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The Top Reasons Why Expat Assignments Fail

Expat Assignment

There’s a lot at stake while hiring an expat to fill a specific role in your organization. Like all senior-level hires, the expectations and deliverables need to defined, stated, and agreed to in order to avoid conflict between the involved parties later. Like all senior-level hires, an expat assignment too must be a win-win situation for both the expat employee as well as the organization.

That said, the financial stakes are perhaps higher when hiring an expat employee. Besides the financial stake, a lot more time is devoted to the process of screening and finalizing an expat employee. The entire process of hiring an expat is longer, more effort-intensive, and time-consuming. This means that there may be a lot more riding on ensuring the success of an expat hire. That said, an INSEAD study had projected that close to 50% of all expat assignments would fail.

Knowing the possible reasons for the failure of expat assignments could help you prevent them. From our perspective of having helped many hundreds of expats relocate to and out of India, here is our distillation of the top 5 reasons expat assignments fail.

  1. New work culture

Every country and region has its unique work culture. An important factor to consider in an expat assignment is the incoming expat’s ability to adjust and adapt to the new work culture. Every country has a slightly different way to look at even fundamental issues like deadlines, ownership, effort and impact, hierarchy, initiative, and even consequences. It can be challenging for an incoming expat to understand and then adjust to the host country’s work culture. One cannot know many of the nuances until one experiences them. Providing some basic information will help the expat in knowing what to expect rather than facing a work culture shock -but much of conquering this will be down to attitude. Adapting to a new environment takes time. Both the organization and the expat employee need to be patient with each other during this transition phase.

2. Language and cultural orientation

More often than not, the expats are unused to and feel uncomfortable about not being able to get mundane tasks done without depending on others. Seeking help for every small little task can hamper the expat’s confidence which reflects in their attitude at work too. There are other (good and bad) things that expats encounter in India that may disconcert or disturb them.

One cannot learn a language or about a new culture overnight. To minimize the impact of this change, the organization can help the expats by providing basic language and culture training early in the process. This will help the expat employee and the family feel more at home and let them get around that little bit better without feeling handicapped by a lack of knowledge of the local language and culture.

3. Smooth relocation

Moving homes across borders can be traumatic for the expat and the family. Any issues that crop up at this time or any perceived lack of support from the organization could leave a lingering resentment. That being the case, it is essential for an organization to employ a capable Global Mobility Team to provide all the required assistance to the expat employee for settling down in the host country.

This starts with assured and professional assistance over the legal and visa proceedings and continues to providing assistance for things like finding accommodation, school and university searches, admission procedure, transportation, spousal and family support, and cultural support. It is these routine things that will make the resettlement process in the host country smooth and pleasurable.

4. Issues at home

The biggest reason for the failure of an expat assignment is domestic. If the expat’s family is unable to relocate at the same time, or even after relocation in unable to make the adjustment to life in India, chances are the expat will soon consider a return to the home country. This adjustment covers a gamut of issues like finding an appropriate home and neighbourhood, a good school for the kids, a circle of similarly placed expat friends, and even issues related to missing the food, music, and entertainment of the home country. It can be an arduous task to start a new life in a new country. This is where the local knowledge and experience of a locally placed mobility team can prove invaluable. As a rule, an expat will be happy at work only if he or she is happy at home.

5. Wrong hire

The next biggest reason for the failure of an expat assignment is the error of judgement made by the organization while selecting the expat candidate. Many expat assignments are known to fail due to the hiring of the wrong person. This is not to do with experience or qualifications. It’s often to do with attitude, flexibility, tolerance for ambiguity, the ability to appreciate and work with different work styles and cultures, and other such soft issues.

We have written in the past about how to ensure that you are hiring the right kind of person. The blog has more details, but the HR department should conduct a thorough screening, both on professional and personal grounds, of the candidate in question before starting the process. The interview should also focus on these attitudinal issues. This helps both the involved parties feel each other out and define expectations too.

The failure of an expat assignment tells on both the employee and the organization. It is a failure for both the parties and there is plenty of blame to go around. That said, as we have seen, most of the issues are readily solvable. That assumes a degree of ongoing and open communication between the expat and the organization. This communication will help in removing the obstacles that lead to the failure of the expat assignment.

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