Candidate red flags: how to spot assignment failures in advance

5 March 2019

It’s all done by computer these days, isn’t it? Pre-programmed selection algorithms tell you instantly how to pick the best candidate for a global assignment. Designed with anti-cognitive bias in mind, they produce a recommendation based on all kinds of data, including career history, academic achievement and even Myers-Briggs personality types. So you can choose with certainty who is good for a two-year relocation to Singapore office and who isn’t.

Sadly – or rather fortunately – is more complicated than that. Global mobility remains a people business and the best judges of candidates are experienced professionals (albeit supported by so much data it could make your eyes water). But since not everyone has the necessary people experience, here are a few suggestions that might help – or at least whittle down the selection. Before you settle on a final shortlist, it helps to remove those who are least likely to be a success – by looking for the “red flags”. See any of these and you are probably best off crossing the name from the list...

“Will everything be organized for me?”

1. “Will everything be organized for me?”

If there’s one character trait a successful expat needs, it is independence – or at least the personal get-up-and-go that suggests they quickly gain independence. That is not to say that everything will not be organized for them. Global mobility assignees / expats know that their chances of success are greater if they don’t have to worry about booking relocation companies, dealing with paperwork, and sorting out accommodation.

But not everything goes according to plan. More accurately, something, somewhere will go wrong and it will often be down to your expat to react to the situation and come out smiling. Don’t pick someone who will expect you to sort it out – or even blame you if you can’t.

2. “Is anyone else from the company going?”

In the same way that you want your expats to be able to stand on their own two feet, you also want them to form relationships. People naturally do this, of course, but the circumstances of an international assignment make it more challenging.

In The Development of the International Manager, S. Rothwell explained how expats needed to possess a “drive to communicate" and a "broad-based sociability". This is not just about forming personal, social relationships within their national peer group (although establishing a support group of fellow expats is essential) but making the right impression professionally with those of a different culture. It takes effort and charisma, and less gregarious candidates may find life harder.

“How much will I get paid?”

3. “How much will I get paid?”

Only a red flag if it is the first question they ask. Financial negotiations will happen in due course and there may be a significant monetary incentive to get the best people to go. However, it has been shown time and time again that the most successful assignees are driven by other motives.

This doesn’t mean they’re not self-centred. You want them to be driven, high achievers, don’t you? You want them to know they will learn from their experience (and, from their perspective, get it onto their CV and thus enhance their career prospects). This is the reason why most people want to take on an assignment – beware the minority therefore who take the increasingly old-fashioned view that they are simply in it for the money.

4. “My [wife/husband/partner] will be so excited!”

At face value, this is a good sign. But dig deeper and ask yourself why the candidate is so sure. An automatic assumption that the candidate’s excitement over the assignment will be mirrored by the rest of the family is in fact a worrying sign.

The reason is that the two parties have very different perspectives on the move. The candidate stands to gain career enhancement and professional satisfaction – as well as the foreign adventure of course. But beyond the temporary thrill of living somewhere exotic, there is often little else for the other members of the family, especially the ‘trailing spouse’.

One of the main reasons for early repatriation is the failure of partners or children to settle in a new culture, and it is essential that all parties go into the adventure with the same sense of enlightened excitement – rather than a grudging sense of duty.

5. “That’s typical of the [insert race/country/culture here]”

Prejudices are inevitable, but undesirable. We all have our own pre-conceived opinions of other cultures, but a key difference between a successful assignment and an early boat home is the expats openness to new experiences.

Culture shock is going to kick in at some point, but some love the variety, while others rail against it. We’re not talking veiled racism here. But although offered in jest, a suggestion that your candidate has a less than open mind about his destination should be seen as a warning sign.

There are even intercultural adaptability tools that will help you to see if your candidates have the right personality to thrive in and amongst those of another culture – rather than tolerating them and disdaining their habits.

6. “I’ve been there on holiday – I know it really well!”

Not so much a red flag as a pink one. There’s nothing wrong with a little familiarity with the prospective new host country. However, you need to press them on this one. Make sure they appreciate the challenges they will face in the working environmentoffice culture and professional processes vary hugely and unexpectedly in different countries.

You just need to be certain that they don’t think the experience of two weeks partying in Koh Samui in 2009 will prepare them for the trials of daily life working in an office complex just outside Bangkok. It won’t.

Be warned

Be warned

There are many qualities that you need to look for in your candidates. But there are equally signs that they are unsuitable – and, as a global mobility professional, you will spot many of these instinctively. Proving that you don’t always need software to do your job for you.

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