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International Recruitment: How to Stop Overseas Assignments From Failing

Heather Darby
Nov 21, 2017

Most workers assigned abroad fail, but why? And what can HR do about it?

Anecdotally, international relocation often goes one of two ways: Either the expat loves their new home, or they cannot stand being apart from their motherland. When it comes to corporate relocation and overseas assignments, the picture isn’t so black and white. Many factors contribute to the failure of international work, ranging from the nearly benign to irrevocable dissolution. Yet, no matter where their problem sits on the severity scale, alarming quantities of workers are leaving international roles with their job unfinished.

Forty percent of international assignments are judged to end in failure – a statistic that may seem surprising, but it really shouldn’t be. Historically, failure rates have been the same for decades. Records reaching back to the 1960s and the dawn of our new interconnected age display evidence of overseas roles being abandoned in much the same percentages as we see in 2017. This is a major cause for concern. The average international assignment will cost a business around $110,000 to $125,000 before wages are even considered. As a result, companies in the U.S. are spending over $300,000 annually on their overseas assignees and associated costs. If 40 percent of assignments are failures, then 40 percent of that is considered to be wasted. $120,000 a year per company is the price tag of not learning from our mistakes.

But why aren’t we learning from our mistakes? This problem has existed, within the knowledge of global HR, for half a century. There are, of course, some aspects of international assignments that cannot be controlled or prepared for; such is life. A 100 percent success rate goal would be unrealistic and unattainable, but surely we can do better than the current 40 percent. Many believe we can. Multiple recent studies have isolated the core reasons recruiters believe their international assignments fail, and with this knowledge, we can hope to improve success rates and cut down on wasted expenses.

Hire the right candidate

Recruiters are adept at looking for the right traits in people, but what are the right traits for somebody suited for an overseas job? Experience and career expertise is one thing, yet there are far more valuable characteristics to seek out in those applying for a job abroad.

Temptation favors the hiring of executives with years of experience who operate at a very high level, but decades working within a comfort zone does not translate to success in international markets. Resilience is a key trait that recruiters should be looking for. Pressure on international working assignments goes above that of a domestic job, especially in the early stages. Personalities that are suited for high-pressure environments can be far more valuable for these types of roles, even if their experience is comparatively low.

These are some other skills and traits recruiters must look out for:

  • Communication – Candidates face massive challenges in communication when moving abroad. If they lack strong communication skills now, they’ll be well out of their depth abroad.

  • Adaptability – Moving overseas is a huge task, with a lot of new and sometimes daunting commitments and obligations. Candidates must prove they can adapt to new situations and meet the challenges like a local.

  • Confidence – A candidate uncertain of their ability to succeed, no matter how good you feel they would be at the job, should be immediately discarded. Overseas assignments take self-determination and belief. Without it, they are all but certain to fail.

  • Experienced – Does your candidate have experience living or working abroad? Those untested are bigger risks. Even long-term traveling, volunteering or schooling abroad is valuable in this circumstance.

  • Social integration – Overcoming issues such as being unsettled require assignees to integrate with the world around them and view the foreign nation as their home. Isolation leads to problems that result in repatriation. If your candidate is not a community-minded person and lacks many links to their current world, it is unlikely they will spread roots in their new home, making them more likely to face said isolation and the problems it causes.

Family matters

When trying to decipher the reasoning behind a failed international work assignment, HR professionals can be quick to look to working environment as a culprit. However, evidence suggests that it isn’t problems at the office that cause the majority of overseas assignments to crumble – it’s family. Issues with family settling in can result in up to 70 percent of early repatriations. While the assignee may have been the perfect person for the role, their families were not the perfect fit for the placement.

As we’ve already discussed, recruiters for international hiring need to focus on a number of different characteristics of a candidate that differ from your typical domestic hire. However, they also need to shine a spotlight on the candidates’ partners and dependants, considering they play such an important role. An inability to become accustomed to their new home will make families want to leave. Despite the myth that most employees put work before family, this results in a high rate of assignment abandonment.

To avoid these issues, recruiters hiring for international assignments must consider three factors:

  • Is the family adaptable? Does the family have any experience living abroad? This can help when weighing up risk factors.

  • What are their concerns? Discuss with them their concerns and potential problems. Invite an open policy and try to determine what their potential barriers could be, and if they can be overcome.  

  • How can they be supported? Once you’ve selected a candidate and their family, listen to their feedback and concerns, taking time to ensure they are addressed. This could be finding the right accommodation and schools, or sorting little things like banks or transport options. It is also worth making sure they are established well post-move and well integrated with their new community. Providing things like area orientation and pathways for social engagement can be valuable methods of easing culture shock and getting families to feel like their new home is their actual home.  

Communication barriers

We all know the power of communication in the workplace. We all also understand that communication can be strained in a foreign nation. Through both language barriers and cultural differences, getting work done in a new country is always going to be tougher than getting it done in a place you are familiar with.

These are the biggest concerns of recruiters, with 87 percent focusing on finding recruits with appropriate language skills and a further half of global recruiters looking for those who have proved to be culturally adaptive. The practice makes sense. Cultural ignorance can lead to confusion and disrespectful acts that jeopardize work. Similarly, an inability to speak the language slows down processes and makes proper communication impossible. So if recruiters are actively seeking these types of candidates, why are cultural and communication barriers still a major cause of assignment failure?

It’s all to do with pre-move preparation. Finding people with the potential to adapt and overcome cultural barriers is one thing, but the actual practice is another matter entirely. Providing support resources for this is essential. Giving them educational tools on language and culture, offering firsthand advice such as meetings with soon-to-be colleagues or clients, and sending your prospect on fact-finding trips are all powerful methods of preparation that boost chances of success. Yet, few companies actually invest in these methods.

Seventy-five percent of businesses do not offer appropriate cultural education and preparation prior to a move, with 16 percent of brands providing nothing in the way of pre-move resources at all. Considering the cost of a move and the knowledge we have as to why international assignments fail, it seems baffling that so many companies are ignoring these essential preparation processes. Those responsible for managing overseas assignments should ensure appropriate training is provided on how to overcome specific cultural obstacles and barriers, even if candidates have experience overseas or have demonstrated previous abilities to overcome similar obstacles.

Every assignment abroad is different, and should be treated accordingly.


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Heather Darby
Experienced contributor to HR and Business publications, expert in international relocation projects, dealing with everything from personal moves to full-scale corporate relocation. Heather has been working in the industry for many years and is keen to share her knowledge and insight with other members of the business community.