Selecting Managers for Foreign Assignments

International assignments are the heart of international HR, and it is therefore disconcerting to see how often such assignments fail. U.S. expatriates assignments that end early (the failure rate) range from 16% to 50%, and the direct costs of each failure can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars or more. The exact number of failure is hard to quantify, in part because “failure” means different things to different people. An early return rate is perhaps the most obvious indicator. However, some expatriates may fail less conspicuously, quietly running up the hidden costs of reduced productivity and poisoned customer and staff relations.

The processes firms use to select managers for their foreign assignments and domestic operations obviously have many similarities. For either assignment, the candidate should have the technical knowledge and skills to do the job, and the intelligence and skills to be a successful manager. However, it is seen that foreign assignments are different. There is the need to cope with colleagues whose culture may be drastically different from one’s own, and the stress that being alone in a foreign land can put on the single manager. Selecting managers for foreign assignments therefore sometimes means testing them for traits that predict success in adapting to new environments. The researchers identified five factors that contribute to success in such assignments: job knowledge and motivation, relational skills, flexibility/adaptability, extra cultural openness, and family situation. Among these factors, family situation was generally found to be the most important factor on international assignments and transfers. Adaptability screening is sometimes part of the expatriate screening process, which aims to assess the assignee’s probable success in handling the foreign transfer. Here, experience is often the best predictor of future success. Companies like Colgate-Palmolive therefore look for overseas candidates whose work and non-work experience, education, and language skills already demonstrate a commitment to and facility for living and working with different cultures.