DOES CULTURE REALLY MAKE A DIFFERENCE IN EXPAT ASSIGNMENTS?

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For as long as I can remember, selecting the best candidates for expat assignments that guard against early returns has plagued all global companies and still continues to do so.

Some recent data reveals that globally, early returns range from 16-40 percent with higher returns in US expat programs, somewhat lower rates in European countries and the lowest rates in Japan. The research also continues to reveal that the primary reasons for early returns are a spouse or other family member’s inability to adjust; a manager’s personal or emotional immaturity and a manager’s inability to deal with a larger overseas responsibility. Although not described as such, often times, within the “inability to adapt” on the part of the manager, lies the issue of cultural adaptation or the lack thereof.

If this is the case, then why is it that selection procedures are often devoid, or place little emphasis on concerns about cultural differences and attitudes about others, and more concern on the technical or managerial competence of potential expat candidates? Simply put, expat assignments historically are recorded in terms of the need to provide the transfer of management expertise, or some form of technical knowledge with little concern over the “fit” of a candidate
to a county or a region and any unique characteristics or differences in culture and cultural norms. Cultural cross-training helps, but one cannot train someone to reject their own inherent beliefs or bias.

I would suggest that in any expat selection process the formulation of the job description or needs analysis for all expat assignments begin with a specific and articulated identification of some of the key cultural differences in the assignment such as the reverence given in some countries to levels of education, the ability to manage in a diverse, controlled, and sometimes autocratic, rule-ladened work environment – or the opposite. Other important cultural differences may lie in understanding how work is accomplished. Work is accomplished in all organizations by the strength of the respect of work groups, peer levels and their relationships with one another – and not exclusively by written policies and practices. Understanding country norms or business practices of timeliness and attendance, family and religious
practices, etc. often make the difference between failure and success.

In essence, technical competence and experience in the home country of an expat may be of less value than the ability to accomplish goals in a broader context overlaid by cultural norms. Also, the ability to communicate and speak the language of a country can go a long way in overcoming the acceptance of an expat. Although globally, the language of business is English, this is no excuse for not learning a new language in order to make the transition of an expat and family members to a foreign country a great deal easier and gain cultural acceptance at the same time. In short, while cultural differences and acceptance may not be as important in temporary or short term expat assignments, for longer, more permanent assignments, they may make the difference between success and failure and should be of utmost importance in the selection process.

In pure monetary terms, early returns mean a “big hit” to the bottom line of any company. However, there is a hidden cost of an early return that is rarely calculated in terms of the damage done by an expat who leaves behind a bad experience in people management, damage to business relationships of the company, and disrupts the effectiveness of short and long term corporate goals. Accordingly, HR professionals should consider weighting more heavily the assessment of cultural differences of their selection process and thus seek to improve the effectiveness and
the bottom line of the organization.

 

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About Ron C.Pilenzo 2 Articles
Ron Pilenzo has over 50 years of experience in HR with several Fortune 100 companies, is president & CEO of his own international consulting firm headquartered in Hobe Sound, Florida and is the retired President of RM, the world’s largest HR professional society. He was given the George Petitipas Award as the person contributing the most to HR in the world by the World Federal of People Management (WFPMA) in 1990. His ducation includes a BBA (cum laude), and a MBA from the University of Detyroit and a PhD in International Business from KennedyWestern University in 2005.