existed 50 years ago still exist to this day. HR professionals need to be aware that no matter what their experience, no matter the depths of company integration into foreign markets, internal mobility relating to overseas relocation will always be a challenge.

The potential for failure should never be underestimated.

A Failure of Preparation

If the answer to the high failure rate of international assignments isn’t assuming things will improve as connections grow, what is the answer? Many experienced business leaders put success down to one key thing: preparation.

Preparing an overseas candidate for their role may seem obvious, but it isn’t something commonly practised in the corporate world. As many as 75% of businesses don’t provide adequate training or preparation prior to an international assignment, with around 16% of brands providing next to no pre-move support or guidance at all. But, while comprehensive preparation is largely missed out by businesses, the major problems identified by HRs could be remedied by carefully considering at least these three factors:

1. Language

87% of global recruitment HRs believe foreign-language skills are a core element to successful overseas assignments. However, only 18% of American businesses provide such preparatory materials. Strong communication is, unquestionably, a must-have skill in almost any career. Being unable to communicate effectively with your colleagues, subordinates and clients will result in an inability to function properly and thus leads to failed overseas work projects. It’s an incredibly simple barrier to overcome; one that requires basic preparation and negligible financial investment.

2. Cultural adaptation

In a similar vein HR leader find cultural barriers are a major problem for overseas working assignments. 48% identified an inability to operate within or understand a foreign culture as a contributing factor when accessing international employability.

Work cultures differ the world over and failure to understand them can lead to misunderstandings, an inability to convey information and even the breaking down of both internal and external relationships through seemingly disrespectful actions. Preparation is all that is needed to remedy this problem, however. Simply providing resource materials on what the work culture overseas is like is a strong start. Combine that with meetings with colleagues about office etiquette and interviews with clients about how they do business and you’ll secure a much more stable assignment.

3. Candidate’s comfort zone

It’s a trap many internal recruiters fall into: monitoring the success of a worker and believing they can replicate it elsewhere. However, a person who can achieve great success in an area they are comfortable with may be unable to do the same in a position outside of their normal routine and skillset.

International assignments can pose many challenges, and those unable to cope with the strain will not succeed. It’s vital that weaknesses like these be identified prior to a move, not during a project. For major overseas moves involving large investments and important goals, preparation should be carried out in form of testing a prospect’s fortitude to working outside their comfort zone. They may be able to handle high-pressure situations within an environment they know, but how do they cope in situations they are less familiar with?

Family and Personal Considerations

While working in the industry of corporate relocation and overseas assignments, you’d be forgiven for putting a focus exactly on that: the corporate aspect of a move. However, studies have revealed that personal and family issues are perhaps the largest factor involved in failed overseas projects, with as many as 70% of repatriations a result of personal strife.

Moving overseas is a stressful experience — and settling into a new home can be tougher still. Without support, a multitude of contributing factors such as culture shock, homesickness, isolation and general move management can result in families of your assignee, or the assignee themselves, being unable to cope with life overseas.

HR does, however, have the power to influence an assignee’s personal integration. Through either in-house management or third-party resources, HR can arrange and support all manner of personal move elements; from sourcing schools, finance management and accommodation, to arranging community integration and area orientation.

Supportive practices for the personal side of a move can be a powerful tool in international assignment retention. Negating as many of the potential personal pitfalls as possible increases the chance of your assignee falling into that of the 60% success rate and not being a part of the 40% that fail.

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