How to Avoid Expatriate Failure

  • Anne Morris

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Deploying an employee to work overseas on assignment or as a relocation is an investment which can help your organisation take advantage of the global economy. Unfortunately, as is the case with any potentially lucrative investment, international assignments carry a high risk of failure. Expatriate failure can be expensive for your company and an unwelcome experience for the assignee, especially if they are forced to return to the UK prematurely and having not completed their assignment or met their objectives.

An awareness of the common causes of expatriate failure can help your HR department plan a water-tight international relocation strategy, to protect your organisation’s commercial objectives and the employee’s wellbeing and support their ability to perform.

This guide discusses practical steps that HR professionals can take to minimise the chances of expatriate failure, but also to derive the maximum benefit from overseas assignment success. In most cases, international assignments afford the expatriate employee the chance to acquire valuable new skills and experiences, which can be put to good use by the company upon their return.

What do we mean by expatriate failure?

Expatriate failure is a term used to describe any unsatisfactory outcome of sending an employee on an international assignment. This encompasses ‘complete’ failures, which would usually result in the employee returning to the UK without completing the assignment; and ‘partial’ failures, which may include poor performance or failure to achieve specific commercial outcomes.

The cost of expatriate failure

Globally, expatriate failure rates are consistently high due to the mental, emotional and physical strain placed on employees who relocate abroad.

Research has shown that expatriate failure rates are higher among employees sent to developing countries and lower among those sent to economically flourishing countries. In some parts of the world, relocating an employee from the UK carries around a 50% chance of failure.

Successful long-term international assignments typically cost an employer as much as three times the employee’s annual salary.

If the assignment is not a success, your organisation may not see the commercial gains needed to balance the investment and could be forced to spend more money bringing the employee home ahead of schedule.

Beyond the financial cost, there is also the impact of the experience on the employee. They may have been selected for their skills and knowledge, and a premature and unsuccessful return to their home country may impact their confidence and their pride, potentially precipitating a fresh start with a new employer.

Reasons for expatriate failure

There are many factors that can contribute to expatriate failure. Often, failings in the expatriate employee’s support system both at home and abroad are to blame.

In other cases, the assignment was doomed to failure from the outset, as the employer choose the wrong person to send on the overseas project.

If your expatriate employee does not possess the personal qualities necessary to thrive in the new environment, no amount of support provided by the organisation can ensure the assignment is a success. When planning any international relocation, keep the following common causes of expatriate failure in mind.

Poor candidate selection

When there is a lot riding on the success of an overseas project, employers often select their best and brightest employee for the international role with little regard for the other qualities they will need to be successful. While you must choose an employee with the skills and experience necessary to complete the project, personal qualities such as adaptability, open-mindedness and a love of different cultures are arguably more important. To avoid expatriate failure, employers should consider their candidate’s personality, lifestyle, interests and previous experience with foreign cultures. Keep in mind that a ‘love of travel’ will not always translate to expatriate success, especially if the employee in question spends a lot of their travel time in English-speaking areas, around other British people (e.g. at holiday resorts) or in foreign places where they can easily access familiar foods and other items from home.

The following attributes may also minimise the likelihood of expatriate failure:

  • The ability to speak a foreign language (even if that language is not spoken in the overseas location, interest in foreign languages suggests interest in other cultures, and a willingness to learn new skills)
  • Being single or without children (do not rule out people with dependant families altogether but finding a candidate who could relocate by themselves reduces the chances of expatriate failure being caused by domestic issues)
  • Excitement about the project itself (it is not enough simply to find an employee with exceptional skills, they must also be genuinely passionate about the organisation’s goals and feel personally invested in the success of the overseas project)

Inadequate support systems

Comprehensive support structures are essential for international assignment success. Expatriate failure is often caused by lack of practical support in the host country and/or disconnection with the home environment. It is crucial that relocation support does not end as soon as the employee has arrived at their new destination. Your expatriate employee should be assigned a personal mentor in their host country, whose role it is to oversee their adjustment to the new environment and be a first point of contact when they require additional support. You should account for both in-work and personal-life issues when assigning a mentor. Consider that the employee may need assistance with:

  • Negotiating the new work environment
  • Building social connections outside work
  • Organising services like having a phone line installed or making an appointment with a doctor

Just as employers must choose the right employee for an overseas assignment, they must choose the mentor for that employee wisely. If possible, select a mentor with expatriate employee experience so that they can empathise with the relocating employee’s struggles.

Lack of expatriate training

Expatriate failure becomes far more likely in situations where the employee has been given insufficient training prior to the move. Expatriate preparation should not be rushed and must include cultural and language training where applicable, in addition to basic training regarding their role and assignment. Your expatriate employee must be prepared with:

  • The language skills necessary to communicate with their colleagues, navigate, purchase provisions and services, and make casual conversation
  • Knowledge of cultural and societal norms in their host country (especially any differences which could lead to conflict or cause offence when not acknowledged)
  • Basic knowledge of the area in which they will be living and working (e.g. public transport, schools, restaurants and other facilities)

Effective planning is the key to avoiding expatriate failure. Employers must ensure that every aspect of the employee’s new work and living situation has been considered, so that measures can be put in place to prevent problems. International relocation training plans vary in content and structure, depending on location and the duration of time the employee will be abroad. In general, it is wise to allow for at least one month of training time prior to the move. Preferably, this training should be conducted within your employee’s normal working hours.

Poor communication

Employers should develop a plan for structured communication with their overseas employee. Part of your support plan should include keeping the expatriate employee ‘in the loop’ with regular communications from the UK office. Consider assigning a point of contact at home and scheduling weekly or fortnightly update calls or emails. ‘Casual’ communication arrangements are not sufficient as the absence of a structured plan often results in dwindling contact, which may leave the employee feeling isolated.

Make sure your expatriate employee knows who to contact if they require additional support beyond scheduled communications. Your training programme should include making the employee aware of potential issues they may experience while settling into the new environment, such as culture shock, social isolation or domestic difficulties (when relocating with a spouse or child). The employee must understand that such difficulties can ultimately lead to expatriate failure and for that reason, they have a responsibility to report problems and seek assistance. Make it clear that you are keen to offer all necessary support but that you can only do so when you are kept informed about problems, as they arise.

Prepare for repatriation 

When planning to avoid expatriate failure, keep in mind that it is not only your employee’s experience abroad that must be considered. Depending on the length of time your employee was overseas, they may need help settling back into the UK work environment. You cannot call the international assignment a success if the employee’s performance or personal wellbeing suffer due to insufficient support when they return home.

Failure to consider the implications of repatriation often results in poor talent management. Consider the fact that the returning employee has likely acquired valuable new skills, knowledge and experience during their time abroad. These are assets to your business that may be wasted by sending the employee back to their previous job role. It may be more appropriate to move the employee to a new role in higher management or an entirely different sector within the company. Ideally, this is something you should consider and discuss with the employee when ironing out your initial plan and the terms of the international relocation. Remember that at every stage of planning, prioritising your employee’s career goals and personal wellbeing is the secret to avoiding costly and disruptive expatriate failure.

Need assistance?

DavidsonMorris’ global mobility specialists work with global employers to support development of high-impact talent mobility strategies and programmes. We understand the challenges pf overseas assignments facing both the employer and the employee and can work with you to provide expertise and insight into effective management of assignments to avoid expatriate failure.

Expatriate failure FAQs

What are the major causes of expatriate failure.

A number of reasons are commonly cited for expatriate failure, including social isolation, culture shock, family pressure and responsibility overload. Ultimately, the employer should develop and follow a robust and extensive candidate selection process and provide ongoing support while the employee is overseas to minimise the risk of assignment failure.

How should you select candidates for overseas assignment?

Beyond technical and organisational knowledge and competencies, assignees should also demonstrate an understanding of what the experience will entail and the ability to cope with the full demands of living overseas such as having a positive mindset, showing adaptability in challenging circumstances, language ability, local cultural knowledge and confirmation of family support for the move.

How can DavidsonMorris help?

DavidsonMorris are experienced global mobility advisers, working with global employers to help improve the impact and return on their global mobility programmes. We can provide guidance and insight into how to select and support overseas assignees to minimise the risk of expatriate failure.

Last updated: 2 May 2023

About DavidsonMorris

As employer solutions lawyers, DavidsonMorris offers a complete and cost-effective capability to meet employers’ needs across UK immigration and employment law, HR and global mobility .

Led by Anne Morris, one of the UK’s preeminent immigration lawyers, and with rankings in The Legal 500 and Chambers & Partners , we’re a multi-disciplinary team helping organisations to meet their people objectives, while reducing legal risk and nurturing workforce relations.

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6 common reasons that lead to expatriate failure

December 14, 2022 |

International assignments can be risky and costly ventures for organizations. In the event of an expatriate failure, the cost – both financially and culturally—can be significant.

Aside from the typical costs of setting up expatriates such as expat training, and relocation expenses, there are potentially high amounts associated with expatriate failure that the organization should acknowldege.

Understanding the true cost of a failed international assignment is essential for employers and their future expats’ global relocation.

Below you can find 6 of the most common causes of expatriate failure.

1. Lack of cultural awareness

A lack of cultural understanding can be one of the main reasons why expatriates fail to achieve success.

failed expatriate assignments

Cultural differences can create significant barriers for expats trying to adjust to life abroad. These may include disagreements with host country managers, language and communication gaps, and many others.

Furthermore, a lack of trust and acceptance is inevitable when foreigners lack knowledge and comprehension of local culture. Which in turn makes it more likely for expatriate failure to occur.

Tip | To increase their chances of success, future expats must learn about the new culture and surroundings. Additionally, HR professionals preparing employees for international assignments should consider offering cross-cultural training as part of the relocation package.

2. Poor communication

Poor communication between expatriates and their home HR or global mobility departments is a major contributing factor to expatriate failure.

failed expatriate assignments

Without transparency and accurate information, expatriates may not have enough resources to succeed abroad.

Additionally, with unclear communication and feedback, foreign employees struggle to grasp cultural differences, business and political contexts, or other variables that might affect expatriate performance.

Tip | Home HR teams must therefore make an effort to bridge the gap between expatriates abroad and employees back home. This will ensure expats receive ongoing progress reports and help in adjusting to their new environments.

3. Insufficient preparation and training

Moving expatriates overseas is an important undertaking, and expatriate failure becomes far more likely in cases of inadequate preparation.

Before sending expatriates on international assignments, employers need to ensure that they are properly equipped with an understanding of the host country’s language, culture and societal norms. Additionally, expats should have a comprehensive grasp of the region they will be living and working in. If these expectations are not met prior to departure, expatriates can expect to face obstacles while abroad. For this reason, it is essential that expat training must receive sufficient priority so expats can hit the ground running after their arrival.

Tip | Develop a pre-assignment training schedule, specifically created not only for the expatriate employees but also for their accompanying family members. They will get the chance to familiarize themselves with the host country they’re going to: the training may include intercultural training sessions, coaching sessions for spouses and kids, or basic and practical details on transportation, education services, and other essentials, etc.

This preparation is crucial in ensuring a smooth transition for everyone involved

4. Poor expatriate selection

Poor expat selection is one of the primary reasons expatriations fail to meet their objectives.

Without proper consideration of expatriates’ skills, motivations, and cultural competencies, many expats might fail. Lack of understanding of local culture and business practice, inadequate preparation, or mismatched skills with the job might cause a very poor ‘adjustment’ to the expatriation process. Leadership should take steps to ensure they choose expats that have the right qualifications and mindset to guarantee successful expatriation efforts on both an individual and organisational level.

Tip | A good way to prevent any future issues is by taking the time to seriously assess the candidates and make sure they are suitable for the specific assignments you have in mind. More than that, ensure not only that they have the right qualifications and skill set, but also have the ability to handle specific challenges for the job or for the location itself.

5. Insufficient support for partners

Expatriate failure due to lack of support for family back in the host country is an all-too-common obstacle in expatriation.

failed expatriate assignments

Challenges faced by expat families include limited recognition of education, language barriers, or conflicting cultural values. All these can contribute to expatriate failure if not adequately supported.

Most expat families need additional assistance with transitioning and establishing a sense of home again while abroad.

As such, employers should provide that essential support that increases the chances of expats remaining successful in their relocation.

Tip | Working expats and their employers should make sure the accompanying partners receive relevant support as well. Expats should make sure their partners came abroad with the right expectations for example. Immigration processes might be very complex and lengthy and there might be times when partners will have to live apart.

Moreover, expats can assist their spouses with finding support groups in the host country, or relevant volunteer or career opportunities.

6. Insufficient repatriation planning

Recent studies have shown that expatriate failure is often the direct result of poor repatriation planning. Organizations need to recognize the importance of announcing repatriation well before an assignment comes to end. This involves preparing the repatriates both practically and emotionally.

Expat success is dependent on the effectiveness of the repatriation process, as expats must adapt back to their home countries and culture while sustaining the enthusiasm they experienced abroad. Organizations that do not take this into account, will witness failed expatriations. More than that, they will incur high costs which they could have avoided.

Tip | The key to successful repatriation is to get started early and communicate on all levels. Companies should stress the importance of their expats’ insights, experiences and knowledge for ongoing organizational success. Keeping this in mind and using it as a motivator will help make sure that expats are engaged and excited about returning home.

Employers should also ensure that their repatriates have access to an adequate support system during this transitionary period – from career counselling services to networking opportunities and more – so they can hit the ground running when they land back at home.

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How to Prevent Failed Expat Assignments?

Learn how your organization can prevent failed expatriate assignments.

There’s more than meets the eye when it comes to an expat assignment. On one side, you’re going to another country with a scenic view as your office backdrop, immersing in new cultures and exploring the city. But internally, it’s uprooting a family from their comfort zone, managing expectations, language barriers, and completing your work in a new country and culture.

The collective stress in settling in a new home and work environment are some of the main reasons expatriate assignments fail. Despite that, more employees are accepting the opportunity to work overseas. Furthermore, global companies are under pressure to produce a bulletproof blueprint on what makes a successful expat assignment. In this article, we will discuss some ways to prevent failed expat assignments.

Failed Expat Assignments are Expensive

More and more companies are expanding globally in search of new markets and profits – hence the need to hire expatriate employees. A failed expat assignment is when a company sends a highly qualified and highly paid specialists on a remote job, just to have them return prematurely or  underperform according to the expectations of the organization. It also includes expats permanently staying overseas or dysfunction after their return. So, why is it so expensive?

The cost to send an employee overseas includes their salary level, the size of the family, and the destination country. There are also moving costs, talent acquisition fees, school charges if there are dependent children, and much more. Plus, non-financial costs include the lack of productivity and the mental and emotional toll on the employee and family. These costs can be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Why Do Expat Assignments Fail?

There are ample reasons as to why expat assignments fail. To minimize the risk of such failure, companies should select employees carefully. And it shouldn’t end there; companies should also prepare for their departure, offer ongoing support, and prepare for repatriation. These key factors ensure the wellbeing of the employees and a thriving expat assignment.

Five Ways You Can Prevent Failed Expat Assignments

So, as you can see above, there are many reasons why global mobility managers will want to ensure the success of an overseas work assignment . Here are three. Furthermore, it is also essential to take these preventive measures:

1. Find employees with the right soft skills

It is critical to find the right person for the job. Expats-to-be shouldn’t just have the hard skills but also soft skills like the openness to adapt and learn new things, independent thinking, and self-reliance. Furthermore, the employee should also be culturally flexible and agile. They should be able to recognize the best strategy to respond to cultural situations. It includes adapting to the country’s new culture without feeling deprived of one’s own and knowing how to compromise when necessary. Learning how to respond instead of reacting to new experiences can smooth our a lot of difficulties in your professional and private life.

Expat Assignments

2. Encourage a Recon Trip

Once you’ve selected your ideal candidate, it would be wise to send them to go check out their new host country. They should get a sense of the country, culture, and customs on their own. In some cases, the candidate or the candidate’s family may feel differently about their decision once they’ve seen the country. It may be disappointing if the candidate decides not to take up the assignment, but the company saves more, and it’s far less damaging than a failed expat assignment. It’s better to know now than later when it’s too late.

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3. Choosing an Employee with a Supportive Family

As much as you are excited about your expat assignment , is your family onboard? It will be a challenge to  convince your partner  to quit their job, uproot the kids from their schools and social circle, and move to a new country. While it is true that family members also benefit from financial perks, they also struggle to adapt to their new home country. If you have kids, then it is essential to help them adapt to their environment by keeping them in the loop all the time. Also, your partner is sacrificing their career, social life, and establishing a new home as you’re settling in your new job.  Although it is a lot of work,  having a family that understands  that it is part of the journey helps prevent failed expat assignments.

How to Prevent Failed Expat Assignments

4. Ensure a Supportive Work Environment

Having a sound support system in your new work office will significantly help you in settling in professionally. The best-case scenario is when your new employer is well prepared for your arrival. Your employer or company should create an environment where you can ask questions and request for guidance during your first week. It will help you navigate your current environment quickly. Moreover, having a personal mentor or sponsor would be ideal. If you don’t have access to a mentor, be proactive, and find a mentor yourself, or talk to your HR. In some cases, your colleagues can help you, too, especially discussing cultural and corporate topics.

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5. Having Comprehensive Global Health Insurance

When it comes to moving to a new country, it is vital to have the right  international health insurance  coverage. Some companies do not provide adequate coverage, forcing employees to find their own insurance companies and policies. Part of a global mobility manager’s duty of care is to offer a comprehensive benefit plan. The plan should fully cover the expatriate employee and any dependents, even trailing dependents.

In other cases, if an employee has a pre-existing condition, then your company should secure a global health plan that will fully cover pre-existing conditions and not require medical underwriting. In essence, this can be a huge factor in your overseas employee’s success abroad. Nobody wants to see a claim that was denied by a substandard plan – so make sure you put in place a high-quality expat benefit plan. It is important to note that most policies have a waiting period for maternity leave and benefits. Not having enough information or adequate coverage will put a significant strain on the expat employee.

A Final Thought on Expat Assignment Success

All of the above measures can assist global mobility managers in preventing expatriate failure. But even if you and your expat employee do everything right, sometimes life abroad just doesn’t work out. As we all know, moving abroad is exciting, but it is not for everyone. All we can do is our best to make sure overseas assignments are as successful as possible.

Be prepared

When it comes to an expat assignment, companies and employees should be fully prepared. Organizations should examine the challenges facing global citizens and expats and offer the support they need. Expats-to-be should also be open to adapt to the  challenges of expat life .

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The 5 biggest reasons for expatriate failure

5 biggest reasons for expatriate failure background | FIDI

International assignments are exciting for the individual, and can be hugely beneficial for the organization. But they are risky too: according to INSEAD, the  proportion of expat assignment failures  can be as high as 50%.

There are a number of reasons – some down to the individual, some to the organization – but any single one of them can result in an early flight home and a huge disappointment for company and assignee alike.

1. You chose the wrong person in the first place

Expatriate talent selection | FIDI

This is the fundamental decision – and one that many companies get wrong. The problem is that, unless there is a precedent (ie you choose an individual with a track record of successful assignments in different countries),  it’s very difficult to isolate the qualities that successful expats need .

Sometimes, an assignee will thrive because they are adaptable; they are both sensitive to their new environment and able to shape their behaviors and lifestyle to fit in with it. However, sometimes the opposite is true. It is equally often noted that a successful expat is one with  a clearly defined set of values  that enables them to perform consistently, professionally and effectively regardless of their social milieu. Clearly, both characteristics are desirable, and ‘compromise’ candidates may be the ones most likely to succeed.

2. Lack of local support

It is not all about the individual. The host country has a crucial role to play, and the most important individual is the host sponsor. Their role is to provide the support in helping the assignee fit in, whether on a social, professional or domestic level –  without their support assignments can go wrong very quickly . Don’t forget that busy work schedules will quickly dominate and leave little time for the assignee to manage their own affairs – and also distract the hosts from their obligation to support the assignee. But if one individual has a clearly defined role to support them, they will not it slip down their list of priorities.

Stay in touch with home base | FIDI

3. Disconnection from home country

It is important to keep in touch with colleagues and work life back home too. The more isolated an assignee is, the more likely they are to reject it – whereas our experience suggests that it is helpful to stay in contact. For this reason, companies are wise to assign a contact who is responsible for  keeping the assignee ‘in the loop’  about developments at home. They not only have a more balanced view of their role within the global organization, but are also better prepared for repatriation once their assignment is over.

4. Domestic difficulties

Family matters teddy bear | FIDI

While children and spouses are frequent factors in early repatriation cases, it is extremely hard to spot because  most assignees are reluctant to share domestic or social difficulties  with the company. They usually believe that any problems will suggest to the company that they are “not up to the job” and therefore paper over the cracks rather than asking for support. Ironically, therefore, the people who could help most are the last to know. To avoid this, frequent and open communication is essential. The company needs to know that the assignee’s family is coping, and it should explain the need for open communication up-front – before they even leave the country. 

5. Failure to plan

In a perfect world, every overseas assignment would be strategically planned and carefully implemented. The truth of modern business is that organizational resource needs can change overnight – so there is sometimes little or no warning. The individual needs  time to prepare practically and mentally  for the assignment, and the organization needs time to put the right infrastructure in place: as mentioned in the last three points, it takes time to choose the right candidate, and to put in place the people required to support them. Sometimes they get away with it; sometimes, it’s no surprise that they’re on one of the first planes home. 


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Reasons for expatriate failure and how HR can help

One of the costliest elements of expat management is expatriate failure. we look at the usual causes and what hr can do to reduce the chance of expats not completing their assignment., what is expatriate failure, reasons for expatriate failure.

A study by Cornell University showed some of the most cited reasons for expatriate failure were:

Culture shock:  The ability to adapt to new and different cultures is key to expatriate success. Professionals who do not possess these skills innately can often struggle in a new environment. A good beginning is not always a sign of success,  culture shock  has many phases and a honeymoon period at the beginning is common.

Family:  Often ignored by companies sending employees abroad, the families of expatriates have a significant impact on their success. If a spouse or child is struggling to settle in to the new environment, it is highly likely to impact on the employee’s performance and willingness to complete the assignment.

How can HR help prevent expatriate failure?

Sending the right people.

Just because an employee has the hard skills needed to excel at a role at home, it does not mean they are the right person to send to do that role abroad. It is essential you are involved from the very beginning of the process and interview potential expatriates to identify those with skills like:

Cultural flexibility: a love of travel may not be an indicator of cultural flexibility if the candidate spent all their time with people from their own country and ate familiar foods most nights. Look for those who love to learn about and interact with people from different cultures.

Enthusiastic communication: was there someone in your office who tried their halting Spanish with a client or wanted to learn some Mandarin from suppliers visiting from China? They may be the right person for an international role as they may be more willing to pick up the local language and adapt their communication style to local norms.

Cosmopolitan outlook: when interviewing potential candidates look for examples of understanding other cultures, whether that is a diverse social network, learning other languages or adapting to another culture while studying or travelling abroad.

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Expat support.

HR support should not end once the expat is in situ. A lack of local support can be a contributory factor to overall expatriate failure so building a support plan once they arrive at their new destination is key. Elements to include are:

Local support: pair the new arrival with a fellow expat or local colleague who can offer them advice on getting set-up in their new country. Things like having cable installed or finding a family doctor can be confusing and very frustrating when you don’t understand the process.

Updates on home country: keep your expats up to date with what is happening in their home office with fortnightly calls or emails from a nominated contact. This helps the person remain in the loop with what is going on in the office but also prepares them for their return home as their assignment comes to an end.

Satisfaction surveys: have employees working abroad complete short satisfaction surveys at regular intervals to identify problems before they become serious. Use the feedback provided to optimise pre-assignment training for future expats.

Plan for repatriation: the companies with the most successful expats took repatriating the employee at the end of their assignment seriously. Unfortunately, many businesses do not take such care. Former expatriates are expected to return to their home office as if they had never left despite the fact colleagues and company objectives may have changed in the time they were away.

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Why 40% of Overseas Assignments Fail and What You Can Do to Prevent It

  • Global Mobility
  • Globalization

Four in ten international assignments are judged to be a failure. And yet the number of overseas assignments continues to rise. Global companies are under considerable pressure to determine what makes a successful overseas assignment and to understand why they so often fail.

To minimize the risk of such failure and to ensure the well-being of their employees, organizations must examine the key challenges facing expats deployed overseas, and determine the best way to prepare, support, and manage them during their time abroad.

Challenges of overseas assignments

International companies are realizing that expatriate employees require significant support to complete their assignment successfully.

With 40% of all overseas assignments failing, the cost of failure is high – the average cost of an expat assignment can amount to $311,000 per yea r. It makes financial sense for companies to ensure that they fully prepare and support expatriate employees before, during, and after their overseas assignments.

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Companies sending employees overseas have a moral responsibility and a duty of care to ensure that they understand the legislation and cultural differences in the country assignees are going to.

Some of the most important services that should be available to all expats on overseas international assignments include:

  • Pre-assignment health screening to ensure that the employee is fit for the assignment
  • Cross-cultural training for the entire family
  • Comprehensive travel and medical insurance packages
  • Access to Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) throughout the assignment

Why expatriate assignments fail and how to prevent this failure

According to INSEAD business school, the five main reasons for expatriate assignment failure, which they estimate at 40-50% of all overseas deployments are:

1. You chose the wrong person in the first place

Unless there is a previous track record of success, it is very difficult to isolate the qualities that successful expats require.

2. Lack of local support in the host country

The local branch of the company in the host country has a crucial role to play in supporting newly arrived employees.

3. Disconnection from the home country

It is very important for expats to keep in touch with colleagues and work life back home so that they have a more balanced view of their role within the global organization and are better prepared for repatriation once the assignment is over.

Further reading

Assignment failure: what is behind it and how to fix it, why mental health should form part of your duty of care policy, out of sight out of mind: why are expats forgotten, 4. domestic difficulties.

While children and spouses are frequent factors in early repatriation cases, these difficulties are extremely hard to spot because most expats are reluctant to share domestic or social difficulties with the company – the company needs to know that the assignee’s family is coping, and it should explain the need for open communication up-front.

5. Failure to plan

Individuals need time to prepare practically and mentally for an overseas assignment, and an organization needs time to put the right infrastructure in place.

It takes time to choose the right candidate, and to put in place the people required to support them, so effective planning for the overseas international assignment is crucial.

Preparing employees for overseas assignments

Preparation is key to ensuring a successful overseas international assignment and support should be offered throughout the process.

Global Mobility professionals must:

  • Select employees carefully Success at home does not necessarily translate into high performance overseas for an employee. It is important to consider soft skills, such as flexibility, self-reliance, tolerance, and the ability to handle change and ambiguity, since these are qualities that point to the likelihood of success in a new environment.
  • Prepare for departure This is where companies often fall short – pre-deployment programs such as cross-cultural training and intensive language classes need to be developed and supported financially by the organization.
  • Offer ongoing support Proactive, ongoing support versus reactive actions by employers has been found to markedly increase the success rate of expatriate assignments, so this kind of support should be integral to the program.
  • Prepare for repatriation This is an often overlooked factor in the success or failure of international assignments — expats need to have sufficient time to prepare for a new environment at home for themselves and their families.

The benefits of overseas assignments

There are numerous benefits for both companies and employees in meeting the challenges of successful overseas international assignments.

Advantages for companies

  • Expansion into both new and existing markets: By building out a talented workforce abroad, a company can bolster its global influence and revenue
  • Development of top talent: international experience can help train employees for leadership , managerial, and executive roles in the future
  • Streamlined operations: if a company is looking to make moves quickly, sending an existing employee abroad can help streamline operations
  • New perspectives are gained: having employees working overseas can help funnel new perspectives, ideas, and business practices back to headquarters

Benefits for employees

Likewise, there are significant benefits for employees of working abroad, and expatriates should understand that overseas deployments will often result in benefits not only for the company but for themselves:

  • The potential for career progression
  • An increased salary or compensation in many cases
  • Attractive perks and benefits for the whole family
  • The development of professional skills that could lead to future promotion
  • Enhanced personal experiences and potential opportunities for travel
  • The discovery of new people, traditions, and ways of working
  • Familiarization with new languages and cultures

Managing expatriates on overseas assignments

Research shows that services that prepare, support, and show employees that they are valued typically represent just 1% of the total cost of overseas assignments.

The following tips apply to all global organizations managing expatriates on overseas international assignments:

  • Ensure that your employees are medically fit
  • Make sure that any drugs that the employee/family needs are legal
  • Give cultural training to employees and their families prior to travel
  • Offer intensive language courses for the whole family
  • Sign up for an expatriate Employee Assistance Program
  • Provide international medical insurance

Be prepared

When it comes to overseas assignments it is really a case of – fail to prepare: prepare to fail. Global mobility professionals must examine the challenges facing the modern assignee and determine the best practices to support and manage them throughout their assignment.

As International Management Consultant Audrey Rowley puts it:

“Successful overseas assignments depend on the individual and the support they receive. After the initial honeymoon period, it is common for employees to feel isolated because of the cultural and language barriers and the separation from friends and family. Having a benefit and support program that starts [at home] and continues throughout the assignment can alleviate the risk of failure, provide employees with support to address any issues, and ensure the assignment is a success for the company and the employee.”

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The Right Way to Manage Expats

  • J. Stewart Black
  • Hal Gregersen

Sending executives abroad is expensive, but most companies don’t get much back for their money. Those that do follow three practices.

In today’s global economy, having a workforce that is fluent in the ways of the world isn’t a luxury. It’s a competitive necessity. No wonder nearly 80 % of midsize and large companies currently send professionals abroad—and 45 % plan to increase the number they have on assignment.

failed expatriate assignments

  • JB J. Stewart Black is a professor of global leadership and strategy at INSEAD and a coauthor of Competing in and with China: Implications and Strategies for Western Business Executives (Thinkers50). Email: [email protected]
  • Hal Gregersen is a Senior Lecturer in Leadership and Innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management , a globally recognized expert in navigating rapid change, and a Thinkers50 ranked management thinker. He is the author of Questions Are the Answer: A Breakthrough Approach to Your Most Vexing Problems at Work and in Life and the coauthor of The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators .

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failed expatriate assignments

Reasons for Expatriate Failure

failed expatriate assignments

Expatriate failure isn’t hugely common, but it still does happen.

Often the reasons for it are either one of two things – personal, or due to insufficient support and help from a global mobility team. Given the life changing nature of such relocations, it is unsurprising that there are sometimes major issues – it’s not a move everyone is going to be able to make. So why does it happen?

1. Culture Shock

Culture shock is often one of the most typical reasons for expatriate failure. It occurs where a candidate is not fully prepared for the new culture their assignment requires them to be a part of, whether there are language barriers, strict laws or customs or even just a totally unfamiliar climate and daily routine. While an element of this can be down to a lack of preparation or insufficient information, often the candidate is simply just not right for the role based on his or her own personality and needs. Culture shock is most common on assignments based in the Middle East, where, especially for women, laws and customs can be debilitating. Yet, for those candidates who are culturally flexible, these assignments can be greatly rewarding.

2. Family Stress

International assignments are already difficult for the individual, and for a family they can often be even harder. Relocating the entire family is difficult: there needs to be spousal support, decisions made about schools, daycare, the partner’s career and even basic things like family healthcare. Language barriers and housing needs can become more complicated and rather than just one person’s ability to adapt to a new culture defining the success of the assignment, it’s an entire family. There are still opportunities and fantastic experiences to be had by sharing in an international assignment, but they are not without their risks.

3. The Global Mobility Team

A suitable and well-organized Global Mobility team are essential to the success of an international assignment. They are responsible for arranging all support for a candidate: information about the local culture, transport, housing, school searches, spousal support and many other vital aspects of daily life. If the team fail to supply adequate information or offer the right support, candidates can often sign up an assignment very different from what they were expecting, costing companies thousands in relocation fees.

4. Responsibility Overload

As well as dealing with the responsibilities of a new job, candidates have to adjust to a new culture and new work environment and the challenges that brings. Trying to manage local staff can often be difficult due to cultural differences, and often staff teams can be larger than a candidate may have before been used to. Overload of responsibility can lead to increased stress, physical exhaustion and emotion impacts such as anxiety, frustration and anger.

5. Poor Candidate Selection

More often than not, the assignment fails because the corporation has made a poor choice in candidate. If a selection is based on headquarters criteria, rather than the assignment needs, or even the candidates needs, the assignment is almost doomed to fail. While someone may appear to be perfect for the role on paper, their own personal needs can often make them the worst candidate overall.

There’s a lot to take into consideration when choosing candidates for assignments. Ultimately a balance needs to be found between a candidates personal needs and their suitability for the responsibilities of the job itself.

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Resources for International Citizens and Expatriates

Understanding and Preventing Expat Failure

HR leader explains how to avoid expat failure

You will first recruit potential expat candidates, select the best, provide pre-departure training and send them off to their new homes. They will, in time, return to HQ more agile and experienced than before, revealing you for the thoughtful, sage professional you are.

Easy, right?  Except that, as in life, the smooth path of expatriation is littered with unforeseen obstacles. The costs of failure, and the risks, are in fact considerably higher for expat workers than for traditional employees. So much so that the topic of expat failure is arguably the very foundation of expatriate research.

In this article, we examine some of the traditional causes of expatriate failure, as well as a series of recommendations to reduce the risk.

Also Read: 5 Common Problems Faced by Expatriates

Understanding Expat Failure

Early expatriate scholars labeled any early end to an assignment as an expat failure. Yet later studies recognized that assignments might end for a variety of reasons, some of which can be positive. Consider, for instance, that one of your recently assigned expatriates returns home early to accept a promotion. For you and the employee, that represents not a failure but a success.

Alternatively, the expatriate may return home early to accept a position with the competition. For you, this is indeed a bad look. For the employee, however, it’s a sweet victory. If the expat return is due to a change in corporate strategy, this may signal failure to the uprooted expat, but not necessarily for the organization. By contrast, both parties are likely to view the assignment as a failure if the expat is recalled home due to poor performance.

Expat & Employer Expectations

A broader definition, therefore, holds that expat failure occurs when they fail to meet employer expectations. As has been noted, failure may result if the expatriate is recalled for poor performance or departs for a better offer with a competitor. But even those assignments performed to their bitter end may be failures if the employee does not meet organizational objectives or performs below expectations.

Failure can even result after the assignment ends. Companies often anticipate that returning expatriates, with their international know-how, will prove a boon to their home organization. Indeed, many are appointed to international assignments to groom them for future leadership positions. Yet, in a significant loss on investment, studies show that around one-quarter of expatriate employees leave their employers within two years of their return – often for better jobs elsewhere or due to dissatisfaction with their reintegration to the home office.

The High Cost of Expatriate Failure

The exact failure rate is hard to specify given all of these possible causes, and scholars offering estimates have faced criticism from their more data-driven peers. Yet, consider the warning signs reported in one study. The authors found that over two-thirds of expatriates experienced stress relating to their job performance within their first four months on assignment. Another two-thirds reported concerns about their relationship with their new boss. At the 8-month mark, the situation had improved somewhat, but around half were still expressing concerns.

Organizational Consequences of Expat Failure

The consequences to the organization of such failures are notable, including costs estimated at $1.2 million per expatriate. This hefty price tag comes from the boost to salary that is typically needed to incentivize employees to go abroad. There are also relocation fees, cost of living adjustments, pre-departure training and orientation, and more. Organizations pay for the failures of international staff through loss of reputation with clients and customers. Similarly, other employees may hesitate to accept international assignments when observing their expat co-workers’ shortcomings.

Consequences for an Expatriate

Arguably, an expat experiences an even higher cost of failure than the organization, with failure imposing psychological costs as well as professional and financial burdens. Because expatriates are often chosen precisely because they are among the organization’s best domestic performers, these historic high achievers may be particularly unsuited to handle the stress of failure.

A study from 2007 showed that 45% of the expatriates in their study reported feeling “overwhelmed” with overwork.  Also notable is that 51% felt more overworked than at home. Nearly 50% worked 50 or more hours each week. Outside of the academic research sphere, 2022 research by Cigna Global shows similar issues, with 89% of respondents indicating they were “always on” for work and 98% reporting symptoms of burnout.

Other studies suggest that unsuccessful expatriates may experience losses of self-esteem, confidence, professional reputation, motivation, and a reduced appetite for any future international assignments – even when the causes for failure were beyond their control.

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Expat Failure: What it (Usually) Isn’t

So, what are the causes of expat failure? It may be tempting to assume that job skills are the main determinant of expat success and that the lack thereof is the main cause of expat failure. In fact, skills are the primary characteristic that many organizations use to select expats. And ensuring a match between an expatriate’s skills and the needed on-assignment skills is important, as is providing expatriates with the role clarity needed to understand what is expected of them.

Yet studies suggest that failure is rarely a matter of insufficient or mismatching skills. The reason? Expatriates tend to perform tasks abroad that are similar to those they were performing at home.

Expat Failure: What it (Often) Is

Instead, the leading risk of expat failure is difficulty adjusting to the new culture, family stress and simple overload of responsibility. (For more detail on this, read How to Become an Expat – Successfully .) The greater the cultural difference between an expatriate’s home country and the host country, the more significant these challenges are likely to be.

Challenges also arise for many expats and their families when foreign national communities are small or local communities are insular and unwelcoming. These environments can cause difficulty for expatriates in making new friends or feeling a part of the community.

Pre-Departure Training

Extensive pre-departure training provides a ready solution for these issues. But some organizations neglect to provide any pre-departure training. Others fail to realize its full benefits by offering simplistic or outdated seminars. In addition, studies show time and again the importance of well-adjusted spouses and children. This emphasizes the importance of including family members in certain pre-departure training and orientation.

Expatriates may also have the right technical skills to succeed but the wrong social skills or personality traits. For instance, more outgoing, charismatic and ambitious employees tend to adjust better to their host environments. In addition, employees’ patience, curiosity and openness to new experiences are particularly important in the international context. Unsurprisingly, prior international experience also predicts future success. Thus, selecting the right employee is a key step in the expatriate process.

Support from Management

Finally, employees expect heightened support from their organizations when going on international assignments. When expats feel unsupported, they may lose their motivation to perform or seek alternative employment.

Expat expectations include workplace features such as salary hikes and improved benefits, improved professional opportunities and performance management systems adapted to the international assignment. Furthermore, support may be needed to ensure that the expatriate stays well connected to HQ and that opportunities for professional advancement remain or improve once on international assignments.  In addition, however, expected support may include non-work needs, such as helping staff members to find a new home or a spouse find a new job.

From Expatriate Failure to Expatriate Success

The risk of expatriate failure is, consequently, a real risk bearing down on both employer and employee. And yet, the research is clear that expatriates offer significant benefits to their employers, from connecting HQ with distant offices to sharing best practices and equitably distributing top talent. The challenge and opportunity for HR professionals, then, is to leverage such opportunities while minimizing risks.

How to do this? Through careful attention to all stages of the expatriate management process. From employee selection to pre-departure training and preparation to ongoing support throughout the assignment and on return, HR professionals can set expats up for success.

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About the Author

Dr. Thomas J. Bussen, with a Doctorate of Business Administration, JD, and MBA, is an Assistant Teaching Professor at Miami University’s Farmer School of Business, and a former professor at the African Leadership University and the American University of Central Asia.  He is the author of several books, including Shaping the Global Leader and Compliance Management: A How-to Guide . His latest book, Enlightened Self-Interest: Individualism, Community and the Common Good, makes the case for a more inclusive and equitable professional mindset and is expected for release in 2023 with Georgetown University Press.

Sources and Further Reading

Kraimer, M. L., Shaffer, M. A., & Bolino, M. C. (2009). The influence of expatriate and repatriate experiences on career advancement and repatriate retention.  Human Resource Management: Published in Cooperation with the School of Business Administration, The University of Michigan and in alliance with the Society of Human Resources Management ,  48 (1), 27-47.

Lazarova, M., & Caligiuri, P. (2001). Retaining repatriates: The role of organizational support practices.  Journal of world business ,  36 (4), 389-401.

Mesmer-Magnus, J. R., & Viswesvaran, C. (2007). Expatriate management: A review and directions for research in expatriate selection, training, and repatriation.  Handbook of research in international human resource management , 197-220.

Suutari, V., & Brewster, C. (2001). Expatriate management practices and perceived relevance: Evidence from Finnish expatriates.  Personnel Review .

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