Assessment & Selection

Is Your Top Performer Really the Best Fit for a Foreign Placement?

Dec. 11th, 2018

As today’s world becomes ever more connected, it’s not unusual for companies to move some (or all) of their operations overseas. Some employees may jump at the chance to move to a new country. But is that enthusiasm enough to help you decide who should get that plum international assignment?

Moving halfway around the world is more than just an employee’s fantasy — for you, it has to be a business decision. Companies that send top talent abroad are often faced with the harsh reality that life as an expatriate is not for everyone, and an employee who’s exemplary in New York may not be the best choice for Tokyo.

Expatriate Challenges

It can be easy to assume that success in one setting will translate to another. Sometimes this is true, but time and again, we’ve heard stories of managers with top recommendations and relevant experience sent abroad, only to leave just months into their assignment. The fact of the matter is, 10 – 20% of all U.S. managers sent abroad return early due to job dissatisfaction or difficulty adjusting. Another study suggests that nearly 40% of overseas assignments are deemed failures by senior executives.  An employee’s stellar record at the US headquarters can’t predict how he or she will deal with the unique challenges that come with working in a foreign country.

For example, you know that Fred is a fantastic manager for your sales team, and you think he’d be a natural for leading the new team in Beijing. He doesn’t speak Chinese, but that shouldn’t be an issue — all the Chinese staff speak English, and the company will assign him a translator. But what do Chinese clients think about working with an American without cultural fluency?

And remember, Fred won’t just be working in Beijing, he’ll be living there. How do you think he will handle everyday tasks like going to the grocery store, eating out at restaurants, or building relationships in his new home, all without language skills? Finally, is his family onboard with the move?

There are countless factors, work-related or otherwise, that complicate the experience of Americans working abroad.

What’s the Cost of a Poor Placement?

Expatriate assignments can be extremely costly, often up to three times what an employee would earn back home. On top of the financial cost of placement and training, choosing the wrong person for a key foreign position can do significant damage to relationships with clients and foreign staff. Let’s say your manager was the first American the Japanese employees have ever worked with, and she left after two months because she couldn’t adjust to the cultural shift. When you send a replacement, how do you think your Japanese staff will receive the next person in that role?

At the end of the day, you want to make sure that your candidate is the right one for the role, the culture, and the experience of living abroad — expat selection should be proactive, not reactive.

How Do I Choose the Right Person for an Overseas Position?

Often, the issues faced by expat employees, such as lack of cultural intelligence, mismanaged expectations, or inability to deal with unfamiliar social and work expectations, could have been predicted ahead of job placement through expat assessments.

Rather than assuming your star manager will excel overseas, we recommend assessing for skills and personality traits that predict success in a new, foreign environment through expat assessments. Measuring a candidate’s problem-solving skills, interpersonal characteristics, leadership knowledge, and relocation readiness is the best way to ensure that you’re sending the right person for the job — and that they won’t return home ahead of schedule.

Along with assessing the job candidate, companies are encouraged to perform partner assessments to determine a partner or spouse’s readiness and/or willingness to move. Moving to a foreign country can be an extremely isolating experience, especially for the partner, who may not have a job or community to rely on. Assessment will help you determine whether the whole family is ready for this major shift.

Setting Up Your People for Success

Being cognizant of the real issues faced by expat employees will help your organization avoid losing top performers, and enable you to fill key foreign positions with the right people.