The process firms used to selecting managers for their domestic and foreign positions obviously have many similarities. For either assignment candidates need the technical knowledge and skills to do the job, and the intelligence and people skills to be successful managers. Testing, interviewing and background checks are as applicable for selecting expatriates as for domestic assignments.
However, foreign assignments are also different. There is the need to cope with colleagues whose culture may be drastically different from one’s own, and the stress that being alone in a foreign land can put on the single manager. And if spouse and children will share the assignments there are the complexities and pressures that the family will have to confront from learning a new language to finding new friends and attending new schools. Furthermore it’s not how different culturally the host country is from the person’s home country, it’s the person’s ability to adapt that’s important. Some people do fine anywhere others fail to adapt anywhere.
Selecting managers for assignments abroad therefore mean testing them for traits that predict success in adapting to new environments. One study asked 338 international assignees from various countries and organization to specify which traits were important for the success of managers on foreign assignment. The researchers identified five factors that contribute to success in such assignments: Job knowledge and motivation, relational skills, flexibility / adaptability extra cultural openness and family situation (spouse’s positive opinion willingness of spouse to live abroad and so on). Figure shows some of the specific items that make up each of the five factors. The five factors were not equally important in the foreign assignees, success, according to the assignees. Family situation was generally found to be the most important factor, a finding consistent with other research on international assignments and transfers. A recent review of the research reports strong support for the importance of factors like interpersonal skills and family adjustment for expatriate adjustment.
With flexibility and adaptability often appearing high in studies like these, adaptability screening is something part of the expatriate screening process. Often conducted by a psychological or psychiatrist adaptability screening aims to assess the assignee’s (and spouse’s) probable success at handling the foreign transfer and to alert them to issues (such as impact on children) the move may involve here, experience is often the best predictor of future success. Companies like Colgate – Palmolive therefore look for overseas candidates whose work and non-work experience education and language skills already demonstrate a commitment to and a facility for living and working with different cultures. Even several successful summers seen traveling overseas or participating in foreign student programs might provide some basis to believe that the potential transferee can adjust when he or she arrives overseas.
Many firms also use paper and pencil tests such as the overseas assignments inventory. This test reportedly identifies the characteristics and attitude international assignments candidates should have. Realistic previews about the problem to expect in the new job (such as mandatory private schooling for the children) as well as about the cultural benefits, problems and idiosyncrasies of the country are another important part of the screening process. The rule, say some experts should always be to spell it all out ahead of time, as many multinationals do for their international transferees.
Unfortunately theory doesn’t always translate into practice. As noted above the importance of adaptability screening notwithstanding, 70% of respondents in one survey listed skills or competencies as the most important selection criteria when choosing candidates for international assignments. They ranked job performance second. The ability to adapt to new cultural conditions – as measured by items like prior international living experience or assignments and familiarity with assignment country – were rarely ranked as most important or second most important. One study found that selection for positions abroad is so informal that the researchers called it the coffee machine system. Two colleagues meet at the office coffee machine, strike up a conversation about the possibility of a position abroad and based on that and little more a selection decision is made. Perhaps this helps explain the high failure rate of foreign assignees.