Four in ten international assignments are judged to be a failure. And yet the number of overseas assignments continues to rise. Global companies are under considerable pressure to determine what makes a successful overseas assignment and to understand why they so often fail.

To minimize the risk of such failure and to ensure the well-being of their employees, organizations must examine the key challenges facing expats deployed overseas, and determine the best way to prepare, support, and manage them during their time abroad.

Challenges of overseas assignments

International companies are realizing that expatriate employees require significant support to complete their assignment successfully.

With 40% of all overseas assignments failing, the cost of failure is high – the average cost of an expat assignment can amount to $311,000 per year.  
It makes financial sense for companies to ensure that they fully prepare and support expatriate employees before, during, and after their overseas assignments.

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Companies sending employees overseas have a moral responsibility and a duty of care to ensure that they understand the legislation and cultural differences in the country assignees are going to.

Some of the most important services that should be available to all expats on overseas international assignments include:

  • Pre-assignment health screening to ensure that the employee is fit for the assignment
  • Cross-cultural training for the entire family
  • Comprehensive travel and medical insurance packages
  • Access to Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) throughout the assignment

Why expatriate assignments fail and how to prevent this failure

According to INSEAD business school, the five main reasons for expatriate assignment failure, which they estimate at 40-50% of all overseas deployments are:

1. You chose the wrong person in the first place

Unless there is a previous track record of success, it is very difficult to isolate the qualities that successful expats require.

2. Lack of local support in the host country

The local branch of the company in the host country has a crucial role to play in supporting newly arrived employees.

3. Disconnection from the home country

It is very important for expats to keep in touch with colleagues and work life back home so that they have a more balanced view of their role within the global organization and are better prepared for repatriation once the assignment is over.

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4. Domestic difficulties

While children and spouses are frequent factors in early repatriation cases, these difficulties are extremely hard to spot because most expats are reluctant to share domestic or social difficulties with the company – the company needs to know that the assignee’s family is coping, and it should explain the need for open communication up-front.

5. Failure to plan

Individuals need time to prepare practically and mentally for an overseas assignment, and an organization needs time to put the right infrastructure in place.

It takes time to choose the right candidate, and to put in place the people required to support them, so effective planning for the overseas international assignment is crucial.

Preparing employees for overseas assignments

Preparation is key to ensuring a successful overseas international assignment and support should be offered throughout the process.

Global Mobility professionals must:

  • Select employees carefully
    Success at home does not necessarily translate into high performance overseas for an employee. It is important to consider soft skills, such as flexibility, self-reliance, tolerance, and the ability to handle change and ambiguity, since these are qualities that point to the likelihood of success in a new environment.
  • Prepare for departure
    This is where companies often fall short – pre-deployment programs such as cross-cultural training and intensive language classes need to be developed and supported financially by the organization.
  • Offer ongoing support
    Proactive, ongoing support versus reactive actions by employers has been found to markedly increase the success rate of expatriate assignments, so this kind of support should be integral to the program.
  • Prepare for repatriation
    This is an often overlooked factor in the success or failure of international assignments — expats need to have sufficient time to prepare for a new environment at home for themselves and their families.

The benefits of overseas assignments

There are numerous benefits for both companies and employees in meeting the challenges of successful overseas international assignments.

Advantages for companies 

  • Expansion into both new and existing markets: By building out a talented workforce abroad, a company can bolster its global influence and revenue
  • Development of top talent: international experience can help train employees for leadership, managerial, and executive roles in the future
  • Streamlined operations: if a company is looking to make moves quickly, sending an existing employee abroad can help streamline operations
  • New perspectives are gained: having employees working overseas can help funnel new perspectives, ideas, and business practices back to headquarters

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Benefits for employees

Likewise, there are significant benefits for employees of working abroad, and expatriates should understand that overseas deployments will often result in benefits not only for the company but for themselves:

  • The potential for career progression
  • An increased salary or compensation in many cases
  • Attractive perks and benefits for the whole family
  • The development of professional skills that could lead to future promotion
  • Enhanced personal experiences and potential opportunities for travel
  • The discovery of new people, traditions, and ways of working
  • Familiarization with new languages and cultures

Managing expatriates on overseas assignments

Research shows that services that prepare, support, and show employees that they are valued typically represent just 1% of the total cost of overseas assignments.

The following tips apply to all global organizations managing expatriates on overseas international assignments:

  • Ensure that your employees are medically fit
  • Make sure that any drugs that the employee/family needs are legal
  • Give cultural training to employees and their families prior to travel
  • Offer intensive language courses for the whole family
  • Sign up for an expatriate Employee Assistance Program
  • Provide international medical insurance

Be prepared 

When it comes to overseas assignments it is really a case of – fail to prepare: prepare to fail. Global mobility professionals must examine the challenges facing the modern assignee and determine the best practices to support and manage them throughout their assignment.

As International Management Consultant Audrey Rowley puts it:

“Successful overseas assignments depend on the individual and the support they receive. After the initial honeymoon period, it is common for employees to feel isolated because of the cultural and language barriers and the separation from friends and family. Having a benefit and support program that starts [at home] and continues throughout the assignment can alleviate the risk of failure, provide employees with support to address any issues, and ensure the assignment is a success for the company and the employee.”