Sending employees to live and work abroad enhances their cross-cultural experience and helps multinational organisations to improve their global coordination. An article by Richard Justenhoven.
Colleagues in the receiving office can benefit from new perspectives and expertise which can help them to enhance their productivity and expand into new markets. However, significant costs and challenges are involved in arranging international assignments. The most important factor for success is choosing the right people for the roles. Get this wrong and you risk spectacular failure. Unsettled individuals won’t perform to their full potential, so you’ll achieve few of the benefits but you’ll pay all of the costs. You might even lose the employee as they may feel so disillusioned, demotivated and traumatised by the experience, they’ll leave your company.
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. There’s more to this than identifying a capable high flyer who is keen on an international assignment. 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.
Key qualities and values
I left Hamburg for a 15-month assignment in London, so I have first-hand experience of everything being different in an international role: the job is new, the pressures are new, the culture is new and the city is new. Of course, you’re prepared for much of this but often it’s the little things that surprise you. Not only with the working culture – including dealing with bureaucracy and issues of punctuality and timeliness – but what to do at the weekends and finding that everyone eats out nearly every night, when you’re used to cooking at home. Culturally, Hamburg and London are not too dissimilar – and London is highly multi-cultural – so adjusting to the new cultural norms was easier for me than moving from the Western world to the Far East, for example. The point is that the individual needs to preserve some mental energy to cope with the ‘newness’ and the different behaviours they’ll encounter. It doesn’t help if you have fixed or distorted expectations of what the experience will be like.
This need for an open mindset was one of the key findings in a research study* undertaken by Aon's Assessment Solutions, which 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 challenge-oriented and 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.
Language proficiency is also important. It’s frustrating if you’re not able to express yourself or support your argument effectively because you can’t find the right words. An individual’s language skills will certainly improve through an international posting but there are some countries where the language issue will be a primary concern. For example, if you speak English but no other languages, you’d find it easier to live and work in a European capital – where the locals can often help you out – than you would in Chengdu, China, where few of the population would speak English.
HR Directors need to consider four perspectives when planning an international work assignment:
1. The parent company. Sending an employee abroad can help you to cascade knowledge, introduce consistent processes and share expertise. This can enhance your company’s operational performance in the 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. 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. Make sure they’re aware of what they’re letting themselves in for.
4. 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 competencies listed above, 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.
Importantly, the spouse or partner of each candidate should also take the personality questionnaire, so you can understand how likely they are to thrive in the new country. Knowing of any ‘family risks’ in advance may influence your choice of candidate. It can also help you to provide the right support. 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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