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Insight
Insight
Global trends in healthcare from Integra Global

Why do international assignments fail?

Nearly half (42 per cent) of international work assignments fail or don’t last for the full length of time they were scheduled1.

Even more shocking is that this percentage is estimated to jump to about 70 per cent in undeveloped countries2.

Understandably, with the weighty investment attached to sending employees abroad, companies around the world are being tasked with improving their planning and processes for international assignments, in attempt to minimise the risk of a failure impacting on their businesses.

While there are a number of ways that companies can improve on their global mobility processes, it can be useful to assess why so many assignments fail in the first place. We’ve put together a list of the most common reasons below.

1. Unhappy partner or family

One of the most common reasons for an international assignment failing is due to an unhappy partner or family. It’s important to remember that every employee sent abroad is, first and foremost, a human being with a life outside work. Therefore, they will need to try to balance their international assignment with their family and home commitments.

Generally, the issue with long-term assignments is that the assignee’s partner can struggle to adapt to their new home and living abroad. While the employee has the stability of their job role to focus on throughout the week, the day-to-day challenges faced by their partner or children can be more difficult in a foreign environment, where they are away from a familiar support network. If the partner or a child doesn’t take to their new surroundings and wants to leave, that’s usually what happens.

Conversely, short-term assignments can also be difficult to manage. Often, a partner or family might elect to stay at home and not join the assignee, if the assignment length doesn’t warrant relocating all of their lives. In this case, assignees frequently struggle to be so far from their loved ones and head home ahead of schedule.

2. Culture shock

Another cause of international assignments breaking down can be severe cases of culture shock. Adjusting to a new climate, language, food and social etiquette can be stressful for anyone living abroad, leaving an assignee distracted and potentially unable to carry out their job role. These issues generally occur once the initial excitement of the move has worn off and reality sets in, causing a withdrawal from the local culture and retreat to a place of familiarity.

Culture shock usually wears off after the first 6-12 months of a move, but bad cases can cause anxiety, loneliness and even depression. These emotions are intensified if the assignee is lacking a local support network to help them. If culture shock is left untreated, it can result in an assignee moving back home before they have a chance to properly adjust. A severe response to culture shock is especially common for assignees that have never worked abroad before and haven’t been given training on what to expect emotionally.

3. A lack of preparation

Possibly the most frequent reason for international assignments failing is a lack of preparation from the employer. Before sending an employee on assignment, a company has a big responsibility to ensure that they have adequately prepared them for what they will experience. However, there are many companies don’t provide them with even basic cultural training, advice for getting settled or tips for coping with the challenges of life abroad.

A lack of preparation also results in the company choosing someone unsuited to the role. If an experienced employee is needed in a location quickly, there is a tendency to just send whoever is available right away, without thinking about who is the best candidate. Choosing someone who either doesn’t have the right skills or isn’t an appropriate cultural fit can cause both an early failure, as well as confusion and lost productivity across the rest of the team.

4. A lack of ongoing support

In addition to preparation, assignments regularly break down if the employer isn’t adequately supporting the assignee throughout their time away. The level of support given to employee before, during and following an assignment makes a huge difference to the success rate.

For example, if an assignee is struggling with their job role, but has no-one assigned to assist them, it can increase their learning curve. Further, if they don’t have anyone to answer questions on the local area, the time it takes for them to adapt to their new environment will lengthen. Companies should be providing their staff with a support network for professional and personal issues, if they want the assignee to be happy, healthy and productive in their post.

5. Too much responsibility

Lastly, giving an assignee too much responsibility – especially in the first instance – can sometimes be the cause of an assignment failure. Moving abroad in itself poses a number of complex challenges to overcome; unfamiliar surroundings, looking after family and managing culture shock. If these challenges are combined with having heightened responsibility this can be too much change to cope with, causing the assignee to abandon their assignment and head home.

If companies are sending their employees out on overseas assignments, and don’t have a strong mobility process, they are setting up them up to fail. In addition, mobility strategies need to be developed ahead of time if they are to succeed in adequately supporting international staff. Neglecting to do so risks failing to achieve the objectives of the assignment, and wasting huge financial resources in the process.

Click here to learn more about the cost of a failed international assignment
Click here to learn more about planning a successful international assignment


1 https://money.usnews.com/money/blogs/outside-voices-careers/articles/2017-08-17/how-companies-can-manage-overseas-assignments
2 https://www.forum-expat-management.com/users/18563-tim-burgess/posts/11414-international-assignment-failure-and-tracking-methods

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