Developing Cultural Competency for International Assignments: What We Can Learn from Expatriate Challenges

Categories: Global Leadership, Global Mindset, Global Mobility

We are in a time that is considered an era of rapid change as multinationals pave a new path to growth in a global marketplace.  What has emerged is a new workforce with varying demographics, needs and expectations.

Talent management has become a growing imperative and expatriate assignments play an increasingly critical role in executing international business strategies and developing global leaders.

Importance of International Assignments

The number of international assignments among multinationals grew by 25% since 2000 due to the strategic role they play.[1] Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC) predicts there will be further 50% growth through 2020. In the talent market, skilled employees with experience in more than one country are increasingly viewed as valuable.

According to a recent survey by KPMG (2015), 86 percent of survey participants say their international assignments will stay the same or increase over the next five years.[2] A report by Brookfield (2015) yielded similar results where 88 percent of survey participants say their international assignments will stay the same or increase.[3]

The assignment types, however, have evolved over the years. In previous years, sending seasoned technical experts made up 70 percent of assignment types. Now, the number has decreased to under 40 percent to make room for additional new types of talent companies are sending, for example, Strategic leaders for mission critical roles; Emerging high potentials; Career-building volunteers.[4] Consider these points:

  • 57 percent of companies expect the number of key or strategic assignments to increase, 51% expect to deploy a higher number of younger assignees[5]
  • A report by Brookfield found that 43 percent of employees who have international experience are promoted faster when compared to employees without international experience.
  • In the Deloitte Human Capital Trends report, the most urgent global talent issues cited were: Leadership development and Retention / Engagement[6]
  • In one of PwC’s annual CEO survey, over 50% of those surveyed said that international assignments are an effective means to build the leadership pipeline[7]

Challenges & Risks

While international assignments are becoming more strategic, there are challenges and risks for organizations. For example, recruiting challenges due to employee concerns about the impact an international move can have on families and careers. About 32 percent of workers polled have said they have turned down overseas assignments because they were concerned how it might affect their families, due to the significance of uprooting a family or spouses who must interrupt their career path. Regarding the growing issue of dual-career couples, a study by KMPG showed that 58 percent of employees are less likely to put themselves forward for an assignment and 34 percent feel it will increase chances of assignment failure.[2] 

Other challenges include the increased pressure to reduce costs of international assignments while at the same time focus on developing talent. This has forced companies to perform a balancing act between operations and strategy. It’s a constant tension for Mobility and Talent Strategy functions:  How do I develop talent, while cutting costs? First, let’s understand the costs. A familiar statistic is a typical assignment costs at least two to three times an employee’s annual salary or $1million (US) per assignee.[9] 

As you validate the cost of sending someone, HR has historically managed the operations or tactical role of international assignments, for example developing policy, spouse and family support and managing risk. The HR function knows how to do that. However, another set of complexities and costs arise when adding strategic talent development, for example, leadership development, diversity and inclusion (think about that question for companies trying to leverage females in the workforce), engagement on assignment and retention (which factors in repatriation issues).

In the past, companies tried to measure ROI of international assignments by looking at assignment failure, defined by expats that return home early. Over time, that became challenging as the complexities of assignments emerged. For example, how do you measure the failure of someone still on assignment but is not doing well? These are commonly referred to as “brown outs” and present another layer of challenges. How do you measure the impact of project delays, damaged client relationships and underperforming teams?

There has been a shift in the recent years in how ROI is measured. In reports published from industry leaders such as E&Y and Brookfield, the common findings are: measuring ROI is not a priority.  Alternately, there is more focus on the front end.  Instead of spending energy in developing new ROI methods, more focus is on choosing the right people using a formalized assessment process and providing development such as cultural competency training for expatriates and receiving managers, mentoring the expatriate on assignment and establishing a repatriation strategy prior to the assignment start.

The Importance of Cultural Competency Training for International Assignments

A simple way to support success of an international assignment is to provide cultural competency training.  Historically, training has been highly valued by companies, especially cultural integration programs to support the expatriate and their families.  A Brookfield report found that 83 percent of companies surveyed felt cultural competency training for expatriates was good or great.[3]

The learning programs that are most effective go beyond the basic do’s and don’ts of host country culture and is personalized for the expatriate. During a pre-departure or post-arrival program, such as Aperian Global’s Thriving in a New Culture, the focus is to equip the assignee with tools and strategies intended to increase their effectiveness on the job. This builds a foundation for success by preparing the assignee specifically for the demands of their job in a new host country, as well as supports them upon repatriation. Essential country knowledge and practical strategies are outlined to ease the settling-in process for the expatriate as well as the spouse and children. The learning is then mapped to tactical plans that the expatriate and family can apply as they go throughout the international assignment life cycle.

To enhance the effectiveness and personalization of the expatriate’s cultural competency training, the focus can include the results of an assessment report used during the candidate selection process. For example, Aperian Global’s Global Readiness Development AssessmentSM helps evaluate an assignee’s readiness for a global assignment and provides comprehensive insight into the areas of preparation that need to be addressed. Linking those development areas to the pre-departure or post-arrival learning positions the expatriate on a track for success.

While on assignment, learning can continue with access to cultural intelligence resources such as GlobeSmart®, a learning platform with information that provides reliable guidance on how to interact effectively with individuals in other countries. Then after the assignment, Aperian Global’s clients often request a Repatriation Workshop, Leveraging Your International Assignment which focuses on strategies to effectively transition back life in their home country, both at work and personally.

Comprehensive cross-cultural training is important for many reasons:

  • Improves productivity during an assignment by developing strategies to establish relationships, develop trust with locals, hone leadership skills
  • Provides assignees and their families with specific strategies to read cultural behavior and learn protocol
  • Supports the family adjustment process by focusing on specific needs for moving to a new country, meeting people, transitioning to a new school
  • Mitigates the risks of international assignments
  • Offers receiving managers of expatriates and repatriates with practical skills to leverage their new employee
  • Provides team members with global mindset skills to develop strategies that bridge cultural gaps

Quite simply, comprehensive cross-cultural training is not only about learning cultural etiquette. It is about providing your assignees, their families and their manager and co-workers with the practical knowledge and actionable strategies to support a successful assignment. It also addresses some of the most common problems leading to failed assignments and works to mitigate them.

Common Challenges Faced by Expatriates

While companies may face a number of challenges when it comes managing international assignments, it is important to consider the challenges for expatriates, especially those that arise once they are well into the assignment and start the settling in process at work and in daily life.

These are some key challenges that assignees may face.

1. Inadequate Preparation for Adjusting to a New Culture

An employee is usually excited about the idea of a new work opportunity in another country. The potential to develop professionally and experience living in a new country are few of the reasons employees choose to go. However, those who are transferred to another country involuntarily may have mixed emotions about the transition. Regardless of the reason for going on an assignment, all expatriates have to face the cultural adjustment process at the workplace and in daily life.

Getting settled into a new city even in one’s home country can be challenging. Add the layer of moving internationally and a new set of unknowns arise. The expatriate is required to perform effectively in a new job while navigating through a new landscape filled with new rules – some visible and many not so visible – that influences people’s actions and thinking. Simply setting up an Internet connection, purchasing groceries or finding a good location to live can seem daunting when there are new rules that guide the way to communicate and accomplish tasks. Many assignees are shocked by the transition to get settled, even when a company handles most of the steps.  Inadequate preparation for the personal adjustments are not covered in a relocation checklist but are covered in a cultural training session.

2. Transitioning to a New Workplace Environment

The process of working effectively in the new role is an essential component of the international assignment as it is the reason they are there. Adjusting to the workplace can be just as challenging as getting settled at home. Many expatriates report workplace challenges such as:  not having clear job roles, minimal support from the receiving manager or difficulties navigating the language and cultural barriers in the office. For example, an expatriate may have to learn how to make decisions, meet deadlines and communicate with others in a more hierarchical structure instead of the flatter, more independent structure she or he worked in previously. Or a junior employee who is more indirect out of respect for senior leaders may struggle to open up in a more direct, egalitarian framework where speaking up is valued.

3. Family Adaptation Challenges

Nearly 75 percent of the international assignee population surveyed in a recent Brookfield study are married / have partners.[3] Of the assignees that have children, the same study found that over 50 percent of children go on assignment.  Families on global assignments sometimes encounter problems assignees they were not prepared for and the impact to the assignment success cannot be overstated.  Countless studies over the years have identified the number one reason for expatriate failure was the spouse or partner’s inability to adjust.

A Brookfield study found that 75% of international assignees are married, and 50% of children of those couples go on assignment.

If an employee is an unaccompanied assignment, they have to factor in the loss of the support structure of the family and how to manage life back home. If expatriates have an accompanying family, they have to factor in the adjustment process for more than themselves.

Some of the family challenges include:

  • Finding work for the spouse; in many cases spouses are not allowed to work in the host country due to visa restrictions
  • Finding adequate housing in neighborhoods that meet needs of the family
  • Selecting appropriate schools that allows for easy transfer of grade and curriculum requirements from home country school or finding schools to support special needs
  • Navigating language and cultural barriers that impact developing relationships and building relationships
  • Managing the feeling of culture shock, homesickness, and in some cases, depression

Offering assignees resources and training to address family issues and concerns is a positive step in mitigating these risks.

4. Going off of the Radar OR Out-of-Sight, Out-of-Mind Syndrome

Many expatriates report the feeling of being forgotten while on assignment. This is due to the lack of support from the home office, unclear job guidelines or unexpected changes in the assignment. Many expatriates wished they had access to a mentor, cultural liaison or cultural bridge.  Others wanted more frequent check-ins from HR or the home office to ensure they are getting the support they need. At the beginning of an assignment, especially, assignees may not yet have a professional network of support or may still be adjusting to a new culture. Added support can be helpful.

5. Repatriation Concerns

Returning home or repatriation still represents a significant challenge that often fall on the employee to manage.

About 64 percent of companies do not have a formal repatriation strategy, according to one poll.[3] Many organizations do not have a plan in place to help retain assignees or assist them with career management upon return.

This lack of strategy can be a problem. Repatriates often report “reverse culture shock” when they returning home. Common challenges in the workplace can be:

  • Lack of job clarity in the home office
  • Unsatisfactory handling of the repatriation process
  • International experience not valued or utilized
  • Less authority / Loss of prestige
  • Adjusting to decreased autonomy
  • Readjustment to a changed corporate environment
  • Feeling isolated and out of the loop
  • Lack of understanding by peers or manager; cultural barrier put up by the workforce at the home office that did not have global mindset training

Common challenges in transitioning back to life outside of work include:

  • Unexpected culture shock
  • Reverse homesickness
  • Loss of social status as an expatriate
  • Spouse re-starting a career
  • Children re-entering school
  • Uncertainty about housing or re-establishing a household
  • Lack of understanding, interest and support from friends
  • People seeing the “wrong” changes in you
  • Seeing things with a new perspective or “critical eyes” and not being understood

If the re-adjustment challenges are not addressed, it increases the chance of the employee to seek opportunities elsewhere, many times to a competitor. Nearly 25 percent of repatriates leave their company within one year of returning if they are not leveraged.[3] For the assignment to be a success, companies need to enable the assignee to integrate effectively back home and share knowledge gained while on assignment.

Setting the International Assignment Up for Success

Mitigating risk in international assignments is crucial for organizations. Failure can hurt a company’s future and can in some cases harm goodwill with international clients and markets. When considering the costs of sending an employee on an international assignment, typically two to three times the professional’s normal salary or $1 million (USD) as cited at the beginning of this article, failure comes at a high price.

There are several ways to set the assignment up for success and reduce the risks:

1. Take a Talent Development Approach to Selection

Carefully consider your team and consider employees who are ambitious and have the global readiness skills needed for the work. Look beyond just the technical skills needed for the assignment and the adaptability to adjust to cross-cultural environments. Ideally, implement a candidate assessment process that uses validated instruments and a behavioral interview to make informed choices about confirming and prepare employees for assignments.

2. Provide Cultural Competency Training

It’s important to provide global mindset training that allows the expatriate to work effectively in the new workplace such as: team integration, establish credibility, communicate effectively, manage people, become a global leader. Additionally, the training can help prepare the employee and their family to adjust to the day-to-day living aspect of moving to a new country. Providing global mindset training for the manager and team members are equally important.  By understanding the influence of cultural values and beliefs on performance, the expatriate is more prepared to work effectively with the receiving manager as well as integrate smoothly into the team and contribute positively to the organization.

3. Invest in Growth and Developing Future Leaders

Successful assignments help a business grow by expanding services or products into growth markets and by creating new work opportunities for workers interested in living and working internationally.

A good international assignment exposes and enhances assignees cross-cultural skills and knowledge, lets them develop new leadership potential, and exposes them to new ideas, making them stronger employees in the future.

4. Create a New Exchange of Knowledge and Skills

Well-planned international assignments allow for the free flow of information, enriching all parties and ultimately the organization. International assignees can forge new allies in different regions of the world, including new mentors, networks, clients and potential leads.

Learn More from Aperian Global

If your organization is looking to reduce the risks of overseas assignments while improving your return on investment, Aperian Global offers a variety of face-to-face and virtual learning programs designed specifically with international assignees in mind. Whether you are sending a team or just one professional to another country or around the world, Aperian Global offers consistent programs for any location around the world.

We’ve already helped more than 16,000 workers and their families through our Global Mobility program. We offer support pre-assignment, on assignment, and during repatriation to fully support your team to peak performance at every stage. We can help your assignees gain confidence and improve productivity.

Aperian Global works with more than 170 consultants and 4,000 cultural specialists to deliver programs offering the best cross-cultural knowledge and understanding to you.




[1] Talent Mobility 2020: The next generation of international assignments, PwC, 2010

[2] KPMG Global Assignment Policies and Practices, 2015

[3] Brookfield Global Mobility Trends Survey, 2015

[4] Mercer Worldwide Survey of International Assignment Policies & Practices, 2012

[5] Mercer Worldwide Survey of International Assignment Policies and Practices report, 2015

[6] Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends, 2014

[7] PwC 16th Annual Global CEO Survey 2013


[9] Worldwide ERC & Towers Watson, Global Talent Mobility Report: Regional Differences in Policies and Practices, 2012