How can you ensure successful international assignments?

Written by
Kate Fitzpatrick

08 Feb 2016

08 Feb 2016 • by Kate Fitzpatrick

Breaking down mobility barriers

As organisations continue to reach beyond their historic geographic boundaries in search of new markets and opportunities, the ability to identify and mobilise skilled resources remains a challenging and complex area for talent and global mobility professionals to manage. Finding ways to break down barriers to mobility and improve assignment success rates is important not simply to solve current resourcing challenges, but to support key talent strategy objectives including workforce planning, career management and the development of future leaders. 

The top five reported barriers to mobility in Mercer’s 2015 Worldwide International Assignment Policies and Practices survey remained the same as in 2012, although dual career/family-related issues now exceed cost considerations:

1.    Dual-career/family related issues 
2.    Cost 
3.    Hardship / Remoteness of locations 
4.    Career Management issues 
5.    Lack of package attractiveness

It's a family matter

The findings are encouraging insofar as the degree to which these issues are seen as obstacles has decreased quite significantly over the last three years, which suggests some recent success in interventions such as the increase in the use of segmented policy suites (i.e. use of alternate assignment types such as short term, commuter and local plus, in addition to a traditional home-based long term assignment policy). These results may also reflect a change in employee expectations and/or simply the perception of the acuteness of the problem. 

Perhaps more interestingly, however, we can see that with the exception of cost, all of the other barriers actually relate to the impact of mobility on the employee and their family, rather than the business. This theme becomes even more prevalent when you consider the barriers to mobility alongside the most commonly-reported reasons for assignment failure from the same survey. They are:

1.    Poor candidate selection
2.    Difficulty adjusting to the host country
3.    Poor job performance
4.    Spouse or partner unhappiness
5.    Other family concerns

What will the next generation mobility programmes look like?

These findings suggest that ‘next generation’ mobility programmes need to do more to address the needs of the individual and their families both professionally and personally. Opportunities to address these challenges include:

Candidate identification and selection: Ensure assessment processes are objective and competency based. High performance in a domestic context does not necessarily mean an individual will perform well in a foreign / cross-cultural environment. Equally, an enthusiastic ‘good’ performer may have skills and attributes which would make them a more appropriate candidate in the long run. 

Familiarisation and cross-cultural support: Investment in supporting the assignee and any accompanying family during the decision-making process and early stages of an assignment can be the difference between a successful assignment and a failed one. Preparedness for change and difference is the first step to tackling it effectively, and the sooner all parties feel settled in their new environment, the more positive their experience will be able to be. That said, if the host environment is not a good fit for the employee and/or their family from the outset, then recognising that early and intervening with additional support, or indeed not going ahead with the assignment at all, is in everyone’s best interest in the longer term. 

Spouse/family assistance: The ability of an assignee’s spouse/partner to be able to work in their chosen profession in the host location, or indeed to be able to work at all, is often a deciding factor for dual-career and dual-income families when considering an international assignment. Locations that grant working rights to accompanying dependents of sponsored employees are favoured assignment destinations, and providing career counselling or job search support, engaging with dual career network organisations, or supporting family members with host location integration can go a long way to ensuring assignment success. 

Career and performance management: Effective career and performance management in an international context involves active and regular engagement from the home and host business, HR and the assignee, which is one of the main reasons it’s not generally done as well as many would like. Uncertainly about post-assignment redeployment, a real or perceived ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude, or a ‘not my responsibility’ one, can all undermine an otherwise positive and developmental professional experience. Defined accountabilities and regular structured and informal communications between all parties can make a significant difference and become part of a strong employee value proposition.

Dual-career issues are likely to remain a challenge for the foreseeable future, and the cost of international assignments will always be a key consideration for business, but finding ways to improve the professional and personal international assignment experience for employees and their families is already in the gift of talent mobility professionals. Collaborating with talent, HR and mobility colleagues worldwide can help break down at least some these barriers to mobility.