What to know before accepting an international assignment

SchoolChoiceA career goal has come to fruition: you’re being asked to relocate and go on your first international assignment! You know it’ll be an adjustment, but you’ve always wanted to live and work in another country. As is often the case, though, expectations can be much different than the reality, so before you accept a global mobility assignment, do your homework and keep the following in mind. It’s your job and your life and, if you accept the corporate relocation, you want to enjoy both.

Impact on your spouse/partner: Couples must carefully assess the relocation’s potential impact on the non-assignee (or “trailing spouse”). The spouse or partner may have to change his or her career — or at least put it on hold — while the assignee advances. The “trailing spouse” is a critical element with regard to an assignment’s success, or lack of it. According to a recent Forbes article (“Are You Ready to Lead Overseas?”) the most frequent reason for assignment failure is the spouse’s negative reaction. If there are children, their ability to thrive in the new environment is also a key factor.

Culture shock: For some there will be an obvious language barrier, but even between “same language” countries, there are cultural differences that take getting used to. To help prepare assignees, companies should provide cross-cultural coaching and offer online courses. Candidates should also be screened for cultural intelligence (or CQ), a skill that is often underestimated when it comes to assignment success. (Individuals with a sharp CQ empathize well and blend with the environment, yet remain self-aware.)

The U-curve: This is one of the adjustments many expats experience when settling into a new culture writes Katharine Boshkoff, head of Career Development and Alumni Relations at the Hult International Business School. “They often feel an initial euphoria, which is understandable – they are overly enamored of their new surroundings and haven’t run into any barriers … But over time, many people commonly experience a ‘trough’ stage, whereby they quickly become stressed or fatigued by all the challenges of the new environment, and may long to return to more familiar surroundings.” Although this phase doesn’t last forever, she says, getting through it can be a challenge.

Your taste buds: Your favorite foods may not exist in the new location, nor the ingredients needed to recreate them. So here’s where you’ll need to embrace the local cuisine, which for some people in some locations can be a challenge. (Dried minnows anyone?) On the other hand, it can also be far, far better than what you left behind.

The reality of repatriation: According to KPMG’s International Assignment Policies and Practices Survey 2014, one of the biggest challenges assignees face is repatriating after a long-term assignment, or a series of shorter ones. Some expats are sad to see the assignment end and have difficulties re-acclimating into a family or community. It can also be frustrating when others seem unable to understand what they’ve experienced.

Know before you go: If possible, go on a look-see trip before you accept an assignment, especially if it’s in a location with safety concerns. According to the Forbes article, this is a big factor: “… the range of failed expat assignments fluctuates between 10 and 50 percent depending on the country – with executives transferred to an emerging economy facing a higher risk of failure than those sent to a developed one.”