Expatriate Failure: The Cultural Aspects

expats, cultural intelligence, international businessAs the global economy becomes more and more intertwined, expatriate assignments are on the rise. Sixty-four percent of businesses indicated in a recent survey that their international assignee population has increased in the past year.

Sending employees out on assignment signifies a considerable investment, both in the business prospects of the international location and the employee themselves. In monetary terms, each assignment can represent a $2 million investment in the operation.

So it might surprise you to find out that 20 to 50 percent of those assignments return prematurely, often within a year of starting their assignment. Each failure represents a significant loss for the organization.

Some of those failures can be attributed to factors in which the business can’t exercise much control, but 60 percent of those failures fall under the category of a lack of cultural intelligence.

The Cultural Challenges of an Expat

Some personalities are a natural fit for an international assignment. Key among them are self-sufficiency and sociability.

In many ways, an expat is stuck out on an island. Even if the company already has a significant expat population in the location, there will be times where the employee has to “fend for themselves” in situations as simple as finding the nearest doctor. The self-sufficient employee has already thought of these contingencies and is usually competent enough in language and culture to orient themselves in their new home.

Sociability speaks for itself (no pun intended). A foreign assignment can be a lonely place. If the employee is outgoing enough and comfortable enough in the surrounding language, making new connections is much easier than for someone who hasn’t had as much language and cultural training.

The Way Forward

Companies around the world are recognizing how important these cultural challenges are to their international prospects, to the point where 81 percent of respondents to a 2012 Brookfield Relocation Services report stated that cultural training was available for their expat assignees. 60 percent of those businesses made that training available to the employee’s family if they are going along on the adventure. Family stability is a key factor in assignment success.

It’s important to make as many training options as possible available to an employee about to embark on a long-term international assignment, including language learning.

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