International Business – Preparing For An Overseas Assignment

International Business – Preparing For An Overseas Assignment

Selecting employees to work overseas and establishing proper career paths for overseas personnel is only the tip of the iceberg. Equally important is the training and preparation they and their families receive before and during an assignment.

If a high failure rate as well as sub par performance is to be avoided, certain guidelines must be followed. In particular awareness of two of the most common problems:

o Misdirected orientation that fails to take into account differences in individual perceptions of overseas environments.

o Organizational diffusion that afflicts any expatriate placement system that does not integrate selection, orientation and repatriation functions into a conceptually and procedurally cohesive system.

Individual Perceptions

Technical skills and professional knowledge are not at issue here: of the majority of expatriates who fail in overseas jobs, studies show that about 80 percent fail because or poor personal adjustment rather than inadequate technical or job skills.

For all levels of employees, however, the costs of mistaken expatriation include the costs of initial recruitment, relocation expenses, premium compensation, repatriation costs and replacement costs as well as the tangible costs of poor on the job performance. Evaluation of the reasons for overseas failure and a review of the burgeoning literature on this subject indicate however, that an important “first principle” of human relations is either ignored or insufficiently considered. That is the fact that individuals differ in their perceptions of the same reality.

This therefore, is the singular most destructive aspect of current expatiate cultural preparation. Regrettably information is delivered in a video or a one day talk by a self styled “expert” all of which fit neatly into the American mentality for the quick fix and thus have enormous appeal. Unfortunately these programs generally do more damage than good. They tend to leave in their wake individuals conditioned to respond to stereotypes rather than think for themselves. Instead of attempting to convey “the truth about Tokyo” – orientation programs should make clear that employees and family members will experience their own Tokyos. No matter what they may have heard or read, their experiences will be unique. Consider how difficult it might be to describe the essence of America to a foreigner who has no reference points. How do you explain New York vs California or the South? If the right individuals are selected, they themselves will take the necessary time to study the country – its history and culture. In addition they will discover that local nationals, sensing genuine interest will go overboard assisting in their understanding. In the long term this is the only cultural orientation that is effective because each family assimilates it at its own pace and from its own perspective.


In the system suggested herein, the normally separate selection, orientation and repatriation processes represent a continuum through which employees are identified, oriented to their new assignment and when appropriate, prepared for their return to the U.S.. Repatriation in this system is functionally integrated with the selection/orientation process. Allowing those who help identify employees for overseas assignments to calibrate their judgment by knowing the “who what and why” of returnees–failures as well as “success stories”.

As noted in an earlier paper, foreign assignments should be part of a company’s overall well planned and well communicated career development program for certain pre-selected employees, instead of a “plum” available to only a few or a career interruption suffered by the unlucky.

In light of the perception problems discussed earlier, the orientation program should consist of three elements – all designed to provide the proper mind set. This would include:

An initial orientation

o Culture

A general overview of country traditions/history; government/economy; and living conditions, all designed to provide a sense of the country and its people with a strong emphasis on flexibility rather than rules for specific situations and the opinions (often erroneous) of others.

o Assignment

Job requirements and expectations, length of assignment, expatriate benefits including salary/allowances; tax consequences; repatriation policy.

o Relocation

Clothing/housing requirements; health requirements; visa requirements, shipping/packing of goods to be sent overseas, storage of stateside household; US home disposal/rental, overseas housing

A pre-departure orientation

Because the initial orientation often takes place a month or more before actual departure, a pre-departure orientation is recommended. This is to provide employees and their families with information they will need in transit and upon arrival as well as emphasize material that had been covered earlier. Also covered:

o A basic introduction to the language, more likely to be remembered when the opportunity to use it is close at hand.

o Further reinforcement of key behavioral values especially open mindedness.

o Enroute, emergency and arrival information.

Arrival orientation.

Upon arrival, the employee and his/her family should be met at the airport or other debarkation point by an assigned company sponsor to ease transition through the first month in country.


Too often expatriate orientation programs and policies lose sight of the fact that ours is a culturally pluralistic society made up of individuals with an almost limitless range of attitudes and reactions to what they see, hear and experience. Experience itself in the foreign environment without and overpowering and often misleading orientation program will ultimately determine the attitudes necessary to a productive and thriving adjustment.

Within this conceptual framework. an effective overseas staffing system has been suggested that unifies the aims and functions of selection, orientation and repatriation. Such an approach permits management to take advantage or the fact that all three processes are related and each corroborates the effectiveness of the other.

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