Overcoming Reluctance to Accept a Foreign Assignment

Concerns for career and family are the most frequently mentioned reasons for a manager to refuse a foreign assignment. The most important career related reservation is the fear that a two or three year absence will adversely affect opportunities for advancement. This out of sight out of mind fear (as exemplified in the opening Global Perspective) is closely linked to the problems of repatriation. Without evidence of advance planning to protect career development, better qualified and ambitious personnel may decline the offer to go abroad. However, if candidates for expatriate assignments are picked thoughtfully returned to the home office at the right moment, and rewarded for good performance with subsequent promotions at home, companies find recruiting of executives for international assignments eased.

Even though the career development question may be adequately answered with proper planning, concern for family may interfere with many accepting an assignment abroad. Initially most candidates are worried about uprooting a family and settling into a strange environment. Questions about the education of the children isolation from family and friends proper health care and in some countries the potential for violence reflect the misgivings a family faces when relocating to a foreign country. Special compensation packages have been the typical way to deal with this problem. A hardship allowance, allowances to cover special educational requirements that frequently include private schools, housing allowances and extended all expenses paid vacation are part of compensation packages designed to overcome family related problems with an overseas assignment. Ironically, the solution to one problem creates later problems when that family returns to the United States and must give up those extra compensation benefits used to induce them to accept the position.

Reducing the rate of early returns:

Once the employee and family accept the assignment abroad, the next problem is keeping them there for the assigned time. The attrition rate of those selected for overseas positions can be very high, although some studies have suggested it is declining overall. One firm with a hospital management contract experienced an annualized failure rate of 20 per cent – not high when compared with the construction contractor who started out in Saudi Arabia with 155 Americans and was down to 65 after only two months.

The most important reasons are that a growing number of companies are including an evaluation of an employee’s family as a selection criteria, the high cost of sending an expatriate abroad and increasing evidence that unsuccessful family adjustment is the single most important reason for expatriate dissatisfaction and the resultant request for return home. In fact a study of personnel directors of over 300 international firms find that the inability of the manager’s spouse to adjust to a different physical or cultural environment was the primary reason for an expatriate’s failure to function effectively in a foreign assignment . One researcher estimated that 75 per cent of families sent to a foreign post, experience adjustment problems with children or have marital discord. One executive suggested that there is so much pressure on the family that if there are any cracks in the marriage and you want to save it, think long and hard about taking a foreign assignment.

Dissatisfaction is caused by the stress and trauma of adjusting to new and often strange cultures. The employee has less trouble adjusting than the family members of a company’s expatriate moves in a familiar environment even abroad and is often isolated from the cultural differences that create problems for the rest of the family . And about half of American expatriate employees receive cross cultural training before the trip – much more often than their families. Family members have far greater daily exposure to the new culture but are often not given assistance in adjusting. New consumption patterns must be learned from grocery shopping to seeking healthcare services. Family members frequently cannot be employed and in many cultures, female members of the family face severe social restrictions . In Saudi Arabia for example the women’s role is strictly dictated. In one situation, a women’s hemline offended a religious official who, in protest sprayed black paint on her legs. In short, the greater problems of culture shock befall the family. Certainly any recruiting and selection procedure should include an evaluation of the family’s ability to adjust.

Families that have the potential and the personality traits that would enable them to adjust to a different environment may still become dissatisfied with living abroad if they are not properly prepared for new assignments.

Excerpts from International Marketing