Careful cultural assessment and training can mean the difference between a successful assignment and a costly, failed one. Companies commonly invest $1 million or more in an international assignment, yet about 30 percent of assignees end up returning early – and an alarming 70 percent fall short of the goals established for the assignment. Too often, these failed international relocation assignments are blamed on poor housing choices, unhappy spouses and children or misdirected emotions, when in fact the real reason is cultural disconnection.

Select the right candidate

One of the mistakes companies commonly make is to pick the candidate with the best technical qualifications, with little consideration of how he or she (and his or her family) will function in a different location and culture. For example, it’s typically assumed that a hard-charging, effective New York executive will be equally successful in Tokyo. In fact, taking an employee out of his or her comfort zone can disrupt both professional and personal rhythms, upsetting the family unit and compromising workplace effectiveness. To succeed in a markedly different environment, the candidate (and his or her family) must possess flexibility and a sense of adventure.

Before an offer is made, a certified cross-cultural training provider can use targeted tests and exercises to assess the family’s flexibility and adaptability for an international assignment. Human resources professionals and hiring managers can use this information to determine the likelihood of a successful assignment and even to build a pool of vetted, prospective assignees.

Pre-departure cultural and language training

While planning the assignment, much attention is paid to housing, visa and immigration requirements and schools. Too often language and intercultural training are provided on a limited basis, if at all. This can prove costly. Pre-departure training can give the assignee the communication skills and capabilities to smoothly enter the new working environment. It can also help to give the spouse/partner and family the grounding to better understand the new culture and to put any feelings of dislocation into context.

Ideally, cultural and language training should begin before departure. This time is typically hectic and can be difficult for learning, but it’s important to fit these programs into the schedule.

Destination cultural and language training

Ideally, cultural and language training should not end when the candidate leaves for the assignment. If at all possible, it should continue after the family has arrived at the destination and has begun to settle in — anywhere from two weeks to four months after arrival. It this point the assignee and family are now surrounded by the new culture but are probably not yet one with it.

While the assignee has the benefit of socialization and immersion afforded by the workplace, some family members do not easily integrate into a new culture. They may limit themselves to expatriate neighborhoods, fail to gain at least functional ability in the local language or avoid trying to understand the local culture. This can cause the relocated family to pull away and become depressed.

Continued cultural and language training can give assignees and families the knowledge and confidence they need to reach out and fully embrace the local people and culture, resulting in a smoother transition and a more successful assignment.

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