Deploying an employee to work overseas on assignment or as a relocation is an investment which can help your organisation take advantage of the global economy. Unfortunately, as is the case with any potentially lucrative investment, international assignments carry a high risk of failure. Expatriate failure can be expensive for your company and an unwelcome experience for the assignee, especially if they are forced to return to the UK prematurely and having not completed their assignment or met their objectives.
An awareness of the common causes of expatriate failure can help your HR department plan a water-tight international relocation strategy, to protect your organisation’s commercial objectives and the employee’s wellbeing and support their ability to perform.
This guide discusses practical steps that HR professionals can take to minimise the chances of expatriate failure, but also to derive the maximum benefit from overseas assignment success. In most cases, international assignments afford the expatriate employee the chance to acquire valuable new skills and experiences, which can be put to good use by the company upon their return.
What do we mean by expatriate failure?
Expatriate failure is a term used to describe any unsatisfactory outcome of sending an employee on an international assignment. This encompasses ‘complete’ failures, which would usually result in the employee returning to the UK without completing the assignment; and ‘partial’ failures, which may include poor performance or failure to achieve specific commercial outcomes.
The cost of expatriate failure
Globally, expatriate failure rates are consistently high due to the mental, emotional and physical strain placed on employees who relocate abroad.
Research has shown that expatriate failure rates are higher among employees sent to developing countries and lower among those sent to economically flourishing countries. In some parts of the world, relocating an employee from the UK carries around a 50% chance of failure.
Successful long-term international assignments typically cost an employer as much as three times the employee’s annual salary.
If the assignment is not a success, your organisation may not see the commercial gains needed to balance the investment and could be forced to spend more money bringing the employee home ahead of schedule.
Beyond the financial cost, there is also the impact of the experience on the employee. They may have been selected for their skills and knowledge, and a premature and unsuccessful return to their home country may impact their confidence and their pride, potentially precipitating a fresh start with a new employer.
Reasons for expatriate failure
There are many factors that can contribute to expatriate failure. Often, failings in the expatriate employee’s support system both at home and abroad are to blame.
In other cases, the assignment was doomed to failure from the outset, as the employer choose the wrong person to send on the overseas project.
If your expatriate employee does not possess the personal qualities necessary to thrive in the new environment, no amount of support provided by the organisation can ensure the assignment is a success. When planning any international relocation, keep the following common causes of expatriate failure in mind.
Poor candidate selection
When there is a lot riding on the success of an overseas project, employers often select their best and brightest employee for the international role with little regard for the other qualities they will need to be successful. While you must choose an employee with the skills and experience necessary to complete the project, personal qualities such as adaptability, open-mindedness and a love of different cultures are arguably more important. To avoid expatriate failure, employers should consider their candidate’s personality, lifestyle, interests and previous experience with foreign cultures. Keep in mind that a ‘love of travel’ will not always translate to expatriate success, especially if the employee in question spends a lot of their travel time in English-speaking areas, around other British people (e.g. at holiday resorts) or in foreign places where they can easily access familiar foods and other items from home.
The following attributes may also minimise the likelihood of expatriate failure:
- The ability to speak a foreign language (even if that language is not spoken in the overseas location, interest in foreign languages suggests interest in other cultures, and a willingness to learn new skills)
- Being single or without children (do not rule out people with dependant families altogether but finding a candidate who could relocate by themselves reduces the chances of expatriate failure being caused by domestic issues)
- Excitement about the project itself (it is not enough simply to find an employee with exceptional skills, they must also be genuinely passionate about the organisation’s goals and feel personally invested in the success of the overseas project)
Inadequate support systems
Comprehensive support structures are essential for international assignment success. Expatriate failure is often caused by lack of practical support in the host country and/or disconnection with the home environment. It is crucial that relocation support does not end as soon as the employee has arrived at their new destination. Your expatriate employee should be assigned a personal mentor in their host country, whose role it is to oversee their adjustment to the new environment and be a first point of contact when they require additional support. You should account for both in-work and personal-life issues when assigning a mentor. Consider that the employee may need assistance with:
- Negotiating the new work environment
- Building social connections outside work
- Organising services like having a phone line installed or making an appointment with a doctor
Just as employers must choose the right employee for an overseas assignment, they must choose the mentor for that employee wisely. If possible, select a mentor with expatriate employee experience so that they can empathise with the relocating employee’s struggles.
Lack of expatriate training
Expatriate failure becomes far more likely in situations where the employee has been given insufficient training prior to the move. Expatriate preparation should not be rushed and must include cultural and language training where applicable, in addition to basic training regarding their role and assignment. Your expatriate employee must be prepared with:
- The language skills necessary to communicate with their colleagues, navigate, purchase provisions and services, and make casual conversation
- Knowledge of cultural and societal norms in their host country (especially any differences which could lead to conflict or cause offence when not acknowledged)
- Basic knowledge of the area in which they will be living and working (e.g. public transport, schools, restaurants and other facilities)
Effective planning is the key to avoiding expatriate failure. Employers must ensure that every aspect of the employee’s new work and living situation has been considered, so that measures can be put in place to prevent problems. International relocation training plans vary in content and structure, depending on location and the duration of time the employee will be abroad. In general, it is wise to allow for at least one month of training time prior to the move. Preferably, this training should be conducted within your employee’s normal working hours.
Employers should develop a plan for structured communication with their overseas employee. Part of your support plan should include keeping the expatriate employee ‘in the loop’ with regular communications from the UK office. Consider assigning a point of contact at home and scheduling weekly or fortnightly update calls or emails. ‘Casual’ communication arrangements are not sufficient as the absence of a structured plan often results in dwindling contact, which may leave the employee feeling isolated.
Make sure your expatriate employee knows who to contact if they require additional support beyond scheduled communications. Your training programme should include making the employee aware of potential issues they may experience while settling into the new environment, such as culture shock, social isolation or domestic difficulties (when relocating with a spouse or child). The employee must understand that such difficulties can ultimately lead to expatriate failure and for that reason, they have a responsibility to report problems and seek assistance. Make it clear that you are keen to offer all necessary support but that you can only do so when you are kept informed about problems, as they arise.
Prepare for repatriation
When planning to avoid expatriate failure, keep in mind that it is not only your employee’s experience abroad that must be considered. Depending on the length of time your employee was overseas, they may need help settling back into the UK work environment. You cannot call the international assignment a success if the employee’s performance or personal wellbeing suffer due to insufficient support when they return home.
Failure to consider the implications of repatriation often results in poor talent management. Consider the fact that the returning employee has likely acquired valuable new skills, knowledge and experience during their time abroad. These are assets to your business that may be wasted by sending the employee back to their previous job role. It may be more appropriate to move the employee to a new role in higher management or an entirely different sector within the company. Ideally, this is something you should consider and discuss with the employee when ironing out your initial plan and the terms of the international relocation. Remember that at every stage of planning, prioritising your employee’s career goals and personal wellbeing is the secret to avoiding costly and disruptive expatriate failure.
DavidsonMorris’ global mobility specialists work with global employers to support development of high-impact talent mobility strategies and programmes. We understand the challenges pf overseas assignments facing both the employer and the employee and can work with you to provide expertise and insight into effective management of assignments to avoid expatriate failure.
Expatriate failure FAQs
What are the major causes of expatriate failure?
A number of reasons are commonly cited for expatriate failure, including social isolation, culture shock, family pressure and responsibility overload. Ultimately, the employer should develop and follow a robust and extensive candidate selection process and provide ongoing support while the employee is overseas to minimise the risk of assignment failure.
How should you select candidates for overseas assignment?
Beyond technical and organisational knowledge and competencies, assignees should also demonstrate an understanding of what the experience will entail and the ability to cope with the full demands of living overseas such as having a positive mindset, showing adaptability in challenging circumstances, language ability, local cultural knowledge and confirmation of family support for the move.
How can DavidsonMorris help?
DavidsonMorris are experienced global mobility advisers, working with global employers to help improve the impact and return on their global mobility programmes. We can provide guidance and insight into how to select and support overseas assignees to minimise the risk of expatriate failure.
Last updated: 2 May 2023