International Assignments: The Best Or Worst Of Times?

What Talent and Development leaders can do to avoid the “danger zones” of an international assignment and ensure the success of employees a company sends abroad.

I was facilitating a program on Working Globally and was happy to learn that there was an expat from Brazil attending it. During the first break, she told me she learned more in 2.5 hours of our workshop than she learned from the e-learning program the company offered her when she moved to the U.S. She said the e-learning was a total waste of time. During the program, many of her questions about the U.S. were answered and she contributed a great deal of information about the cultural differences between the U.S. and Brazil.

Today’s global economy and culturally diverse workforce require leaders to have the cultural agility to see the world of work from diverse points of view. Few companies know how to create a global talent pipeline. One of the most effective ways to build a company’s global footprint is to send its top managers on an international assignment. This is imperative for an executive position in many companies. However, as in the case above, most companies provide little or no cultural training to their employees going abroad.

Interviews with hundreds of expats reveal opposing views about their international assignment. It either is described as the “best” or “worst” experience in their careers. What can Talent and Development leaders do to avoid the “danger zones” of an international assignment and ensure the success of employees their company sends abroad? Here are some guidelines for T&D professionals to follow:

  1. Take responsibility for the development of your global leaders. An overseas assignment can be the pivotal experience for leaders yet many organizations do not focus on the developmental nature of these assignments. T&D must oversee this development process, but unfortunately, the critical cross-cultural training needed for success often is turned over to the company’s Mobility group, which outsources it to a moving company. Since the training is bundled as a whole mobility package, there is great pressure to provide the cheapest solution—hence, online training. If Talent and Training departments were rewarded for expats’ success, much more attention would be paid to providing best practices in expat training programs.
  2. Provide cultural training for all family members. International assignments are especially hard on the accompanying partner, who often is putting his or her career on hold and losing his or her network of friends. The employee is often busy with work, while any children are busy at school. This can leave the accompanying partner in a foreign country with little to do and no support system.
  3. Customize the training based on the unique situation of the expat and family and location. There is no typical family. Each family brings its own unique experiences to the assignment—single individuals, married couples, those living together, gay, straight, children with or without medical requirements. Hundreds of factors must be taken into consideration when preparing a cross-cultural program for an expat. Some countries are relatively welcoming for expats, while others will force expats to live in isolated compounds. We were training a family where the partner of the expat was very religious and wanted to proselytize for their faith in the new host country. This would have been detrimental to the family’s safety and would have undermined the expat’s status in the country. The family had to rethink its decision in light of this information.
  4. Include ongoing support throughout the assignment. Culture shock can cause employees and their family members to feel anxious, tired, and worse. It is during this period that expats want to go home early. Some family members experience this one month after arriving in their new location, while others may experience this after three to four months. A cross-cultural training program should include follow-up coaching sessions with the employee and family members at least after two months and six months, and should be available any time it is needed. We provide coaching for all expats we train since the expat or family member often holds in issues they need to discuss with a professional coach. There will always be unexpected changes during an assignment. These can be personal (death of a parent), organizational (the company is being acquired), societal, economic and political (tariffs, exchange rates, extremist activities), etc. In most of these cases, a professional cross-cultural coach can provide the guidance necessary to make the right decisions.
  5. Repatriation training should be provided to all expats and family members when they return home. Many expats describe coming home as the most difficult part of their assignment. They often fail to realize how much they—and their organization—have changed while they were overseas. This results in unexpected feelings of being a “stranger in their own land.” Each family member should go through repatriation training. We have encountered many children who hide the fact that they were overseas because they do not want to be seen as different. Companies that provide repatriation training to families prior to and after returning home retain significantly more of their international assignees.
  6. Prepare a succession plan where the expat can apply what he or she has learned. There are documented cases where up to 100 percent of a company’s expats leave their company within a year after returning from an international assignment. The average percentage of employees who leave is 30 to 40 percent; even at this rate, the cost to the organization is significant. The investment in an employee’s international assignment ranges from $400,000 to $1 million. Multiply that by the number of expats who leave and it becomes apparent why companies need to provide comprehensive cultural training. In addition to the financial losses, the loss of international experience and contacts is immeasurable. Many returned expats report that no one ever asked them about their experiences abroad, and few were given a new position where they could apply what they learned. That’s why we incorporate panels of expats to discuss their experiences during the Working Globally workshop. Attendees find these personal stories to be a great capstone to the training.

Share your experiences providing training and development support for your expats or your experience as an expat with me at ngoodman@globaldynamics.com for future columns.

Neal Goodman, Ph.D., is president of Global Dynamics, Inc., a training and development firm specializing in globalization, cultural intelligence, effective virtual workplaces, and diversity and inclusion. He can be reached at 305.682.7883 and at ngoodman@globaldynamics.com. For more information, visit http://www.globaldynamics.com.

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