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How to prepare employees for international assignment success

To help boost your international assignment success rates and post-assignment staff retention, we discuss the key reasons for assignment failure, the problems with repatriation and what you as an organisation can do to prepare your employees.

Assignment failure

The number of international assignments being terminated early is on the rise. ECA’s latest Managing Mobility Survey revealed that the number of assignments cut short had increased by 50% compared to the figure seen in our 2012 survey.

Two main causes of assignment failureThe failure rate is highest among companies with more than 10 000 employees, for whom almost one in twelve assignments ends in failure. Considering how much time, effort and expense is invested in each assignment and the disruption such failures cause, this is a disturbing trend.

What is happening here? The main issue seems to be a mismatch between expectations and reality. Nearly three in five companies report that assignments terminate early or fail to meet objectives due to assignees underperforming in their new role; the firm may initiate termination to cut their losses. On the other hand, the second most common explanation given for assignment failure, as reported by nearly 50% of employers, is dissatisfaction with the new role on the part of the assignee.

Assignee disillusionment is also common outside of work. A substantial number of employers – more than two in every five – report that when assignments break down they often or sometimes do so when an employee, or their family, finds themselves unable to adapt to their change in living circumstances. In almost half of cases when assignees fail to settle in, cultural issues play a significant role. Other common challenges that arise are feelings of isolation, difficulties with language, accommodation or children’s schooling arrangements and concerns about security and welfare.


Problems with repatriation

Post-assignment retention of employees is also a problem for many companies. One in eight repatriating assignees leave the company within two years, taking with them valuable skills and experience and other benefits gained from the costly assignment. Some regions fare worse than others in this area; European headquartered companies, for example, reported losing three employees for every 20 returning from assignment within two years and Australian and American companies reported higher attrition rates still. These sobering figures may even be underestimates, given that only three companies in five track post-assignment retention and career outcomes.

While relocating for an assignment is recognised to be substantially disruptive for assignees and their families, it is common for both employers and assignees to underestimate the upheaval of repatriating. Assignees and their families are not unaltered by their experiences living abroad, and neither does time stand still in the country left behind; hence the relocating assignee might find that their former workplace and colleagues, their social circles, and even the cultural and societal norms all feel unfamiliar.

Difficulties with settling into a new role or career upon return to the home location is certainly a commonly reported problem; 70% of companies find this is either sometimes or often behind an employee’s decision to leave. If assignees are ill-prepared for the potential hitches that can occur when returning to the home entity, they may be susceptible to overly high expectations.

The impact of repatriation on a returning assignee’s home life is also not to be underestimated. According to one in three companies, it is sometimes or often the case that family concerns – i.e. with regard to a partner’s career, children’s education or relocation issues – are the reason for post-assignment staff turnover.

What can be done to address these challenges?

The key to improving an employee’s ability to adapt to assignment and, later, post-assignment life is making sure they are well prepared for what is to come. 

In the 21st century, anyone can of course undertake a little online research at the click of a button. But the sheer number of search results returned, unreliable sources and a lack of resources geared towards the unique experience of being an assignee can result in confusion and misinformation, rather than genuinely useful knowledge and awareness.

Self-preparation tools that are tailor-made for the assignee experience are a more effective way to inform and guide employees about the realities of a potential move abroad and help to make the process less overwhelming. ECA’s three International Assignment Guides cover the main scenarios expatriating families face:

Planning to Work Abroad? is full of relevant and useful guidance about what to expect when going to live and work in another country and ensures that families really do consider all the pros and cons of such a move. This puts candidates in a better position to assess whether or not an assignment abroad is for them – rather than finding out the hard way during the assignment.

Together on Assignment enables assignees’ partners to weigh up the implications of accompanying them on assignment against those of remaining behind; it also sends a reassuring signal that the company is sensitive to the welfare of the family as a whole, not just the assignee.

Returning Home prepares returning families for the potential challenges they may encounter when trying to slot back into home country life. It also ensures assignees have realistic expectations for their post-assignment career. Greater pragmatism about this process can help reduce the number of returned assignees exiting the company, taking their valuable international experience and skills with them.

Each of the International Assignment Guides combines anecdotal advice and worksheets with real-life case studies to raise awareness of issues that should be considered, discussed and resolved before committing to an assignment. Quotes from former assignees provide practical tips that can only come from first-hand experience, while comprehensive checklists and questionnaires lay out all the decisions that an expatriating family face, and outline the potential pros and cons to be considered.

The International Assignment Guides can be provided directly to your mobile population through your company intranet for ease of access. ECA also provides location-specific Country Profiles to brief assignees with essential information about the location where they are preparing to live and work. For more information about how ECA can assist you with assignee preparation, please contact us.


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