International assignments provide cross-cultural experience for individuals and they help employers to improve their global coordination, cascade knowledge, introduce consistent processes and share expertise. The most important factor for success is choosing the right people for the roles. Unsettled employees won’t perform to their full potential, so you’ll achieve few of the benefits but you’ll pay all of the costs.
To minimise this risk, HR Directors have to look beyond the technical skills of potential expatriate candidates and ensure that they choose the right people for the right reasons. The good news is that it’s now possible to predict which individuals will adapt well to a new culture, cope with the personal and professional challenges and be satisfied and successful working abroad.
A recent research study* undertaken by Aon's Assessment Solutions identified the personal characteristics of successful expatriates. It found that top performing expatriates have a specific profile. For example, they have self confidence and emotional stability; they are open-minded and challenge-oriented; they have strong interpersonal skills, self-sufficiency and a sense of humour. To help them perform at work, they have the flexibility to adjust to different business practices, as well as cross-cultural sensitivity, resilience and an openness to change.
A cross-cultural assignment can be a significant and beneficial development experience for an individual. It can broaden their horizons and instil a global perspective. However, considerable stress is involved in relocating to a new country and coping with the personal and professional challenges involved. So it is important to make sure that they’re fully aware of what they’re letting themselves in for.
Three other perspectives need to be considered when planning an international work assignment:
1. The parent company. Sending an employee abroad can enhance your company’s operational performance in a chosen country. The costs to consider include healthcare, housing, school fees for children and the expense of relocation. However, offering international postings can enhance your employer brand and help you to attract and retain global talent, as it provides a development path and an incentive to join and stay with your organisation.
2. The receiving office. A crucial success factor is how the colleagues in the receiving office will welcome the new worker. They’ll need to adjust to work effectively with the new person and to appreciate their skills and insights. Managing their expectations and explaining the new person’s role and remit will be important.
3. The employee’s family. Some companies underestimate the importance of the individual’s spouse or partner. They may provide practical help to help family members settle, however they fail to appreciate that the family’s experience can make or break the success of the entire assignment. Regardless of whether the employee is happy in their new environment, if their spouse, partner or children are unhappy – for example if they feel isolated and unable to speak the language – it will impact on the employee’s ability to perform in the workplace. The spouse/partner is therefore a critical decision maker.
To choose the right individuals, the starting point is to ask employees – and their spouses – whether they’d accept an international assignment. You can identify the strengths and ‘risk areas’ for each candidate using a personality questionnaire that covers individual, job-related values, motives and interests. This will help you to select those who are most likely to perform well in an international posting.
Some questionnaires will provide a ‘cultural adaptation report’, outlining the individuals’ strengths and weaknesses in adapting to a new culture, with advice and guidelines on how they can improve. If an individual is strong on all of the required competencies, they’d be suited to any international assignment; those who are less strong may be suited to a role in a culture that’s similar to their home country.
Cultural orientation programmes will benefit the chosen candidates and their families. Allow them to visit their target city, to decide on practical aspects such as living locations, schools and medical care. This helps to avoid the onset of culture-shock.
By carefully selecting the right candidates for international assignments, you can ensure that the expectations of the individuals, their family members and the organisation are met, and that all parties benefit fully from the opportunity.
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