Many organizations are falling at the first hurdle when it comes to choosing the right candidate for an international assignment – assignee selection. More often than not “high performers” in their home country are selected to do the same thing in another. There is little evidence to prove that success is transferable to a different cultural context. Assignee selection is a real challenge facing organizations where so many different stakeholders are involved in the selection of an international assignee. Global Mobility and HR professionals need to play a more strategic part to prevent assignee failure.

The U-Curve

In 1955, S. Lysgaard introduced the concept of the U-Curve related to the stages any individual goes through when moving and adapting to a new culture.

Whilst arguably the world is more globalized and modern communications can assist in mitigating some of the challenges an international assignee might face, the four identified stages are still as relevant.

  1. Honeymoon
  2. Culture shock
  3. Adjustment
  4. Mastery

These four stages help us understand how to support an international assignee, but how can proper profiling reduce the risk of assignee failure?

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Those involved in global mobility and relocation know all too well that the failure rate of a cross-cultural assignment is high. The idea of this shock and readjustment cycle is not a new phenomenon, it has appeared in articles since the fifties. From Lysgaard to Baker and Ivancevich in the 1971 California Business Review to a recent KPMG report.

And yet companies are still faced with assignees that return home early, are not as productive when in their destination country, or even after a successful assignment, leave the company relatively quickly after the experience.

Reasons for failure

  • Family

Many assignees request early repatriation due to family matters. This could either be because they are missing their family, friends, and home routine; or their accompanying partner or children are homesick and not assimilating well into the destination country. The family “back home” can also be a significant influence – elderly or infirm relatives, or a sudden change in circumstance of a loved one at home can force an assignee to choose between family and job.

  • Language

While there are many instances of people working and living abroad without any or very little language knowledge of the destination country, a paucity of linguistic ability will impede assimilation into the destination country. It can hinder even basic activities such as finding a suitable doctor and understanding local laws.

  • Lack of cultural understanding

Understanding the local culture is not just a matter of respect; it assists in moving through the culture shock stage and managing the annoyances and frustrations that inevitably appear in the local cultural. The ability to be humorous about differences and accept them as just that: differences, rather than something that is wrong or right, can ensure a happier and less-dolorous assignment.

Processes for identifying the best profiles

With assignee failure rates quoted as being as high as 40%, there are steps that you can take to ensure the risk of an unsuccessful assignment is mitigated and the right candidate is selected.

  1. Understand who you need in which location
  2. Define a robust selection process
  3. Provide language training
  4. Offer intercultural training
  5. Provide specific skill training

1. Understand who you need and in which location

It isn’t enough just to find someone, offer them some support and reading materials and expect them to find their own way. Being smart about understanding what type of profile would be suited to which type of environment is essential.

Those involved in global mobility and relocation know all too well that the failure rate of a cross-cultural assignment is high.

For example, destinations that may be seen as more hostile or strict towards women’s freedom will need an assignee that is resilient enough to be able to deal with that. A destination country that has a classist society might need a more tenacious or patient assignee if they are not white.

Coaches who have experienced the adaptation process themselves are the best resource to support assignees as they are able to empathize at a personal level.

2. Assignee selection process

In the KPMG 2016 Survey, “Global Assignment Policies and Practices” only a few participants reported that the company had a formal selection process.

A clear assignee selection process, selection panel and implementation of profiling tools all make sense in ensuring the right assignee is chosen for the right assignment.

This seems surprising given the expense of supporting an international assignment and the likelihood of failure.

In many cases, the need for a particular skillset, a recruitment crisis, or difficulty in finding someone willing to relocate drives the choice of assignee, rather than it being the right person for the job.

‘While several participants assess an assignee’s suitability for an international assignment through an informal review by line management/ human resources or via self-assessments, the large majority of participants (65 percent) do not have a provision in place to make an informed assessment of assignee suitability, KMPG, 2016.

Having a formal assignee selection process is critical to the success of an international assignment:

  • Have a clear process in place
  • Use a formal selection process for the assignee and for family members
  • Use international assignee profiling tools to check for key competencies such as adaptability to change and openness to cultural differences
  • Ensure that prospective assignees can refuse an assignment without negative consequences
  • Map the required key competencies to the destination and assignment type
  • Don’t be afraid to ask difficult scenario-based questions to see how the assignee will cope in different situations
  • Get the assignee to spend time discussing the experience with a successful or unsuccessful assignee in that destination
  • Encourage those with destination country language skills (although a secondary language curriculum does not necessarily prepare for a specific work assignment, but it can help with a head start)

A clear assignee selection process, selection panel and implementation of profiling tools all make sense in ensuring the right assignee is chosen for the right assignment.

3. Language training

If the assignee is bound for a destination where the language is different to their native language, language training is essential. This is just as much the case for locations that use English as the working language within the office, even though the country’s official language is something different.

The assignee must be prepared to learn a new language. Those that have experience in language-learning will be less likely to feel they cannot do it or state, ‘I was never any good at languages at school’. Being able to function within the destination country is essential even for performing simple tasks such as buying things in a shop or visiting a doctor. This is also true for an assignee’s family members.

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Accompanying partners that can often have the most difficulty in assimilating to life in a foreign destination, having to make more effort to interact with people, unlike the assignee who is surrounded by colleagues every day.

It is important that language training is not just an introductory matter but continues throughout the assignment as part of the support package.

Is the assignee’s partner willing to take the time and effort to learn a new language? What will be the plan in terms of increasing social interactions?

It is important that language training is not just an introductory matter but continues throughout the assignment as part of the support package.

Whilst training beforehand can assist in scene-setting and teaching the basics, it is during the assignment where frustrations with not being able to communicate need to be supported through personally-designed lesson plans. In Japan for example, the largely context-based language makes little sense until it is utilized in situ.

The way people take in and analyze language changes depending on whether they are outside of the target language’s area or immersed into it. Personalized language pathways can ensure the learning is aligned to the assignee journey.

4. Cultural training

Whilst this may seem like an obvious thing to prepare for, it is too easy to assume that assignees can just look up what they need to know online. However, just like looking up the symptoms of a medical complaint on the internet, you can find more contradicting solutions than agreed practices.

The assignee should be open-minded and willing to try new things, even if they conflict with their own cultural or societal norms. What do they already know about the country? Are they prepared for their stereotypes of the countries to be debunked or proven?

By encouraging the assignee to undergo cultural training prior to the project, you can help mitigate many of the frustrations experienced through the shock stage of the U-Curve. Scheduling regular check-ins with a cultural expert during the assignment can help unpick the hindrances and irritations that the host destination throws at the assignee.

5. Skills training

Although the assignee may well be posted on the project to fill a skill gap at a local level, specific skills training might also be helpful. Many assignees moving from parts of Asia, for example, are shocked by meeting arrangements in the West where one can easily question the opinions of a superior.

Therefore, it might be worthwhile investing into some skills profiling and subsequent training aimed at debating skills, meetings or presenting ideas.

Equally, how can a usually outspoken assignee quickly adapt to a system where opinion in an open forum is not acceptable or where things are understood through context rather than explicit instruction?

Other things to consider

  • Specific support

If the demographic of international assignees is changing for your company, does your selection and support processes also need to change? If assignees are now more likely to be young and single, rather than older, male and with families, is this reflected in your selection procedure?

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How do you support female assignees, that are still in the minority, but who still face unconscious and conscious bias?

  • Reverse culture shock

This is where a lot of assignees struggle and yet the support at this stage of the assignee cycle is often the weakest.
The assumption is that if the assignee can get through the period abroad, irrespective of the length of it, and is returning to a routine he or she once knew, it should be easy to get back into daily life.

On the contrary, the U-Curve of cultural assimilation kicks in again but much more quickly. Interestingly, it is the shock stage that surprises most, finding irritating things about daily life, people that don’t seem to understand or, all of a sudden, seem small-minded. More importantly the experience of living abroad is discounted, seen as a holiday rather than an important work assignment.

Implementing a good assignee selection process ensures that you have the right person for the assignment with the greatest chance of completing the project successfully.

Recovery can sometimes take longer than in the assignment destination and previous sentiments need to be reconsidered. Therefore, the assignee also needs to be resilient during this period too.

This part is often where companies fail to really support their international assignees and yet a full support plan, not only ensures higher productivity levels, but there is a greater chance the employee will be willing and able to undertake another assignment or to stay a longer time in the company.

Managing expectations

This is not just about managing the expectations of the assignee through language and cultural training and profiling tools. It is also about managing the company’s expectations.

The company needs to be aware that the assignee’s productivity levels are likely to be lower at the start of the project, during the honeymoon and culture shock stages. Therefore, managing the whole journey but especially before and through stages one and two is essential.

The right person for the job

Implementing a good assignee selection process ensures that you have the right person for the assignment with the greatest chance of completing the project successfully.

Global Mobility professionals must ensure there is a thorough selection process that takes into account the destination country and the best profile for that country.

The provision of adequate language, culture and soft skills training for both the assignee and their family as well as repatriation support on their return are fundamental to assignment success.

Get all the above right and you will see your international assignment success rate soar.