Aperian Global's Jesse Rowell and Tessah Clark share their insights and opinions on how employers can better support global employees and provide top tips to help ensure foreign assignment success.
From an employee engagement and talent retention perspective, the majority of hiring executives — up to 97% — understand the immense value of relocation programs, but feel they need a better way to manage these programs (Wakefield, 2018). With approximately 40% of all international assignments ending in failure (Right Management, 2012), we couldn’t agree more, especially given the forecast for a 50% growth in the number of international assignments by the year 2020 (PwC, 2019).
As an organization with 30 years of experience in supporting global relocation success strategies, we have come to learn that seemingly small things are actually rather big things, when it comes to the success or failure of an employee moving abroad.
Although candidates generally request support through financial means — such as cash allowances and housing assistance (Wakefield, 2018), we urge hiring executives, relocation directors, and mobility professionals alike to pay closer attention and give greater assistance to expats in the following areas:
1. Family Support
Over the last ten years, family has consistently shown to be the number one reason why international assignments fail or succeed (EY, 2018; CERC, 2017; BGRS, 2016). More specifically, EY lists a partner or spouse “not being happy” with relocation as the top reason for assignment failure. “Children issues” comes in as the fourth-most common reason for failure (EY, 2018).
On the one hand, it appears that organizations are recognizing the importance of offering family support. Out of nearly 3,500 respondents, 90% said their companies offered relocation support to partners (EY, 2018). On the other hand, “relocation support” can be a very broad term.
According to EY, the most common form of “partner support benefits” is language training. While language training can be helpful, it does not address the collective stress of cultural adjustment that a family goes through when relocating abroad.
Tip for Success: Look at your service providers first to ensure you have vendors that offer family integration and support (for both spouses and children). Their cultural adjustment to the host country is just as important as the employee’s — if the family is OK, the assignee can better focus on their job. Also, make sure your providers can offer support in a manner that meets relocated families on their terms and schedule. Are they flexible in how they deliver their services? Families need time to be together during this stressful period. This is what will help foreign assignments succeed.
2. Assignment Selection
According to BGRS (2016), poor candidate selection is the second-most common reason why global assignments fail. Not coincidentally, BGRS also reports that approximately 80% of companies don’t formally assess the adaptability of international assignment candidates, and only 29% of companies use some type of self-assessment tool. For some assignments, a particular skill set or urgent business need is required, and for others the move may be for high potential leadership development. Regardless of the reason, most clients don’t have a long time horizon to identify possible employees as candidates for a move. Even for those firms that do have time to field a pool of candidates, budgets often don’t allow for candidate assessment services in addition to pre-departure cultural training.
Furthermore, data shows that it is rare for a first-choice candidate to accept a relocation offer — and this trend is on the rise (BGRS, 2016). Tying into the need for greater family support, 32% of leaders said they had turned down a foreign assignment out of consideration for their families, and 28% said they did so to “protect their marriages” (HBR, 2014).
In order to access and select the very best candidates for relocation programs, time and planning is key. Companies need a process for employees to self-identify early on that they are interested in a global assignment, which can help expand the already identified pool of employees coming from the business line or talent development. With a broader pool to choose from, there is less stress on choosing a first-choice.
Tip for Success: Nearly three-quarters of companies don’t maintain a candidate pool for global assignments, and 33% don’t have a process for employees to designate themselves as willing to go on a foreign assignment (BGRS, 2016). During new-hire orientation, build in a way for employees to “raise their hand” if they are interested in a global move — this can be via interviews or via self-selection tools. When key employees are identified for a move, companies should invest in a developmental candidate assessment process that can identify professional or personal issues that need to be resolved before an assignment begins. Companies that follow such a process will field and deploy much better prepared employees for assignment, leading to higher success rates.
3. Cultural Understanding
Approximately 44% of companies offer cross-cultural training as a core policy benefit (KPMG, 2018) — which means the majority of organizations are not offering their assignees coaching or training to set them up for business success. As a result, it is no surprise the inability to “adapt to the host location” is the third-most common reason for global assignment failure (BGRS, 2016).
Interestingly, “job expectations not met” is the fourth most common reason for assignment failure, according to BGRS. The ability to perform a job role or function successfully in a foreign location is directly connected to understanding and making adaptations for the culture (Aperian Global, 2016). Cultural competence and agility does lead to assignment success on multiple levels. Most companies do not see the value of work style adjustment when considering the ROI for “cultural training.” Many think such training covers basic protocol issues that are common for a tourist vacation.
A foreign assignee recently shared their surprise at the impact cultural work style training had on their global assignment: “I was amazed at how much I had not considered in working with colleagues who are of a different culture. I realized I can’t run meetings or give feedback to people the way I was used to in my home country. In fact, what worked great for me back home in terms of my work style, but will be counterproductive in working with my host country colleagues. I now know how to make simple adjustments to the way I go about my work — and I see it paying off.”
Tip for Success: Although the large majority of mobility heads are under pressure to reduce overall mobility costs, cross-cultural training is one thing that should not be cut from your core policy. Many assignments cost five times or more than the employee’s salary, so a failed assignment is very expensive. Limit that financial risk by providing helpful integration support, which with more options today than ever, are affordable. One-size-fits-all-policies will often lead to overspending for under-utilized and ineffective training. Find providers that can offer the widest range of flexible solutions to assignees on their schedule (pre-departure, post-arrival, virtual coaching, online self-guided, etc). These same providers should be able to offer you subscription-based pricing that ensures the training used is what is paid for.
4. Decreasing Stressors
Beyond an employee uprooting their life and family, there can be many other stressors that come into play during relocation. Expectations and goals are often not clear to foreign assignees, which can quickly mount to stress and confusion. According to KMPG (2018), 19% of companies do not have a process for setting assignment goals.
Twenty-five percent of assignees follow the host country goal-setting process, which could be a significant challenge and stressor for candidates, if language and culture barriers have not been addressed through adequate training.
Tip for Success: Mobility department and talent development heads should ask this simple question: "If I were to agree to go on a global assignment, what would I expect? Career advancement, new skills that will serve me later, higher pay?" These and similar types of questions are always top of mind to a prospective assignee, so it is critical to document what the reasons for the move are (business need or professional development), while at the same time documenting the agreed-upon expectations by the employee and manager. Without that, there will be ambiguity and possibly resentment when the employee learns the expectations were not honored.
5. Adjustment within the Social Context
Interestingly, technology has not changed the international assignment failure rate (TLNT, 2017). One might suppose that with webcam video to connect with friends and family back home and social platforms to help expats meet up, that failure rates would have decreased. But the data would suggest that failure rates are a very human issue more related to the ability or inability to integrate and adjust to a new culture.
''Employers underestimate the need for social integration and the fact that it is part of their responsibility to make sure their expat employees manage to feel at home and welcome abroad,'' Theresa Häfner, Head of Business Solutions at InterNations, recently said.
Tip for Success: Companies should leverage technology that can help foreign assignees connect and relate, while simultaneously encouraging cultural coaching that focuses on adapting to their new home. Settling in requires personal work, much of it centered around self-awareness of one’s style in relation to the host country. Once the strategies are presented on how to adapt and adjust to host country norms of business, then the networking and social acclimatization will only strengthen their ability to settle in and succeed while on assignment.
Whether it is these five issues or others, there is no simple way to ensure success every time for every assignee. Personal lives are as complex as the business — but these strategies can help.
About the Authors: Jesse Rowell has the privilege to work for a mission-driven company (Aperian Global) that helps people work more effectively with other cultures. He has been with the company for 11 years and is responsible for the company’s Global Mobility practice. The firm has prepared tens of thousands of assignees and families for international moves across the globe, equipping them with best-in-class support for the challenges they are likely to face in their new locations. His interest in working globally goes back to his first trip abroad as a university student to Ecuador. Since then he has been fortunate to work and live in many countries, making lifelong friends along the way. He resides in Chicago, Illinois.
About the Authors: Tessah Clark works at Aperian Global as a Digital Marketing Specialist. Outside of her passion for writing and international travel, she has a deep appreciation for working for a company that helps build bridges across cultures. Tessah studied in France and Russia before going to post secondary and receiving a BA in Anthropology from the University of Victoria. She conducted policy research abroad in Daejeon, South Korea, before receiving her Master’s Degree in Intercultural and International Communication from Royal Roads University. Tessah completed her Master’s residency at Zhejiang University, in Hangzhou, China. She resides in Vancouver, BC.
Wakefield. 2018. Mobility in Focus - Identifying the talent mobility disconnect.
Right Management. 2013. Reduce the Risk of Managers Failing in Overseas Assignments.
PwC. 2019. Talent Mobility 2020. The next generation of international assignments.
EY. 2018. Relocating Partner Survey Report.
CERC. 2017. The Future of Talent Mobility.
BGRS. 2016. Global Mobility Trends Survey. Breakthrough to the Future of Global Talent Mobility.
HBR. 2014. A Successful International Assignment Depends on These Factors.
KPMG. 2018. Global Assignment Policies and Practices Survey.
Aperian Global. 2016. Evaluating the ROI of Cross-Cultural Training.
TLNT. 2017. How to Combat International Assignment Failure.