Avoiding expat failure: 10 tips for successful candidate selection

4 October 2017

There is much talk of the qualities expats need to succeed, including social, cultural and business skills. The importance of avoiding expat failure and selecting the right candidate inspired us to explore some of the techniques used by global mobility professionals to ensure they make the right choice.

1. Establish formal criteria

The most basic step of the selection process is sometimes overlooked. List and prioritize the skills required of the candidate. The more detailed you are, the greater your chances of finding the right candidate. Consider two aspects:

  • Technical: what job skills are needed? Which qualifications and specific professional experience is required for the assignment?
  • Management: what kind of leadership experience and/or capability is required?

Going through the list may also help you reflect on whether those skills are available locally, and therefore removing the need for an expensive relocation.

2. Go for experience

You can never be quite sure whether a candidate will succeed, but the best guide by far is past performance. Begin your search with candidates who have succeeded in similar assignments in the same target country. Failing that, look for candidates who have performed well in culturally similar countries, followed by those with a track-record of travel and mobility. Some people are simply more adaptable and fit in more easily with different environments and working practices – this is the most obvious way of finding them.

3. Do they speak the language?

If the assignee speaks the local language, they will be more effective professionally. They will command more respect from clients, suppliers and colleagues. Equally, they are more likely to thrive socially. Look also for general linguistic ability. If a candidate has two or three languages under their belt, you can assume that they will find a basic grasp of a fourth language easier than most.

4. Use intercultural assessment tools

There are various intercultural adaptability tools that will help you to assess the suitability of candidates with regard to their ability to operate in different cultures. Such tools do not provide a recommendation on their own but are useful in formalizing and ‘scoring’ the cultural adaptability skills that are so important to a global assignment, but so hard to accurately measure in a candidate selection process.

5. Work with talent management

Your task is made easier by coordinating with a talent manager. Many companies operate formal pools of candidates, segmented by skill set, experience, salary level and risk factors. Before you even start the selection process, you have ready access to a list of pre-qualified names.

The company’s talent management team will be as keen to nurture the best talent in the long run, as you are to leverage it for the assignment. If the company’s long-term interests are best served by giving certain candidates an opportunity to travel, this should be considered. Equally, if assignments might be disruptive to the way in which talent is being nurtured (i.e. the experience is unlikely to give that candidate useful additional skills, such as leadership experience) then they should perhaps not be considered for the role. 

6. Use a selection panel

You will have a more balanced perspective and make better decisions if you can use the expertise of different people. Global mobility professionals should work alongside a manager from the specific function being recruited (e.g. IT), as well as HR representatives with both international experience and knowledge of the host country. In addition, include former expats who can share their experiences.

7. Use self-selection

While it is ultimately your job to choose the right candidate, many will put themselves forward (or rule themselves out)  provided you give them a realistic preview of the assignment. Resist the temptation to talk it up too much. Be open and honest about conditions, expectations, compensation policies and even career prospects upon their return. The more transparent you are, the more likely you are that the assignment will match the candidate’s expectations and therefore be successful.

A key part of this is ensuring the prospective candidate feels they can decline the opportunity without damaging their career prospects (if indeed, that is true!). If a candidate does not relish the idea of a global assignment, yet agrees to it because they think it is expected of them, they are far more likely to fail than a candidate who genuinely wants to go.

8. Speak to the family

One of the major reasons for expat failure is the inability of the family to settle in the new location. The issue of the “trailing spouse” is well documented but it remains a significant obstacle to expat success. The candidates themselves may be so enthusiastic for the opportunity that they make light of their spouse’s concerns. An interview with the partner, however, gives you the truth. There is no betrayal here: GM professionals should make it very clear that it is in both the company’s and the assignee’s interests to judge whether a family is likely to settle in a new location. A failed assignment will probably be damaging to both sides.

9. Encourage a reconnaissance trip

Once the candidate is chosen, it may be worthwhile to encourage them to go and check out their new host country. Despite your efforts to create realistic expectations, the candidate (or the candidate’s family) may think differently once they go there in person. It will be disappointing if, following the reconnaissance trip, the candidate decides not to take up the assignment, but this is far less expensive and damaging to the company than a failed or aborted assignment. Better to know now than in six months’ time.

10. Don’t forget the medical

There is also a medical dimension to the decision. Not only do you want to ensure that the candidate is fit to do the job, it is also in the assignee’s interests to have clean bill of health before embarking on a long-term assignment. The key is to perform any necessary medical checks before a final decision is made.

Make an informed decision

Getting the right candidate is the single biggest factor in the success of an assignment. Different companies will manage the process in different ways but, if you cover most of the points above, you will be in a better position to make an informed decision and maximise your chances of success.

Pictures by Michael Blakesley, Soner Eker and Andre Hunter

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