Why do so many expat experiences fail?

3rd August 2003, Comments 0 comments

Foreign postings are keenly contested in most organisations - so if people are so keen to go, why do so many want to come home early?

Working abroad can be a tough assignment - even for seasoned professionals - but things may be getting tougher. Recent research has shown that, increasingly, workers being sent overseas are likely to be international novices.

The 2001 Global Relocation Trends Survey - co-sponsored by US-based GMAC Global Relation Services, the National Foreign Trade Council and SHRM Global Forum - revealed that 75 percent of overseas assignees surveyed from 150 multinational companies had no previous international experience, compared with 45 percent in past surveys.

Especially for first-timers, it is important to carefully consider a foreign assignment before accepting it, says Margaret Shaffer, a professor of management at Hong Kong Baptist University who studies relocation issues.

Shaffer's interest in relocation has been inspired by her own experience.

She first came to Hong Kong for a four-year stint in 1978 and has been back in the region since 1995. Shaffer says there are several essential issues to think about before accepting a job abroad.

Career prospects

When your boss asks you to consider an international post, the first question to ask should be asked of yourself about your career: What are my goals, and will I have the resources to achieve those goals in the post?

On this subject, your company might not be much help - 35 percent of the companies surveyed in the Global Relocation Survey say they have no idea what effect an international assignment has on their employees' careers.

Half the companies surveyed don't track attrition rates.

But anecdotal evidence from the survey and Shaffer's own research suggests that many companies have problems bringing employees back into the fold after a foreign posting.

Reverse culture shock can be a problem, as can be adjusting to moving from a foreign assignment's corner office back into home office's cubicle maze.

Reports of dissatisfaction upon return are commonplace, Shaffer says.

She advises people looking at taking up an overseas posting to seek assurances that there will be a position waiting for them when they return. (Few companies give such guarantees - only 34 percent, according to the survey.)

"If so, will that position tap into newly learned skills? Some expats I've talked to have been frustrated on return. [They] come back doing the same thing they did before they left," Shaffer says.

Still, 36 percent surveyed believe an international assignment can put careers on the fast track.

Is your company one of them? "Talk to other people who have been overseas, [with] the company and outside. Probe as to why you're being sent.

"Some companies specifically ask to send [people] to gain international experience. Most [send people] to solve an immediate problem. Sometimes, they send people to get [them] out of their hair," she says.

Does your company have a strong support programme to help your career from suffering culture shock?

To keep a connection with home office, find a mentor there "so you don't get this feeling of out of sight, out of mind," suggests Shaffer.

Family concerns

The biggest reason for a failed relocation comes down to family. Spouse and family issues account for 90 percent of employees who leave a foreign post early.

Most of those who take international assignments - nearly 70 percent - are married and most take their spouse and family along.

"This is one thing companies probably don't pay attention to - helping get families adjusted," says Shaffer.

Know what support systems are available to you: Who do you contact, both at your home office and foreign office, to handle family-relate d issues? Families want language training, resources for finding schools, places to shop and doctors.

And safety is increasingly becoming a concern, both from crime and health risks.

"If you have a child with asthma, that can be a problem in China where so many cities are so polluted," she says.

Can your spouse legally work in the country to which you are heading?

If your spouse is leaving his or her job, will your company provide support for the continuation of their career, such as funding trips to seminars, paying for college classes, or even helping them to find a new job?

A foreign assignment can be an exciting family experience.

But any family problems you have at home will be worse abroad.

"Don't take this thinking it's going to solve problems," says Shaffer. "If you're having marital problems, or your kids have emotional problems, probably the worst thing to do is go overseas."

Timing and expectations

Timeframe is a big issue.

Although many people are sent for a "short-term assignment" of less than two years, those deadlines are often lengthened.

"Things take a little longer in most Asian countries to get done," she says. "US and Europe-based companies aren't always sensitive to that."

Another thing to ask your company: Do the expectations of the home office and the host country conflict?

"Many complain of contradictory expectations," Ms. Shaffer says.

"The home office may see them[selves] in a control-related position, making sure things are done the same locally as they are globally."

On the other hand, employees in the host country often feel that the newcomer has come to train them, so that operations can eventually be handed over to a local person, she says.

Ms. Shaffer also suggests finding out what training your company will give you to handle intercultural encounters.

"Most are well trained on the technical aspects of the job, but negotiation skills, local interpersonal relationships - that becomes more problematic with cross-cultural issues," she says.

Talk to workers in the country you're going to before taking the position. Make sure you can get on with them before you take the plunge.

Kevin Voigt is a correspondent to The Wall Street Journal.

Subject: Expat careers

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