Can you afford to throw away £2 million of your organisation’s money on a failed Expat Assignment?

According to Mercers ‘Worldwide Survey of International Assignment Policies and Practices’ many of the featured 750 respondees reveal that they have difficulty in measuring the precise value that an international assignment delivers.


What can be evidenced more easily is the cost of when a single assignment fails, with research telling us that it can cost a company up to £2million.

Research tells us that between 20 and 45% of expatriate assignments fail, causing corporations lose tens of millions of pounds each year.

Besides purely financial costs organisations must also consider the “invisible” costs of failure for the employee, such as low self-esteem, family problems, depression, and substance abuse. These personal issues can easily turn into high costs for corporations because of the employee’s lower performance and productivity, an increase in sick leave, and even because of the unwillingness of colleagues to accept an expatriate assignment themselves.

It is therefore essential that HR Global Mobility professionals do all they can to minimise this risk by investing time (and budget) to prepare the assignee and their families for life in a new country and culture by offering cultural awareness interventions, vital to help mitigate culture shock, but often overlooked when undertaking due diligence on expatriate assignments.

Families Matter

A number of surveys and research gives us varying results on just how significant a factor the family is in the success of an overseas assignment, but overall the agreed outcome is that family support, or lack of it, can make or break an Expat experience.

When accompanying family members are unhappy in their new country and culture, there is a very good chance that the assignment will fail as common outcomes include:

  • Poor performance during the assignment
  • Delayed productivity and start-up time
  • Disruption of relationships between host and expatriate nationals
  • Damage to company image
  • Lost opportunities
  • Negative impact on successors
  • Organisations having to return an expatriate to their home country earlier than expected.

Regardless of the circumstances many expats will have acquired a valuable portfolio of international experience, skills, and local market knowledge while abroad, and organisations run the risks of losing an expatriate within a short time-frame after being repatriated.  This may mean the loss of key management talent that can then end up with competitors.

Rising Trends in Expat Families

This rise in the number of women taking up international assignments has had a dramatic effect on the nature of how we need to address family issues for assignees.  There is a perception of those not directly involved in the practicalities, that expatriates are still living the 1970’s stereotype.   Expatriates are viewed by many as the 21st century colonials, with huge houses and salaries, house servants, drivers, gardeners, nannies, cleaners, maids – and a wife who stays at home playing bridge with other expat wives.  Assignments are seen as perks – a working holiday in an exotic location.

The reality is very different however and we need to adjust the way we think and react – this perception needs to be changed.  For those of us involved in preparing expatriates for their assignments we need to review how we support expat husbands, same and opposite sex partners, and the less traditional family units that are now common in society and which are reflected in the expatriate community.

We need to recognise the unique difficulties faced by the families who are removed from friends, families and work – those essential support structures that we rely on to construct our self-identity.  We have to take into account the cultural effects faced by men and women who have sacrificed, or at least put on hold, their career in order to support their partners.   For many men this is a situation they are not accustomed to: society is conditioned (rightly or wrongly!) to assume that the woman is the home maker and the one who will compromise career prospects to support her husband’s career, and it may be harder for a man to explain a three year gap in a work history while his partner was on an international assignment.  And what about during the assignment?  Many of the expatriate support networks are run by women for wives of expats – partners, spouses, “significant others” are assumed to be female, particularly in the Middle East and Asia

Involving the non-working partner in the relocation process

Whatever the specifics of the family unit are, the non-working partner needs to be involved and feel engaged by the relocation process.  We need to develop tailored solutions to respond to the individual circumstances of the family and the context they find themselves in.

Adapting to a new country, managing culture shock, and immersing oneself in a new life context requires individual strategies that can adapt as the situation changes.

Sheelagh Mahoney, Global Head of Intercultural Business Solutions at Farnham Castle says “by giving the whole family comprehensive cultural awareness training before they leave, further supported by in-country coaching and repatriation initiatives, companies can reduce the risk of failure of an international assignment. Only a tailored, micro-level approach will provide the greatest chance of maximising the potential of the assignment by reducing negative family issues that can, and do, affect the business outcomes. Cultural training is a cost effective way and a preventative measure to mitigate risk and help expatriate families get the most out of their assignments”.

Established for more than 50 years, the FCIT team and our network of global intercultural experts are world-renowned as quality providers of cross-cultural global solutions and international workforce development products for organisations and business travellers needing the cultural competencies to succeed in today’s globalised world.

Farnham Castle Intercultural Training programmes provide international assignees and their family members with the critical cultural information necessary to succeed both personally and professionally in their new country.

Sheelagh Mahoney
+44 1252 720406

Gustavo Aranda
+44 1252 720409


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