What makes the “ideal expatriate”? Companies that deploy employees abroad are keenly interested in the answer to this question. According to Worldwide ERC, a traditional, long-term international assignment can cost a company $1m or more. In the worst-case scenario, if the expatriate or family are unhappy in the host location and the assignment fails, the company could potentially lose not only this substantial investment but also a valued employee—and usually to a competitor.

According to ECA International, in 2016, up to 7.2% of international assignments were terminated before the actual anticipated or scheduled completion date. The cost of terminating the assignment and repatriating the employee and family are only the beginning. The company faces another talent search to re-fill the role, loss of productivity while the role is vacant and the costs of a new assignment for a replacement employee. Intangible, less easily measured costs include the negative impact on the international assignment candidate’s morale and that of his team and sometimes damage to the company’s reputation in the host location.

Assignments most often fail not because the assignee cannot do the job but rather due to personal and family adjustment issues. Most companies do a fine job of identifying candidates with the necessary technical knowledge and experience to fill a position abroad. Moreover, many gather and maintain preliminary data on their employees’ interest in a potential international assignment, previous international experience, foreign language skills and the like. Unfortunately, at many companies, this is as far as the assessment process goes. Too often, immediate business needs short-circuit the candidate assessment process and the company hastily sends the most technically capable employee abroad—without a proper consideration of whether he is likely to succeed in the host country.

Evaluating an international assignment candidate requires consideration of personal matters that would normally remain…personal. The timing must be right for the potential assignee as well as the company. Is the candidate’s marriage shaky? Is he or she responsible for aging parents or a sick family member? Are the children at a critical time in their schooling? If the answer to any of these questions is “yes”, then it behooves the candidate to remove himself or herself from the current selection process and wait for another opportunity when the timing is better.

Personality traits are also key in determining the fit of an international assignment candidate. There are many assessment tools available to determine if a candidate has the personal qualities that correlate with success in a different environment and culture. According to Grovewell, LLC, these qualities include:

  • Positive self-image
  • Empathy
  • Interest in local culture
  • Tolerance for ambiguity
  • Flexibility
  • Initiative
  • Sociability
  • Open-mindedness

If an assignee does not possess all or most of these traits, research shows that the likelihood of a failed assignment increases substantially.

A solid selection process requires self-reflection, honesty and self-awareness from the candidate. Realize, though, that the candidate is also placing a great deal of trust in you, the employer. He is counting on you to be completely up front on the nature of the role, the company’s culture in the host location (which might be quite different from the home company culture), the business environment in the host country, and the culture, political and safety/security issues in the new location.

A pre-decision trip to the potential host country for the candidate, spouse/partner, and in many cases, any other family members currently residing with the employee, is essential. This trip allows the employee and family to assess the lifestyle they would be assuming and gives the employee the chance to meet with the staff at the host location. Management in the host location can also share their impressions of the candidate with home country management.

Unfortunately, there is never a guarantee that a candidate chosen for an international assignment will be successful. There can be unforeseen circumstances that could cause an abrupt end and a return home for an expatriate. By establishing a thoughtful candidate assessment process, though, companies can reduce the chance of failed assignments and maximize the return on their investment. Many assessment tools are available, and your relocation management company can arrange for third-party candidate assessment services as well.

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