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  • 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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failed expatriate assignments

How to Avoid Expatriate Failure

Anne morris.

phased retirement


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

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Founder and Managing Director Anne Morris is a fully qualified solicitor and trusted adviser to large corporates through to SMEs, providing strategic immigration and global mobility advice to support employers with UK operations to meet their workforce needs through corporate immigration.

She is a recognised by Legal 500 and Chambers as a legal expert and delivers Board-level advice on business migration and compliance risk management as well as overseeing the firm’s development of new client propositions and delivery of cost and time efficient processing of applications.

Anne is an active public speaker, immigration commentator , and immigration policy contributor and regularly hosts training sessions for employers and HR professionals

  • Anne Morris https://www.davidsonmorris.com/author/anne/ UK Visa Supporting Documents Checklist 2024
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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.

Legal Disclaimer

The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct at the time of writing, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.

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Managing International Assignments

International assignment management is one of the hardest areas for HR professionals to master—and one of the most costly. The expense of a three-year international assignment can cost millions, yet many organizations fail to get it right. Despite their significant investments in international assignments, companies still report a 42 percent failure rate in these assignments. 1

With so much at risk, global organizations must invest in upfront and ongoing programs that will make international assignments successful. Selecting the right person, preparing the expatriate (expat) and the family, measuring the employee's performance from afar, and repatriating the individual at the end of an assignment require a well-planned, well-managed program. Knowing what to expect from start to finish as well as having some tools to work with can help minimize the risk.

Business Case

As more companies expand globally, they are also increasing international assignments and relying on expatriates to manage their global operations. According to KPMG's 2021 Global Assignment Policies and Practices Survey, all responding multinational organizations offered long-term assignments (typically one to five years), 88 percent offered short-term assignments (typically defined as less than 12 months), and 69 percent offered permanent transfer/indefinite length.

Managing tax and tax compliance, cost containment and managing exceptions remain the three principal challenges in long-term assignment management according to a 2020 Mercer report. 2

Identifying the Need for International Assignment

Typical reasons for an international assignment include the following:

  • Filling a need in an existing operation.
  • Transferring technology or knowledge to a worksite (or to a client's worksite).
  • Developing an individual's career through challenging tasks in an international setting.
  • Analyzing the market to see whether the company's products or services will attract clients and users.
  • Launching a new product or service.

The goal of the international assignment will determine the assignment's length and help identify potential candidates. See Structuring Expatriate Assignments and the Value of Secondment and Develop Future Leaders with Rotational Programs .

Selection Process

Determining the purpose and goals for an international assignment will help guide the selection process. A technical person may be best suited for transferring technology, whereas a sales executive may be most effective launching a new product or service.

Traditionally, organizations have relied on technical, job-related skills as the main criteria for selecting candidates for overseas assignments, but assessing global mindset is equally, if not more, important for successful assignments. This is especially true given that international assignments are increasingly key components of leadership and employee development.

To a great extent, the success of every expatriate in achieving the company's goals in the host country hinges on that person's ability to influence individuals, groups and organizations that have a different cultural perspective.

Interviews with senior executives from various industries, sponsored by the Worldwide ERC Foundation, reveal that in the compressed time frame of an international assignment, expatriates have little opportunity to learn as they go, so they must be prepared before they arrive. Therefore, employers must ensure that the screening process for potential expatriates includes an assessment of their global mindset.

The research points to three major attributes of successful expatriates:

  • Intellectual capital. Knowledge, skills, understanding and cognitive complexity.
  • Psychological capital. The ability to function successfully in the host country through internal acceptance of different cultures and a strong desire to learn from new experiences.
  • Social capital. The ability to build trusting relationships with local stakeholders, whether they are employees, supply chain partners or customers.

According to Global HR Consultant Caroline Kersten, it is generally understood that global leadership differs significantly from domestic leadership and that, as a result, expatriates need to be equipped with competencies that will help them succeed in an international environment. Commonly accepted global leadership competencies, for both male and female global leaders, include cultural awareness, open-mindedness and flexibility.

In particular, expatriates need to possess a number of vital characteristics to perform successfully on assignment. Among the necessary traits are the following:

  • Confidence and self-reliance: independence; perseverance; work ethic.
  • Flexibility and problem-solving skills: resilience; adaptability; ability to deal with ambiguity.
  • Tolerance and interpersonal skills: social sensitivity; observational capability; listening skills; communication skills.
  • Skill at handling and initiating change: personal drivers and anchors; willingness to take risks.

Trends in international assignment show an increase in the younger generation's interest and placement in global assignments. Experts also call for a need to increase female expatriates due to the expected leadership shortage and the value employers find in mixed gender leadership teams. See Viewpoint: How to Break Through the 'Mobility Ceiling' .

Employers can elicit relevant information on assignment successes and challenges by means of targeted interview questions with career expatriates, such as the following:

  • How many expatriate assignments have you completed?
  • What are the main reasons why you chose to accept your previous expatriate assignments?
  • What difficulties did you experience adjusting to previous international assignments? How did you overcome them?
  • On your last assignment, what factors made your adjustment to the new environment easier?
  • What experiences made interacting with the locals easier?
  • Please describe what success or failure means to you when referring to an expatriate assignment.
  • Was the success or failure of your assignments measured by your employers? If so, how did they measure it?
  • During your last international assignment, do you recall when you realized your situation was a success or a failure? How did you come to that determination?
  • Why do you wish to be assigned an international position?

Securing Visas

Once an individual is chosen for an assignment, the organization needs to move quickly to secure the necessary visas. Requirements and processing times vary by country. Employers should start by contacting the host country's consulate or embassy for information on visa requirements. See Websites of U.S. Embassies, Consulates, and Diplomatic Missions .

Following is a list of generic visa types that may be required depending on the nature of business to be conducted in a particular country:

  • A work permit authorizes paid employment in a country.
  • A work visa authorizes entry into a country to take up paid employment.
  • A dependent visa permits family members to accompany or join employees in the country of assignment.
  • A multiple-entry visa permits multiple entries into a country.

Preparing for the Assignment

An international assignment agreement that outlines the specifics of the assignment and documents agreement by the employer and the expatriate is necessary. Topics typically covered include:

  • Location of the assignment.
  • Length of the assignment, including renewal and trial periods, if offered.
  • Costs paid by the company (e.g., assignment preparation costs, moving costs for household goods, airfare, housing, school costs, transportation costs while in country, home country visits and security).
  • Base salary and any incentives or allowances offered.
  • Employee's responsibilities and goals.
  • Employment taxes.
  • Steps to take in the event the assignment is not working for either the employee or the employer.
  • Repatriation.
  • Safety and security measures (e.g., emergency evacuation procedures, hazards).

Expatriates may find the reality of foreign housing very different from expectations, particularly in host locations considered to be hardship assignments. Expats will find—depending on the degree of difficulty, hardship or danger—that housing options can range from spacious accommodations in a luxury apartment building to company compounds with dogs and armed guards. See Workers Deal with Affordable Housing Shortages in Dubai and Cairo .

Expats may also have to contend with more mundane housing challenges, such as shortages of suitable housing, faulty structures and unreliable utility services. Analyses of local conditions are available from a variety of sources. For example, Mercer produces Location Evaluation Reports, available for a fee, that evaluate levels of hardship for 14 factors, including housing, in more than 135 locations.

Although many employers acknowledge the necessity for thorough preparation, they often associate this element solely with the assignee, forgetting the other key parties involved in an assignment such as the employee's family, work team and manager.

The expatriate

Consider these points in relation to the assignee:

  • Does the employee have a solid grasp of the job to be done and the goals established for that position?
  • Does the employee understand the compensation and benefits package?
  • Has the employee had access to cultural training and language instruction, no matter how similar the host culture may be?
  • Is the employee receiving relocation assistance in connection with the physical move?
  • Is there a contact person to whom the employee can go not only in an emergency but also to avoid becoming "out of sight, out of mind"?
  • If necessary to accomplish the assigned job duties, has the employee undergone training to get up to speed?
  • Has the assignee undergone an assessment of readiness?

To help the expatriate succeed, organizations are advised to invest in cross-cultural training before the relocation. The benefits of receiving such training are that it: 3

  • Prepares the individual/family mentally for the move.
  • Removes some of the unknown.
  • Increases self-awareness and cross-cultural understanding.
  • Provides the opportunity to address questions and anxieties in a supportive environment.
  • Motivates and excites.
  • Reduces stress and provides coping strategies.
  • Eases the settling-in process.
  • Reduces the chances of relocation failure.

See Helping Expatriate Employees Deal with Culture Shock .

As society has shifted from single- to dual-income households, the priorities of potential expatriates have evolved, as have the policies organizations use to entice employees to assignment locations. In the past, from the candidate's point of view, compensation was the most significant component of the expatriate package. Today more emphasis is on enabling an expatriate's spouse to work. Partner dissatisfaction is a significant contributor to assignment failure. See UAE: Expat Husbands Get New Work Opportunities .

When it comes to international relocation, most organizations deal with children as an afterthought. Factoring employees' children into the relocation equation is key to a successful assignment. Studies show that transferee children who have a difficult time adjusting to the assignment contribute to early returns and unsuccessful completion of international assignments, just as maladjusted spouses do. From school selection to training to repatriation, HR can do a number of things to smooth the transition for children.

Both partners and children must be prepared for relocation abroad. Employers should consider the following:

  • Have they been included in discussions about the host location and what they can expect? Foreign context and culture may be more difficult for accompanying family because they will not be participating in the "more secure" environment of the worksite. Does the family have suitable personal characteristics to successfully address the rigors of an international life?
  • In addition to dual-career issues, other common concerns include aging parents left behind in the home country and special needs for a child's education. Has the company allowed a forum for the family to discuss these concerns?

The work team

Whether the new expatriate will supervise the existing work team, be a peer, replace a local national or fill a newly created position, has the existing work team been briefed? Plans for a formal introduction of the new expatriate should reflect local culture and may require more research and planning as well as input from the local work team.

The manager/team leader

Questions organization need to consider include the following: Does the manager have the employee's file on hand (e.g., regarding increases, performance evaluations, promotions and problems)? Have the manager and employee engaged in in-depth conversations about the job, the manager's expectations and the employee's expectations?

Mentors play an important role in enhancing a high-performing employee's productivity and in guiding his or her career. In a traditional mentoring relationship, a junior executive has ongoing face-to-face meetings with a senior executive at the corporation to learn the ropes, set goals and gain advice on how to better perform his or her job.

Before technological advances, mentoring programs were limited to those leaders who had the time and experience within the organization's walls to impart advice to a few select people worth that investment. Technology has eliminated those constraints. Today, maintaining a long-distance mentoring relationship through e-mail, telephone and videoconferencing is much easier. And that technology means an employer is not confined to its corporate halls when considering mentor-mentee matches.

The organization

If the company is starting to send more employees abroad, it has to reassess its administrative capabilities. Can existing systems handle complicated tasks, such as currency exchanges and split payrolls, not to mention the additional financial burden of paying allowances, incentives and so on? Often, international assignment leads to outsourcing for global expertise. Payroll, tax, employment law, contractual obligations, among others, warrant an investment in sound professional advice.

Employment Laws

Four major U.S. employment laws have some application abroad for U.S. citizens working in U.S.-based multinationals:

  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
  • The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA).
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
  • The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA).

Title VII, the ADEA and the ADA are the more far-reaching among these, covering all U.S. citizens who are either:

  • Employed outside the United States by a U.S. firm.
  • Employed outside the United States by a company under the control of a U.S. firm.

USERRA's extraterritoriality applies to veterans and reservists working overseas for the federal government or a firm under U.S. control. See Do laws like the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act apply to U.S. citizens working in several other countries?

Employers must also be certain to comply with both local employment law in the countries in which they manage assignments and requirements for corporate presence in those countries. See Where can I find international employment law and culture information?


Companies take one of the following approaches to establish base salaries for expatriates:

  • The home-country-based approach. The objective of a home-based compensation program is to equalize the employee to a standard of living enjoyed in his or her home country. Under this commonly used approach, the employee's base salary is broken down into four general categories: taxes, housing, goods and services, and discretionary income.
  • The host-country-based approach. With this approach, the expatriate employee's compensation is based on local national rates. Many companies continue to cover the employee in its defined contribution or defined benefit pension schemes and provide housing allowances.
  • The headquarters-based approach. This approach assumes that all assignees, regardless of location, are in one country (i.e., a U.S. company pays all assignees a U.S.-based salary, regardless of geography).
  • Balance sheet approach. In this scenario, the compensation is calculated using the home-country-based approach with all allowances, deductions and reimbursements. After the net salary has been determined, it is then converted to the host country's currency. Since one of the primary goals of an international compensation management program is to maintain the expatriate's current standard of living, developing an equitable and functional compensation plan that combines balance and flexibility is extremely challenging for multinational companies. To this end, many companies adopt a balance sheet approach. This approach guarantees that employees in international assignments maintain the same standard of living they enjoyed in their home country. A worksheet lists the costs of major expenses in the home and host countries, and any differences are used to increase or decrease the compensation to keep it in balance.

Some companies also allow expatriates to split payment of their salaries between the host country's and the home country's currencies. The expatriate receives money in the host country's currency for expenses but keeps a percentage of it in the home country currency to safeguard against wild currency fluctuations in either country.

As for handling expatriates taxes, organizations usually take one of four approaches:

  • The employee is responsible for his or her own taxes.
  • The employer determines tax reimbursement on a case-by-case basis.
  • The employer pays the difference between taxes paid in the United States and the host country.
  • The employer withholds U.S. taxes and pays foreign taxes.

To prevent an expatriate employee from suffering excess taxation of income by both the U.S. and host countries, many multinational companies implement either a tax equalization or a tax reduction policy for employees on international assignments. Additionally, the United States has entered into  bilateral international social security agreements  with numerous countries, referred to as "totalization agreements," which allow for an exemption of the social security tax in either the home or host country for defined periods of time.

A more thorough discussion of compensation and tax practices for employees on international assignment can be found in SHRM's Designing Global Compensation Systems toolkit.

How do we handle taxes for expatriates?

Can employers pay employees in other countries on the corporate home-country payroll?

Measuring Expatriates' Performance

Failed international assignments can be extremely costly to an organization. There is no universal approach to measuring an expatriate's performance given that specifics related to the job, country, culture and other variables will need to be considered. Employers must identify and communicate clear job expectations and performance indicators very early on in the assignment. A consistent and detailed assessment of an expatriate employee's performance, as well as appraisal of the operation as a whole, is critical to the success of an international assignment. Issues such as the criteria for and timing of performance reviews, raises and bonuses should be discussed and agreed on before the employees are selected and placed on international assignments.

Employees on foreign assignments face a number of issues that domestic employees do not. According to a 2020 Mercer report 4 , difficulty adjusting to the host country, poor candidate selection and spouse or partner's unhappiness are the top three reasons international assignments fail. Obviously, retention of international assignees poses a significant challenge to employers.

Upon completion of an international assignment, retaining the employee in the home country workplace is also challenging. Unfortunately, many employers fail to track retention data of repatriated employees and could benefit from collecting this information and making adjustments to reduce the turnover of employees returning to their home country.

Safety and Security

When faced with accident, injury, sudden illness, a disease outbreak or politically unstable conditions in which personal safety is at risk, expatriate employees and their dependents may require evacuation to the home country or to a third location. To be prepared, HR should have an evacuation plan in place that the expatriate can share with friends, extended family and colleagues both at home and abroad. See Viewpoint: Optimizing Global Mobility's Emergency Response Plans .

Many companies ban travel outside the country in the following circumstances:

  • When a travel advisory is issued by the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, International SOS or a government agency.
  • When a widespread outbreak of a specific disease occurs or if the risk is deemed too high for employees and their well-being is in jeopardy.
  • If the country is undergoing civil unrest or war or if an act of terrorism has occurred.
  • If local management makes the decision.
  • If the employee makes the decision.

Once employees are in place, the decision to evacuate assignees and dependents from a host location is contingent on local conditions and input from either internal sources (local managers, headquarters staff, HR and the assignee) or external sources (an external security or medical firm) or both. In some cases, each host country has its own set of evacuation procedures.

Decision-makers should consider all available and credible advice and initially transport dependents and nonessential personnel out of the host country by the most expeditious form of travel.

Navigating International Crises

How can an organization ensure the safety and security of expatriates and other employees in high-risk areas?

The Disaster Assistance Improvement Program (DAIP)


Ideally, the repatriation process begins before the expatriate leaves his or her home country and continues throughout the international assignment by addressing the following issues.

Career planning. Many managers are responsible for resolving difficult problems abroad and expect that a well-done job will result in promotion on return, regardless of whether the employer had made such a promise. This possibly unfounded assumption can be avoided by straightforward career planning that should occur in advance of the employee's accepting the international assignment. Employees need to know what impact the expatriate assignment will have on their overall advancement in the home office and that the international assignment fits in their career path.

Mentoring. The expatriate should be assigned a home-office mentor. Mentors are responsible for keeping expatriates informed on developments within the company, for keeping the expatriates' names in circulation in the office (to help avoid the out-of-sight, out-of-mind phenomenon) and for seeing to it that expatriates are included in important meetings. Mentors can also assist the expatriate in identifying how the overseas experience can best be used on return. Optimum results are achieved when the mentor role is part of the mentor's formal job duties.

Communication. An effective global communication plan will help expatriates feel connected to the home office and will alert them to changes that occur while they are away. The Internet, e-mail and intranets are inexpensive and easy ways to bring expatriates into the loop and virtual meeting software is readily available for all employers to engage with global employees. In addition, organizations should encourage home-office employees to keep in touch with peers on overseas assignments. Employee newsletters that feature global news and expatriate assignments are also encouraged.

Home visits. Most companies provide expatriates with trips home. Although such trips are intended primarily for personal visits, scheduling time for the expatriate to visit the home office is an effective method of increasing the expatriate's visibility. Having expatriates attend a few important meetings or make a presentation on their international assignment is also a good way to keep them informed and connected.

Preparation to return home. The expatriate should receive plenty of advance notice (some experts recommend up to one year) of when the international assignment will end. This notice will allow the employee time to prepare the family and to prepare for a new position in the home office. Once the employee is notified of the assignment's end, the HR department should begin working with the expatriate to identify suitable positions in the home office. The expatriate should provide the HR department with an updated resume that reflects the duties of the overseas assignment. The employee's overall career plan should be included in discussions with the HR professional.

Interviews. In addition to home leave, organizations may need to provide trips for the employee to interview with prospective managers. The face-to-face interview will allow the expatriate to elaborate on skills and responsibilities obtained while overseas and will help the prospective manager determine if the employee is a good fit. Finding the right position for the expatriate is crucial to retaining the employee. Repatriates who feel that their new skills and knowledge are underutilized may grow frustrated and leave the employer.

Ongoing recognition of contributions. An employer can recognize and appreciate the repatriates' efforts in several ways, including the following:

  • Hosting a reception for repatriates to help them reconnect and meet new personnel.
  • Soliciting repatriates' help in preparing other employees for expatriation.
  • Asking repatriates to deliver a presentation or prepare a report on their overseas assignment.
  • Including repatriates on a global task force and asking them for a global perspective on business issues.

Measuring ROI on expatriate assignments can be cumbersome and imprecise. The investment costs of international assignments can vary dramatically and can be difficult to determine. The largest expatriate costs include overall remuneration, housing, cost-of-living allowances (which sometimes include private schooling costs for children) and physical relocation (the movement to the host country of the employee, the employee's possessions and, often, the employee's family).

But wide variations exist in housing expenses. For example, housing costs are sky-high in Tokyo and London, whereas Australia's housing costs are moderate. Another significant cost of expatriate assignments involves smoothing out differences in pay and benefits between one country and another. Such cost differences can be steep and can vary based on factors such as exchange rates (which can be quite volatile) and international tax concerns (which can be extremely complex).

Once an organization has determined the costs of a particular assignment, the second part of the ROI challenge is calculating the return. Although it is relatively straightforward to quantify the value of fixing a production line in Puerto Rico or of implementing an enterprise software application in Asia, the challenge of quantifying the value of providing future executives with cross-cultural perspectives and international leadership experience can be intimidating.

Once an organization determines the key drivers of its expatriate program, HR can begin to define objectives and assess return that can be useful in guiding employees and in making decisions about the costs they incur as expatriates. Different objectives require different levels and lengths of tracking. Leadership development involves a much longer-term value proposition and should include a thorough repatriation plan. By contrast, the ROI of an international assignment that plugs a skills gap is not negatively affected if the expatriate bolts after successfully completing the engagement.

Additional Resources

International Assignment Management: Expatriate Policy and Procedure

Introduction to the Global Human Resources Discipline

1Mulkeen, D. (2017, February 20). How to reduce the risk of international assignment failure. Communicaid. Retrieved from https://www.communicaid.com/cross-cultural-training/blog/reducing-risk-international-assignment-failure/

2Mercer. (2020). Worldwide Survey of International Assignment Policies and Practices. Retrieved from https://mobilityexchange.mercer.com/international-assignments-survey .

3Dickmann, M., & Baruch, Y. (2011). Global careers. New York: Routledge.

4Mercer. (2020). Worldwide Survey of International Assignment Policies and Practices. Retrieved from https://mobilityexchange.mercer.com/international-assignments-survey

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How Companies Can Manage Overseas Assignments

Offering employees and families better support can lower the rate of failed international assignments.

Companies around the world send employees on international assignments typically for three to five years. According to Worldwide ERC, the cost of doing so can be over $1 million per person. Despite the cost, companies report a 42 percent failure rate in these assignments. What's wrong? Many companies are not adequately preparing employees or their families for life and work overseas.

Expatriates, those living outside of their native country, may receive support through their company upon departure, but many do not receive sufficient support once they arrive in their new location. The lack of familiarity and sudden increase of uncertainty can cause a high level of emotional distress on a family, which in turn can have a detrimental effect on an employee's performance. Here's how companies can do a better job managing overseas assignments .

[See: 25 Best Jobs That Don't Require a College Degree .]

Select Employees Carefully. If a person has been successful in their home country role, that does not necessarily translate into high performance overseas. It's important to take into account soft skills that point to likelihood of success in a totally new environment. These are flexibility, self-reliance, tolerance and the ability to handle change and ambiguity. In other words, you need to make sure your employee is independent and can get along well in unusual circumstances and with diverse groups of people.

Prepare for Departure. Where companies often fall short is in the preparation of employees and their families for an overseas assignment. According to Naomi Hattaway, founder of the I Am a Triangle online support community for those who have lived in other cultures and countries, employees who move overseas are often provided with housing search assistance, cultural training and language classes. However, as companies pare down budgets, many of these programs are the first to be cut. These services are often offered only for a short time before or at the start of an assignment. At that point, Hattaway says, everything is so up in the air because you aren't yet settled in a house nor do you have your belongings. As a result, the value provided by these services is short term.

Intercultural and language training are two important ways companies can help both employees and their families start off on the right foot. However, preparation support is frequently provided through print or video cultural seminars and resources and offer little to no in-person interaction. Therefore, Hattaway says that individuals needing additional help are unlikely to receive it.

[See: Tips for Surviving a Career Transition .]

When employees move abroad with their families, the adaptation process is more complex because of added pressures such as a spouse's or partner's career, children's schooling and relatives back at home. Many assignments fail not because of an employee's poor performance , but because of family issues. Setting expectations of the new country and culture from the beginning can help decrease some of the anxiety that comes with moving overseas.

Offer Ongoing Support. Hattaway states that employee assistance programs do not usually cover pre-assignment needs nor do they assess whether families are prepared for a future assignment. These programs are often billed as providing psychological assistance to the employee and family members, and often are only provided on an emergency basis. Proactive, ongoing support versus reactive actions by employers would increase the success rate of expatriate assignments.

While talks about mental health have grown since companies are more aware of the risks of overwork and burnout, there is still a stigma attached to depression worldwide. When you add the stresses of living outside your native country, it creates an endless cycle. Who do you confide in? According to Hattaway, because those who tend to move abroad have thick skins, employees and family members may hide mental illness, which can come to light when it's too late. It is also very difficult to impossible in many countries to find psychologists and psychiatrists, not to mention those who can speak English or your native language. Therefore, companies need to invest more resources into mental health support for those moving overseas as well as into activities that increase well-being for employees and their families. This may mean designing team-building activities for an employee's new team to help them build credibility. For a family, this could be hosting gatherings where local and expatriate families get together to socialize or work on a community project.

[See: The 25 Best Social Services Jobs of 2017 .]

Prepare for Repatriation. Unfortunately, Hattaway says there is little to no support when an employee is preparing to return and returns to their home country. This is especially true if someone is returning from a failed assignment. Expatriates need advance notice of up to a year when their international assignment is slated to end. This gives an employee and their family sufficient time to prepare for a new position at home. The human resources department can work with the employee to identify suitable positions and discuss their overall career goals. Companies can also offer support for families as they prepare children for new schools, find a new home and for partners and spouses who plan to continue their career back home.

While supporting an expatriate and his or her family on an overseas assignment is costly, the price of a high rate of failed international assignments drives those costs even higher. It's imperative for companies to offer employees and their families assistance to help them succeed in their new environment.

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Tracking International Assignment Failure

When an employee is assigned to a position abroad there is always the possibility of failure and early repatriation.  Since this can result in extra expense and business disruption, companies will want to find ways to mitigate the primary causes of expatriate failure.

The Impact of International Assignment Failure Rates

International assignment failure rates will depend on the country and challenges presented to the expat.  One study estimates employee assignments to developed countries will have a failure rate of 25% to 40%, and in under developed countries the rate jumps to 70%. 

The impact for a multinational is both financial and business related.  Direct costs of a failed assignment can range from $250,000 to $1 million, and the annual cost of failures to all US companies is estimated at $2 billion.  In addition, a foreign company can face damaged client relations and problems with local business and government.  The employee upon repatriation may suffer a loss of self-esteem and professional standing.

These very real effects on international business success make expat failure an important metric to track for HR departments. There must be data acquired on the factors that trigger assignment failure.

What Factors Define Expatriate Failure?

International assignment failure is when the goals and objectives for an assignment are not met in some ways.  “Failure” occurs when:

Early Repatriation:   The assignment does not last for the planned duration, which is the most frequent and costly type of assignment failure.

Reasons:  Cultural challenges, family issues, illness, unsuited for position

Post-Assignment Changes:  The expat makes a position or job change following the assignment, and the company loses human capital investment.

Reasons:   Finds opportunity abroad, burnout, seeking advancement with assignment

Unmet Objectives:   Business goals are not achieved, which may be the most important business metric to measure the assignment failure’s effect.

Reasons:   Local market conditions, lack of performance, unsuitable skills

Excess Cost:   The assignment cost is higher than projected, which undermines the ROI for the assignment, and is a ‘stealth’ form of assignment failure.

Reasons:   Family expenses, housing, security, extra resources, training

Expat Dissatisfaction:  Even if the assignee does not repatriate, they are not satisfied in the position, location or duties.

Reasons:   Cultural and language differences, homesick, excessive workload or responsibility

Once a company knows the primary areas of expatriate failure, then they can take a strategic approach toward mitigating the causes.

Tracking and Monitoring:  How to Mitigate the Causes of Expatriate Failure

One of the best ways to avoid expatriate failure is to track the elements that are primary drivers of failure.  This can be done in concert with host country management and the HR department at the home office, allowing opportunity to correct any issues before they develop.

Expat Satisfaction Surveys:  One easy tool for avoiding expat issues on assignment is a satisfaction survey.  This can be administered regularly to identify any problems that could lead to early repatriation or poor performance.

Budget and Expense Monitoring:  Unusual or excessive expenses can be avoided by monitoring the assignment budget at least monthly.  While some costs are fixed, others are subject to variation and can impact the overall ROI of the assignment.

Assignment Duration:   If an assignment is more than a year, or open ended, there should be periodic tracking of expat performance and effectiveness.  If a decrease is noted, it may be necessary to adapt the assignment duration instead of risking failure.

Business Objectives:   One of the more obvious metrics to measure assignment success is whether the business goals are being met on assignment.  Even if the expat is happy and costs are contained, there remains the risk of failure due to business reasons.  The goals for the assignment should be tracked with milestones and numerical targets.

The GEO Solution:  Using a Local Employer of Record to Support International Assignments

Companies that do not have the resources for a full host country subsidiary, will turn to a GEO solution to handle the employment of their assignees.  The GEO service is comprehensive, and includes all immigration, employment and payroll requirements in the foreign location.

The GEO becomes the local employer of record, and works with partners in the country to ensure compliance.  A GEO supports all aspects of the international assignment, and can be helpful in detecting and avoiding some of the primary causes of assignment failure.  With experience in international employment, the GEO can monitor employment conditions and help avoid expat failure, and provides a third party resource to handle any remedies.

Also, if early repatriation required, the GEO will make sure that all host country rules on notice, termination and severance are followed, so there are no issues with authorities.  Shield GEO offer clients an end to end employment solution to support international assignments in 89 countries, and can assist companies with finding the optimal methods of payroll and assignment structure.

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5 Tips for Managing Successful Overseas Assignments

  • Andy Molinsky
  • Melissa Hahn

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Stay in constant touch and have a plan for their return.

Sending talented employees overseas can be a promising way to leverage the benefits of a global economy. But expatriate assignments can be extremely expensive: up to three times the cost of a person’s typical annual salary, according to some statistics. And despite the investment, many organizations lack the know-how for optimizing the potential benefits, leaving them disappointed with the results. The unfortunate reality is that even companies providing well-crafted relocation packages (including the all-important cultural training) may not have the talent management mechanisms in place to truly leverage the valuable skills expatriate employees gain during their assignments.

  • Andy Molinsky is a professor of Organizational Behavior and International Management at Brandeis University and the author of Global Dexterity , Reach , and Forging Bonds in a Global Workforce . Connect with him on LinkedIn and download his free e-booklet of 7 myths about working effectively across cultures .
  • Melissa Hahn teaches intercultural communication at American University’s School of International Service. Her new book, Forging Bonds in a Global Workforce (McGraw Hill), helps global professionals build effective relationships across cultures.

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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.

Expat training

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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Expat Financial - Global Insurance for Expats

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.

expat assignments

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.

expat insurance

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 real cost of expatriate assignment failure

The real cost of expatriate assignment failure | FIDI

This article was written by Rob Chipman, President of FIDI, and CEO of Asian Tiger Mobility in Hong Kong. Rob is a global mobility expert with many years of experience, during which time he has learned how to ensure that global assignments work – and has a better idea than most of how much it costs when they don’t.

A failed international relocation is likely to have a devastating impact on the employee, the employee’s family and to the employer itself. While none of these parties will want to dwell on the reasons for failure, it is particularly important that companies understand the financial (and non-financial) costs of failure, in order to assess the overall return on investment, the viability of their global assignment program – and to help plan more successful assignments in the future.

Expatriate costs: let’s do the math | FIDI

Expatriate costs: let’s do the math

The cost of a failed assignment depends on the salary level of the transferee, the size of his family and the destination country. In addition, there are the non-financial costs such as lack of productivity, and the mental and emotional toll on the employee and on the family. Let’s delve into both of these aspects:

The  financial aspect , falling primarily on the employer, includes transportation costs such as several international flights, short-term accommodation, rental on long-term housing, at least two household goods shipments (to and from the destination) school fees, and miscellaneous ancillary charges. The cumulative cost can mount up quickly. The following is a typical set of numbers for a family of four with two school-aged children, assuming the assignment is terminated within the first year:

  • Salary and benefits, fully loaded, $250,000/pa
  • Air Fare $5,000 x 2 for look-see trip
  • Air Fare $5,000 x 4 at beginning of assignment
  • Air Fare $5,000 x 4 at end of assignment
  • School fees (tuition for 2 @ US$20,000/year)
  • Household goods shipment US $15,000 to the destination
  • Household goods shipment US $15,000 back to origin
  • Ancillary charges $30,000
  • Total hard costs = $400,000

It’s worth noting that salary costs account for just over 60% of the total cost of the year-long assignment. This is a cost that would have been incurred if the assignee had stayed in his or her previous role – but the company of course has to place a value on the contribution the assignee made to the organisation during that period. Since the assignment was cut short, it is unlikely that any objectives were met. The other costs – which account for 37.5% of the total – deliver nothing to the organization...

It’s not all about the money | FIDI

It’s not all about the money

Now let’s turn to the non-financial aspects.  A recent study claimed that eight to ten work days are lost when an employee relocates within his country, and up to 20 days for some international relocations. In addition, a disenchanted employee may not fit in back at his origin country and, if so, they are likely to have  far lower productivity . There are often issues with low self-esteem, lack of motivation, family problems, and even depression.

What are the  causes of failed relocations  and what can be done to minimize the risks?  The most often cited cause of a failed relocation is the family’s inability adjust to the destination country environment.  This far outweighs pure job performance.  The typical adjustment problems include a spouse that doesn’t fit in, doesn’t create a social network, and becomes disengaged. Less often, but still of major concern, are kids that do not adjust well among their peers.  Families often cannot find the support services they require for special-needs children.  It all boils down to an overall inability to fit in and assimilate with the local culture and language.

Education minimizes risk | FIDI

So what can you do to minimize this risk?

A first step would be better  screening  to assure the candidate, and his family, are well suited to the new location.  Another key is to provide appropriate, professional relocation  support  services for the relocating family’s personal needs.  Cross-cultural and often language training are likely to be major components. Finding the right school for the children can be a tremendous challenge and take up considerable time to determine the right fit. Finally, the family’s attitude such as learning about the new country’s customs, culture, food, and etiquette also have to be factored in.

Each of these pieces constitute a complete puzzle that, when assembled properly, can lead to a positive experience for the transferee, their family, and the employer.


  • Expat Productivity

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failed expatriate assignments

Preventing Failed Assignments: Relocation Success

  • March 5, 2024
  • Stuart Beaty

Failed assignments can pose a significant challenge to even the most experienced HR and global mobility teams. Navigating global mobility and ensuring successful overseas assignments is similar to steering a ship through uncharted waters, facing challenges like cultural misunderstandings and logistical issues. However, the benefits of a well-executed overseas assignment are significant for both the employee and the organisation, contributing to growth, innovation, and the development of a truly global workforce.

Exploring Reasons for Failed Assignments Overseas

1. limited cultural adaptation.

Cultural differences can cause an unexpectedly wide disconnect, which could have a significant impact on the employee’s productivity and happiness. Expatriates often grapple with cultural challenges such as integrating into new professional ethics, understanding social norms, and adjusting to everyday routines. This sense of alienation can significantly impact motivation and engagement, potentially leading to underperformance or an unexpected early return from the assignment. For example, an American expatriate assigned to work in Japan may struggle with the hierarchical structure of Japanese companies and the emphasis on group harmony, leading to misunderstandings with colleagues and difficulties in decision-making processes.

2. Insufficient Preparation and Support

The foundation of a successful overseas assignment is established long before an employee steps on a plane. Comprehensive pre-assignment training, along with continuous support, is vital in ensuring that employees are not only professionally prepared but also psychologically ready to adapt to changes. This includes strategic cultural training, practical relocation assistance, and establishing clear lines of communication. Without proper preparation and support, employees may struggle to acclimatise to their new environment and face challenges that could have been prevented with adequate training and assistance. This lack of preparation can lead to feelings of isolation and disorientation, ultimately affecting their performance and overall well-being.

3. Communication Obstacles and Language Barriers

The absence of clear communication can rapidly spiral into misunderstandings, which can negatively impact project timelines and productivity. Overcoming language barriers extends beyond the ability to speak a language fluently. It involves understanding implicit cultural subtleties linked to communication styles. Technology aids, such as language training applications or language-accommodating technological platforms, can support better understanding and collaboration.

4. Family-Related Challenges

Family adjustment issues, including partner or spouse dissatisfaction and the impact on children, rank among the top reasons for failed assignments. The stress of relocating to a new country can sometimes lead to Expat Child Syndrome, which is characterised by withdrawal, changes in sleep or eating patterns, and behavioural disruptions. Ensuring comprehensive support for accompanying spouses or partners is essential for the overall success of the assignment. Addressing their concerns, providing resources for cultural integration, and offering assistance in finding fulfilling activities or employment opportunities can significantly alleviate the challenges associated with family relocation and contribute to a smoother transition for the entire family unit.

Key Strategies for Successful Overseas Assignments

1. detailed selection and evaluation process.

Choosing the right candidates for overseas assignments is core to the success of the project. The use of robust assessment tools that measure cultural adaptability, receptiveness to change, and resilience, such as Self-Assessment for Global Endeavors (SAGE) can provide early indicators of a candidate’s potential success. Additionally, conducting thorough interviews can further ensure that the selected candidate is the right fit for the role. It is important to consider not only the technical skills and experience of the individual but also their ability to thrive in a different cultural environment. By carefully selecting the right candidates, organisations can increase the likelihood of a successful overseas assignment and minimise the risks associated with expatriate failure. In addition, ongoing support and training throughout the assignment can help ensure the candidate’s continued success.

2. Cultural Training and Support

Effective cultural training programmes need to delve deeper than basic etiquette; they must involve employees in immersive learning experiences that nurture empathy and mutual understanding. The incorporation of ongoing cultural coaching throughout assignments promotes continual learning and adaptation and reduces the risk of failed assignments. This support system can help employees navigate unfamiliar cultural landscapes and build strong relationships with colleagues from different backgrounds. By providing ongoing training and support, organisations can ensure that their employees not only adapt to new cultures but also thrive in them, leading to increased productivity and success in global endeavours.

3. Extensive Family Support

Ensuring a successful transition encompasses not just the employee but the whole family unit. By offering comprehensive assistance such as school location services, language training for family members, and career development resources for partners, a smoother, more inclusive transition is facilitated, significantly increasing the likelihood of assignment success. This level of support recognises the importance of the family unit in the overall success of the assignment. By providing resources and assistance tailored to the needs of family members, organisations can help alleviate the stress and challenges that often come with relocating to a new country. In doing so, employees can focus on their work knowing that their loved ones are also being taken care of, leading to a more positive and productive experience for everyone involved.

4. Ongoing Support and Mentorship

A strong support structure, both at home and in the host nation, acts as a safety net for expatriates. Assigning mentors or coaches can facilitate smoother transitions, while maintaining regular check-ins makes employees feel appreciated and acknowledged. This ongoing support and mentorship not only helps expatriates adjust to their new environment, but also enhances their overall job satisfaction and performance. Additionally, having someone to turn to for guidance and advice can alleviate feelings of isolation and homesickness, leading to a more positive expatriate experience. Ultimately, by prioritising the well-being and success of expatriates and their families, companies can reduce the risk of failed assignments and foster a more inclusive and supportive work culture.

5. Promotion of Work-Life Balance

Establishing a work environment that encourages work-life balance is crucial. Positive reinforcement from upper management to engage with local cultures, pursue hobbies, and develop a supportive social network can greatly enhance an expatriate’s overall experience. Encouraging employees to take time off, use flexible work arrangements, and prioritise self-care can lead to increased productivity and job satisfaction. Providing resources for mental health support and stress management can also contribute to a positive work-life balance for expatriates. Ultimately, promoting work-life balance not only benefits the individual employee but also the overall success of the international assignment.

Final Thoughts

Overseas assignments possess the capacity to shape the future trajectory of global businesses and the professional journey of those embarking on these assignments. By identifying the common pitfalls and implementing strategic interventions, HR and global mobility teams can substantially improve the success rate of these endeavours.

Preventing failed assignments overseas hinges on thorough preparation, improving cross-cultural understanding, and maintaining reliable support systems. HR and global mobility teams must actively implement these strategies to ensure smoother sailing for your global workforce.

The potential rewards for all parties involved can be enormous if the complexities of relocation are proactively managed with a strategic and knowledgeable approach.

Speak to one of our experts  or  send a message  today and find out how we can add value to your relocation programme.

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The Best (and worst) Countries for Expat Job Assignments

Relocating to a new country can be a challenge. It typically means working in a different environment, with new colleagues, settling into a new city and making it home, and needing to establish a new social life. The latest InterNations expatriate survey might make it easier to decide which destination will be best for an international job assignment.

According to global market research agency Finaccord, there were roughly 66.2 million expatriates worldwide in 2017. This number has been growing at a compound annual rate of 5.8% since 2013. By 2021, Finaccord forecasts this figure will reach around 87.5 million .

The 2018 edition of the Expat Insider survey, which has now been published for the fifth time, is one of the biggest and most comprehensive studies on life abroad. Overall, more than 18,000 expatriates from across the globe participated in the survey. These nonnatives represent 178 nationalities who are currently living in 187 countries or territories.

Top or Flop?

From the survey responses InterNations created a ranking which lists the most and least desirable countries for life abroad, focusing on some critical features like quality of life, ease of settling in, working abroad, family life, personal finance, gender equality, career opportunities, digital life, and cost of living.

The Top Expat Destinations 2018

Remarkably, none of the G7 countries made it into the Top 15 of the survey. The highest ranking of the seven most advanced economies is Canada at position 19. Within the G20 group of nations Mexico achieved the highest scores and ranks in 4th place.

Why Become an Expat? 

Who becomes an expat  6 types of expats.

Not every expatriate moves overseas for a work assignment. Based on the survey respondents’ primary motivation for relocating abroad, the study identifies six different types of expats:

  • The Optimizer: Moved for a better quality of life, finances, or political/religious/safety reasons
  • The Explorer: Sought an adventure/challenge, general appeal of life abroad
  • The Foreign Assignee: Sent to work abroad by their existing employer
  • The Go-Getter: Found a job, started a business, or was recruited locally
  • The Traveling Spouse: Moved for their partner’s job or education
  • The Romantic: Love/Joined their partner in their home country

Which of these categories best describes you? Let us know in the comments below.

➡️ Read more about expat best practices, cultural adjustment, and destination support on our blog:

  • The Main Ingredient for a Successful Foreign Work Assignment
  • The Table of Elements for Global Business Readiness
  • Culture is not shocking – unless you want it to be
  • The Secret to Managing Expat Assignments for Modern Families? Start with the Spouse
  • The 7 Questions You Want to Ask a Cultural Training Firm

You can download the complete report of the 2018 survey on the InterNations website.

If you are interested in learning more about cultural competence and foreign language skills, we invite you to sign up for our newsletter, The Culture Reflections . As a token of our appreciation you will receive a series of complimentary white papers on cultural competence from us! Go ahead and sign up here now and we will send you the download links to the FREE white papers via email.

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  1. Expatriate Assignments Failure Analysis Free Essay Example

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    However, according to many types of research, every recruitment of expatriates does not succeed. 12% of expatriate recruitments failed and 40% of international assignments does not succeed due to ...

  17. How 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 ...

  18. Reasons for Expatriate Failure

    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.

  19. The real cost of expatriate assignment failure

    School fees (tuition for 2 @ US$20,000/year) Household goods shipment US $15,000 to the destination. Household goods shipment US $15,000 back to origin. Ancillary charges $30,000. Total hard costs = $400,000. It's worth noting that salary costs account for just over 60% of the total cost of the year-long assignment.

  20. Preventing Failed Assignments: Relocation Success

    Failed assignments can pose a significant challenge to even the most experienced HR and global mobility teams. Navigating global mobility and ensuring successful overseas assignments is similar to steering a ship through uncharted waters, facing challenges like cultural misunderstandings and logistical issues. ... Expatriates often grapple with ...

  21. Are You Ready to Lead Overseas?

    With stories like Antonio and Marion's being typical of a significant number of expatriate experiences, it's not surprising the range of failed expat assignments fluctuates between 10 and 50 percent depending on the country - with executives transferred to an emerging economy facing a higher risk of failure then those sent to a developed one.

  22. International Assignment Failure and Tracking Methods

    One study estimates employee assignments to developed countries will have a failure rate of 25% to 40%, and in under developed countries the rate jumps to 70%. The impact for a multinational is both financial and business related. Direct costs of a failed assignment can range from $250,000 to $1 million, and the annual cost of failures to all ...

  23. The Best (and worst) Countries for Expat Job Assignments

    The latest InterNations expatriate survey might make it easier to decide which destination will be best for an international job assignment. According to global market research agency Finaccord, there were roughly 66.2 million expatriates worldwide in 2017. This number has been growing at a compound annual rate of 5.8% since 2013.