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The World of International Assignments
What you need to know about working abroad
By Mary van der Boon
(this article first appeared in the Eurograduate)

For many recent graduates, the glamour and allure of an international career is almost irresistible. After years of study they are eager to put their hard work to the toughest test of all: doing business in the international arena.

Positive Effects

Not only indulging a need to be challenged and a love of adventure, an international career brings with it considerable additional benefit. In Breaking Through Culture Shock, author Elisabeth Marx describes the positive effects an international assignment can have, both on the expatriate’s career and on their personal development. These include faster career advancement, more marketable skills such as strategic thinking, flexibility and negotiation ability, improved decision-making, greater confidence and authority, more maturity and better people management proficiency.

The New International Executive: Trends in Expatriation

New directions
In the future fewer expatriates will be sent from the developed to the developing world, with an increase in assignments between developed countries themselves as a result of extensive cross-border mega-deals and trading pacts (as is occurring daily in European business). Joint ventures, mergers and alliances mean that global markets will no longer be dominated by gargantuan multinationals, but that smaller companies will be emerging as key players in global trade.

New reasons
In a shrinking, wired, global world there are still many reasons why companies choose to send expatriates rather than hiring locally, including meeting key strategic business requirements, such as the need to establish a business presence quickly in response to rapid market developments and helping to recruit, orient and train new employees. Perhaps still most importantly, expatriates play a strategic role in the transfer of corporate values and culture.

New conditions
If only a few years ago the average assignment was for two to three years, today’s typical post is short-term, lasting from six to 12 months. These frequent fliers face some unique problems, including host-country tax problems, having to leave their families behind, unclear incentives and living allowances and difficulty in finding suitable accommodation. Nearly 80 percent of short-term assignees do not bring their families and typically live in company-paid furnished apartments or hotels. These assignments are either project-driven or involved in a technology transfer, with a smaller percentage representing developmental assignments. Sometimes they also encompass "commuter" assignments, where the assignee remains based in his/her home country but commutes to work every week in another country, or city.

New expectations
An increasingly young, multicultural and diverse workforce brings an important new phase to expatriate assignments, termed the pre-decision phase. Pre-decision can be likened to an assignment due diligence procedure that includes a careful assessment of all aspects associated with the proposed posting. Vital to this process is the opportunity to visit and evaluate living, housing, working, schooling and lifestyle options in the host location. Many Generation X (22-35 years old) and Generation Y (21 and under) employees will refuse an assignment outright if this is not offered, leaving IHR departments little option than to offer the possibility.

New lifestyles
Most of today’s first-time assignees will become ‘serial expats’, that is taking two to three assignments before returning home (if they ever do). In addition, today’s international managers are responsible for multicultural and regional projects, not just single-country assignments, requiring an increasingly complex skills set.

Assessment and Selection
The first hurdle to be faced by the hopeful applicant is the selection process itself. After confirming the technical competence and suitability of the candidate, companies generally have two principal assessment targets in identifying their potential expatriates. One is the cross-cultural competence of the candidate (and accompanying partner). This includes knowledge, skills, and personality traits. The other is termed situational readiness and takes in all factors that may influence the assignment, such as candidate’s career path objectives and personal factors that may influence the assignment.

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

Cross-cultural personality assessment is usually combined with behavioural interviews to form a complete picture of individual competencies, weaknesses and strengths. Candidates should keep these desirable characteristics in mind when undergoing assessment.

Glass Borders
Female graduates should be aware that worldwide women hold a very low percentage of all international management positions. This circumstance not only hinders the business success of multinational firms abroad but it also limits opportunities for women to succeed at home. Most multinational companies prefer that their senior management have abundant overseas experience. Excluded from that experience, women are also excluded from promotions and power later in their careers. It is necessary, therefore, for women to lobby for these assignments early in their careers. Often the selection process within an organisation will be less than transparent, and a proactive standpoint will be necessary.

Dual Careers
Women do account for 85% of partners accompanying overseas assignees, however. The unfortunate reality is that the vast majority of these partners, regardless of whether or not they were employed before they went overseas, will not be able to find paid employment during their tenure abroad. The dual career issue is the biggest challenge in international recruitment today and all up-and-coming expats should carefully consider the assignment from the perspective of their accompanying spouse or partner to avoid inevitable future difficulties.

Meeting Assignment Objectives
New expatriates should be aware that assignment goals are 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 are often never actually defined. When targets are made tangible, they were set in the vast majority of cases by the senior manager in the destination country.

Assignment Failure
HR giant McKinsey puts the direct cost of (long-term) assignment failure at US$1 million – including time and money wasted in selection, visits to the location before the executive takes up an assignment, training, and relocation. Furthermore, unsuccessful expatriate managers can suffer major career setbacks and therefore a loss of self-esteem and self-confidence. McKinsey claims up to 25% of all international assignments end prematurely, with failure rates among US expatriates particularly high. The lower failure rate of Europeans can perhaps be explained by more extensive cross-cultural training of expatriates undertaken by European companies and their longer history of doing business abroad. The overall rates rise significantly in developing countries, however, where they can reach 70% of all assignments.

In the majority of cases a failed assignment is defined as one causing damage to relationships with clients or vendors in the assignment region, which in turn resulted in loss of market share. Second highest reason cited 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.

Expatriate Satisfaction as a Factor for Success
Job satisfaction is defined 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 assignment. Experts emphasise that personal, organisational and environmental aspects are all important in determining expatriate satisfaction.

Repatriation and Retention
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.

Most experts agree that 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 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 through organizational initiatives such as training, mentoring, or career planning.

Sound Advice
First-time expats are advised to take a few steps to ensure their smoother adjustment to international life:

  • undertake cross-cultural pre-departure and/or post-arrival training
  • take a realistic look at your expectations and assumptions before you go
  • find a mentor in the local office early in the assignment
  • have your partner or spouse join you as early as possible
  • don’t sell your home
  • expect culture shock to last at least six months