Odd One OutAlthough it is widely recognized that one should not assume a good performer at home would be a good performer abroad, many multi-national companies (MNCs) still select their expatriates on these merits. Other reasons for using expatriates include to develop their potential and preparing them for higher positions within the company, or to transfer know-how during special projects.

Solomon (1998) identified that effective expatriate management seems to follow three general practices. First, instead of promoting someone "out of the way" or only focusing on their technical skills, successful MNCs look for expatriates to "generate and transfer knowledge" as well as "develop their global leadership skills." Surveys have shown that expatriates are likely to leave the company after repatriation if they do not feel their newly acquired skills are used to their full potential. They will question the sense of their assignment if the home country management is not interested in learning about the situation in the subsidiary and what the expatriate is contributing to headquarters after his or her experience abroad.

The second practice stresses that cross-cultural abilities should at least be as impressive as the technical skills. Some companies use tests or interviews to see how the candidate reacts when exposed to different cultural behaviors and habits to make sure he or she will be able to adapt. In order to rule out any problems once the assignment is under way, similar tests are taken by the candidate's family to see whether the spouse and children are comfortable living in foreign surroundings. Language and cross-cultural trainings have also become close to the norm.

The third practice is a "deliberate repatriation process." It is a widely held belief that repatriation is as, if not more, difficult than the initial expatriation.

Sanchez et al (2000) also mention technical skills, family situation, relational skills and the motivational state of an expatriate to be important factors at the selection stage. They suggest that in order to minimize assignment failure due to family adjustment problems, the company needs to give a realistic preview of what the assignment will be like and then encourage the family members to carry out a self-evaluation whether they feel up for the challenge or not.

At this point I'd like to mention that MNCs are still highly limiting their expatriate candidate pool by not really considering women. Solomon (1998) found that as of 1996, only 14 per cent of the total expatriate population were female. According to her opinion, women are not as likely to even be offered an international assignment, because the top management assumes they would not want to disrupt their family life and because they would face cultural biases abroad. More recent research by Dr. Nina Cole seems to confirm these numbers, as she worked with male expat spouses representing only 10 % of the expat spouse population.

Unfortunately, it is still typically women who are more likely to take care of the family, even though they might be working. Sanchez et al (2000) are of the opinion that female expatriates "need not necessarily experience more frustration than their male counterparts," which top management should take into account when selecting candidates. Another element stopping women from going abroad is the fact that they are not often found in upper management ranks, from where most expatriates are drawn. Solomon (1998) and Wah (1998) agree that MNCs need to stop assuming women are not interested in going abroad because of their families, but provide the necessary training and cater for specific needs that might occur.

This is exactly the point I would like to stress. When it comes to expatriate candidate selection, aptitude tests can only ever give an incomplete picture. Testing a candidate and their families for personality type or cultural preferences may give an indication of their adaptation predisposition, yes, but they cannot foresee how the person will react in the actual situation, the foreign country, the actual assignment.

Encouraging candidate self-selection is a laudable practice, yet I can't help but wonder at the inherent absurdity of the concept. "I'll warn you about everything that can go wrong and tease you with an equal amount of success stories so you can decide whether you want to take the chance or prefer staying at home"? Yes, I'm being sarcastic on purpose here. I know it's not that simple, for some families a move abroad simply isn't the best choice. What I mean is, candidate selection and support don't have to end with aptitude tests.

They don't even have to end at language or cross-cultural training. If you have a candidate that would be perfect or indeed indispensable for an international assignment, let him or her make the choice under the premise that you the company will support them and their family every step of the way.

After the relocation and destination services are delivered, THAT's when expats and their families get hit by real life issues, and that's when they need support the most. Which is where expatriate coaching comes in. There is a coaching solution to every problem, including spousal adjustment, career management, or identity crisis. If you're worried about your budget, consider the numbers: an assignment that needs to be terminated early can incur costs of up to $1,000,000. A comprehensive coaching process will set you back approximately $5,000.

We're celebrating Thanksgiving weekend in the States right now, so I'd love for you to leave a comment about what you are thankful for when it comes to your international assignment. Thank you for your input, and here's wishing you and your families successful and happy times.

Resources:

Sanchez, Juan I., Spector, Paul E. and Cooper, Cary L. (2000) Adapting to a boundary-less world: A developmental expatriate model, The academy of management executive, p96

Solomon, Charlene Marmer (1998) Today's global mobility: short-term assignments and other solutions, Workforce, p12

Wah, Louisa (1998) Surfing the rough sea, Management Review, p25

Til next week, have a good one! Thanks to Daniel for the free pic.

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