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Defining the Success of an Expatriate Assignment
By Mary van der Boon
(this article first appeared in www.expatica.com/hr)

When the Asia crisis hit in 1997, many expatriate managers scrambled to keep their subsidiary offices afloat. The real success story for that year wasn’t the manager who hit the 25% targeted growth, but the one who still had a viable, solvent operation at year’s end.

What, then, constitutes a "successful" assignment, when even hard targets are subject to a vast array of variables and unforeseen setbacks? Who should be setting the parameters for success, and, once set, can they be altered as conditions change? What happens to the expatriate executive when he/she finds him or herself, inevitably, caught between the "rock and the hard place" of head office expectations versus the attainable reality of the local office?

A great deal has been written about the failure rate of overseas assignments, and the considerable costs of these failures to multinational firms. Very little has been written, however, about what determinant factors are being used to measure success, or failure, in an international business setting. As in the case of the Asian financial crisis, being able to survive such a disaster should be considered an unqualified success, yet since it appeared in no strategic business plans for that year, these heroic achievements no doubt went unheralded, and unrewarded. What was certainly discussed in boardrooms that year was the failure to meet strategic business and financial targets in the region’s operations.

In a rare attempt to understand what comprises a successful overseas assignment, Workforce magazine, in conjunction with Prudential Relocation, conducted a survey of HR professionals in 1999 aimed specifically at determining how they were measuring expatriate success.

The Successful Expatriate

In recruiting, technical skills received overwhelming emphasis, while other skills such as emotional intelligence, negotiating and relational management received far less prominence. Family issues were also considered unimportant in assessing suitability for an international posting, even though these are cited frequently as the main reason for assignment failure.

Meeting Assignment Objectives

Assignment goals were not explicitly set in the majority of assignments, with head office often leaving the specifics of the position to be filled in by the local office, often upon the expatriate’s arrival. For reasons ranging from local or inter-office politics to a misunderstood head-office globalisation policy, these assignment objectives were often never actually defined. When targets were made tangible, they were set in the vast majority of cases by the senior manager in the destination country. Interestingly, although held accountable for expatriate costs, HR departments were only very infrequently involved in setting assignment goals.

What did the HR respondents feel were the definitions of assignment failure? In the majority of cases they cited damage to relationships with clients or vendors in the assignment region, which in turn resulted in loss of market share. Second highest was a premature return from the expatriate assignment, which many experts say is attributable to the inability of the expatriate family to make the necessary cross-cultural adjustments, and third was a failure to meet financial or strategic targets. Interestingly, the failure to have expatriates replaced by a host country national was rated as the least important factor. This is in sharp contrast to the message frequently heard in international human resource management, which is the move towards a general phasing out of many expatriate positions and increasing dependence on local personnel.

Expatriate Satisfaction as a Factor for Success

In The Nature and Causes of Job Satisfaction, E.A. Locke defines job satisfaction as "A positive emotional state resulting from the appraisal of one's job or job experiences". While this is accepted as a requirement for employee retention in domestic labour conditions, it receives little attention as a factor in a successful overseas assignments. Experts emphasise that personal, organisational and environmental aspects are all important in determining expatriate satisfaction. HR departments can and should be playing a significant role in all three.


Personal aspects can include technical qualifications, personality and character factors, family willingness (including dual career and education aspects), motivation for seeking the expatriate assignment and past performance in related functions. Assessment criteria are very important here. Some consulting organizations, such as New-York based Cornelius Grove and Associates and Toronto-based FGI World, conduct pre-departure family assessments. The relocating family and a family counsellor determine what, if any, training and coaching the family may need to be successful in the host country. HR then works through the counsellor to provide the family with the necessary support. This very proactive strategy has proven successful to a host of these firms’ multinational clients, ranging from Nortel to Johnson & Johnson.


Once the selection process has been completed, ensuring that the expatriate assignment fits in with the employee's overall career plan, providing mentors and opportunities for employees to develop new skills all contribute greatly to expatriate satisfaction. The greater freedom and opportunity for the expatriate to modify the function to fit his/her abilities should contribute, rather than detract, to the expatriate’s job satisfaction. These are exactly the factors that cause so much dissatisfaction upon repatriation, however, since a return to set parameters, outside the manager’s control, is frequently unappealing and demotivating. Companies continue to lose many repatriated employees (some statistics put this at up to 70% of returned employees by the end of the second year). The most successful companies discuss repatriation before the assignment commences.


Clearly social, economic and political factors contribute to an expatriate’s feeling of satisfaction and well-being, so location is an important determinant. Many cultures are uncomfortable setting concrete goals and targets, preferring "just in time" planning and management tactics. This environment may cause European executives unease and discomfort, and contribute to dissatisfaction with their position and resultant failure to achieve head office, or personal, objectives.

A paper recently presented in The Learning Organisation Journal on assessing the impact of expatriate satisfaction on organisational performance concluded:
"If a firm is to reap the benefits of learning, it is imperative that its valuable employees remain with the organisation long enough to willingly share their experiences. A failed assignment, described as prematurely returning to the home country, limits the organisation's return on its investment in that expatriate. Therefore, it is in the organisation's best interest to reduce problems of homesickness and adjustment, perhaps through more careful selection of candidates and/or through organizational initiatives such as training, mentoring, or career planning".

The real success factor seems to be not so much in sending them out on assignment but in bringing them back home.