International assignments are exciting for the individual, and can be hugely beneficial for the organization. But they are risky too: according to INSEAD, the proportion of expat assignment failures can be as high as 50%.
There are a number of reasons – some down to the individual, some to the organization – but any single one of them can result in an early flight home and a huge disappointment for company and assignee alike.
1. You chose the wrong person in the first place
This is the fundamental decision – and one that many companies get wrong. The problem is that, unless there is a precedent (ie you choose an individual with a track record of successful assignments in different countries), it’s very difficult to isolate the qualities that successful expats need.
Sometimes, an assignee will thrive because they are adaptable; they are both sensitive to their new environment and able to shape their behaviors and lifestyle to fit in with it. However, sometimes the opposite is true. It is equally often noted that a successful expat is one with a clearly defined set of values that enables them to perform consistently, professionally and effectively regardless of their social milieu. Clearly, both characteristics are desirable, and ‘compromise’ candidates may be the ones most likely to succeed.
2. Lack of local support
It is not all about the individual. The host country has a crucial role to play, and the most important individual is the host sponsor. Their role is to provide the support in helping the assignee fit in, whether on a social, professional or domestic level – without their support assignments can go wrong very quickly. Don’t forget that busy work schedules will quickly dominate and leave little time for the assignee to manage their own affairs – and also distract the hosts from their obligation to support the assignee. But if one individual has a clearly defined role to support them, they will not it slip down their list of priorities.
3. Disconnection from home country
It is important to keep in touch with colleagues and work life back home too. The more isolated an assignee is, the more likely they are to reject it – whereas our experience suggests that it is helpful to stay in contact. For this reason, companies are wise to assign a contact who is responsible for keeping the assignee ‘in the loop’ about developments at home. They not only have a more balanced view of their role within the global organization, but are also better prepared for repatriation once their assignment is over.
4. Domestic difficulties
While children and spouses are frequent factors in early repatriation cases, it is extremely hard to spot because most assignees are reluctant to share domestic or social difficulties with the company. They usually believe that any problems will suggest to the company that they are “not up to the job” and therefore paper over the cracks rather than asking for support. Ironically, therefore, the people who could help most are the last to know. To avoid this, frequent and open communication is essential. The company needs to know that the assignee’s family is coping, and it should explain the need for open communication up-front – before they even leave the country.
5. Failure to plan
In a perfect world, every overseas assignment would be strategically planned and carefully implemented. The truth of modern business is that organizational resource needs can change overnight – so there is sometimes little or no warning. The individual needs time to prepare practically and mentally for the assignment, and the organization needs time to put the right infrastructure in place: as mentioned in the last three points, it takes time to choose the right candidate, and to put in place the people required to support them. Sometimes they get away with it; sometimes, it’s no surprise that they’re on one of the first planes home.