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Assessment and selection criteria for expatriates: what guarantees assignment success?
By Mary van der Boon
(this article first appeared in the XPat Journal)

Selecting global assignees is both a critical and frustrating topic for global HR professionals, says Dr. Paula Caligiuri from Rutgers University in the U.S. "Most human resources professionals agree that not all employees sent on global assignments will succeed. Some will flourish, while others, unfortunately, will fail. Seasoned global HR professionals may pride themselves on the fact that they can predict the outcome of an assignment -- after just a few interactions with a prospective assignee. They have developed the sixth sense for selecting global assignees".

Despite the sixth sense that these HR professionals may have, the unfortunate reality is that most are unable to stop a risky global assignment from moving forward. Frequently, an assignee is chosen within the business unit based only on the person’s technical or managerial skills. HR has little involvement, except to process the appropriate paperwork. This typical scenario is both short-sighted and damaging to organisations wishing to capitalise on the strategic management of their human talent worldwide.

Let’s shatter one myth immediately: expatriate assessment techniques are not geared to identifying the candidate most likely to succeed. According to expat gurus Cornelius Grove and Willa Hallowell, "cream of the crop" has never been the objective of research-based assessment because there is no reliable way to determine, in advance, who will be the most outstanding performer. There are too many factors impinging on success. Many have nothing to do with the candidate, and many are impossible to assess in advance of the actual assignment.

For this reason, say the grovewell.com partners, expat candidate assessment can have only one attainable objective: to identify candidates who are most at risk of failure in an unfamiliar culture, those who are most likely to end up at the "bottom of the barrel" due to a dearth of cross-cultural competence or low family readiness.

Experts in the cross-cultural field have the following message for IHR and other decision-makers in businesses who are selecting people for overseas assignments:

(1) Our assumption is that your candidates will be technically competent.
(2) Our research reveals why certain people are especially at risk abroad.
(3) Our assessment methods identify high-risk candidates for expatriation.
(4) Somehow, high-risk candidates must be eliminated from consideration.
(5) For virtually all other candidates, our training and support methods can enhance cross-cultural competencies and thereby expatriate success.

If technical competence is not a concern, what should be assessed to gauge cross-cultural suitability? Grove and Hallowell believe there are two principal assessment targets. One is the potential "cross-cultural competence" of the candidate and his or her spouse. This includes knowledge, skills, and personality traits. The other is termed "situational readiness", and may be the most frequently overlooked. Situational readiness takes in all factors that come to mind in response to this question: "Is this period of my life a good one in which to relocate myself and my family to another country?" Here is a sample of situational questions that each candidate for expatriation, together with his/her spouse, needs to ask:

(1) Here at home, is there at this time any practical issue that requires my sustained attention, such as a bankruptcy, lawsuit, divorce, property sale, aged parent, or sustained illness of a close relative?
(2) Does any family member who will accompany me abroad have a special need — medical, physical, psychological, educational, sports, etc. — that might be very difficult to satisfy there?
(3) Will my spouse (or significant other) be deeply disappointed about putting on hold a promising or lucrative career to accompany me?
(4) Will I be taking along one or more children on my assignment abroad? Especially if they are teenagers, how will they react to being uprooted?
(5) Am I hoping that the novel environment abroad will revive my marriage?
It's worth emphasising that, in many cases, worrisome answers to questions such as these lead to a postponement for a few years of one's candidacy for expatriation, not to an abandonment of that candidacy.
Only after these questions have been thoroughly discussed and reconciled should further assessment be undertaken.

Cross-cultural competence has traditionally focused on personality traits considered highly desirable. These include:
  • empathy: this includes emotional intelligence
  • respect: the ability to value difference
  • interest in local culture
  • background: language skills, having lived abroad before
  • tolerance (or perhaps "tolerance for ambiguity")
  • flexibility: does the assignee see the big picture or lives by the rules of her/his letter of assignment
  • initiative: achievement-oriented and independent
  • attitude: open mindedness to be exposed to other cultures, race and religion
  • sociability
  • positive self-image
  • team spirit: perhaps the most important, being able to work with and fit in the culture of the local team

It is highly recommended, however, that cross-cultural personality assessment be combined with behavioural interviews to form a more complete picture of individual competencies, weaknesses and strengths.

In International Success: Selecting, Developing, and Supporting Expatriate Managers Meena Wilson and Maxine Dalton present their Selection-Development-Support (SDS) framework, including the short-term factors (those that can be addressed within months or weeks of the start of an expatriate assignment) and long-term factors (those that need thorough planning and implementation over time) that must be considered for properly managing an expatriation-repatriation-system. The goal of this system is to develop a talent pool of expatriate managers, bringing long-term benefit to both employee and employer. The advice that they offer includes the following approaches and practices:

  • consider candidates' personality, early-life experiences, and family readiness in making international selection decisions;
  • provide language training, cultural training, and on-the-job assignments as a means of preparing employees for an expatriate assignment;
  • facilitate outbound transition and family adjustment during the assignment; and
  • address compensation and repatriation issues.

Based on interview findings that suggest that expatriate assignments are a profound learning experience, the authors contend that international transfers are one of the most powerful strategies for developing global leaders. Consequently, they view the careful selection and training of expatriates not only as a prerequisite for successfully accomplishing the task goals of an international assignment but also as a means for developing the human resources that are necessary for meeting the challenges of a global business world.

Intercultural consultant Dean Foster offers a glimpse of tomorrow’s Global Expat:
The Profile of the Typical International Assignee

20 Years Ago

  • average assignment was two to three years
  • most were married, with a non-working (read, "trailing") spouse
  • many had young or no children
  • most went to one country, returning home to their company after assignment (bi-cultural)
  • most viewed assignment as an interesting option that provided additional income, but not directly relevant to their career development
  • most received little or no cross-cultural training
  • most training was done in preparation for single-culture, outbound expatriation, and little consideration was made for inpatriate or repatriate training
  • success typically was measured on whether they survived the assignment ("bring 'em home alive" mentality)

In the Near Future

  • average assignment is short-term: six to 12 months
  • 50 percent have partners, not necessarily spouses, most of whom have their own careers
  • children are either very young or adult children
  • most go to their first international assignment, and seek out a second or third before returning home (if ever)
  • on repatriation, almost half leave their company and seek work elsewhere; and most view international assignment as an important career move
  • most are offered a menu of support services, including cross-cultural training, (less than 33% take it)
  • 50 percent of international relocation is inbound, although, successful repatriation is increasingly recognized as the critical determinant for capturing global talent within the organization
  • success is measured against on-assignment performance criteria; and managers are typically responsible for global projects (multicultural)

Source: Dean Foster, Mobility magazine, July 2001, www.erc.org