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Jobs overseas can be a tough gamble

The inability of families to adapt is the biggest problem for expatriates.
The inability of families to adapt is the biggest problem for expatriates.

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NEW YORK (Reuters) -- An overseas assignment might be a dream come true for many.

But for corporate executives trying to set up a household half a world away, it is stark reality.

Even while caught up in the excitement and buoyed by prospects of a promotion, expatriates are required to juggle cultural differences, meet job expectations, find schools for their children and keep a spouse feeling productive.

As companies continue rapid expansion overseas, they must choose candidates wisely.

"In today's global organizations, having an international viewpoint and business experience may be a prerequisite for an executive-level position," said Sherry Harsch-Porter, founder of The Porter Bay Groups, an international consulting company based in St. Louis, Missouri.

"International assignments give employees a keen edge for future promotions."

But people with international experience are not in great supply, making it an expensive gamble for both sides.

"The cost of sending a mid-level manager on a three-year international assignment can easily exceed $1 million," Harsch-Porter said. Consequently, to have assignments fail or a repatriated manager leave the company is a disaster.

In searching for the right candidate, companies look for certain profiles. The top three most desirable traits for an international candidate and spouse are maturity/emotional stability, introspection and intelligence.

To head off low productivity, expatriates are encouraged to communicate any fears or uncertainties during the adjustment period. Some companies provide a hotline for their employees and families to call if they encounter even routine problems, such as setting up a bank account or dealing with a neighbor.

"Expectations vary a great deal from culture to culture and difficulty can arise between bosses and subordinates," said Sheida Hodge, Worldwide Managing Director of the Cross-Cultural Division for Berlitz International Inc., which provides training for orientation and relocation.

"Global savvy is required for success," she said, citing a complex example of one client - a German from Spain working in France for an American boss.

"France and Spain are very hierarchical and there is a lot of respect for managers. Do not call them by their first names and do not contradict them - openly or privately," she said.

"In Austria and Germany, authority is based on expertise. So, if the boss is not an expert on a certain topic, the subordinate has a right to challenge him," said Hodge

Berlitz, with 450 locations in more than 60 countries worldwide, offers a two-day program for expats-to-be.

"The purpose is to give them an understanding for what is awaiting them," Hodge said. "Day One deals with the nuts and bolts of living in a country and Day Two is about business culture and managing one's career in a new environment."

Adequate preparation is significant, because the most common reason that overseas assignments fail is the inability of the employee's family to adapt.

"Employees offered an international assignment must often choose between what is best for their career and what's best for their family," Harsch-Porter said. "This is particularly true when trailing spouses have to derail their own careers."

Generally, the greater the cultural difference, the greater the difficulty in adjusting.

Yet, from a U.S. perspective, anecdotal evidence indicates the assignment most likely to fail is in Britain.

"When Americans go to Britain, they think it will be just like here. But, even with a common language, they go through a profound culture shock because the way business is done is very different, often resulting in failed expectations on both sides," said Harsch-Porter. "The company doesn't prepare employees well enough and they, in turn, expect things to be different than they are."

Conversely, says Berlitz' Hodge, foreigners get confused when they come here, expecting open and friendly relations.

"U.S. companies are much more hierarchical than traditional, but it's not a power thing. Americans value efficiency and timeliness," Hodge said. "Managers get paid a lot to make quick decisions and foreigners may get completely disoriented. Americans, on the other hand, need to be more patient and slow-paced if going to work in Japan."

While recent surveys show that companies have been more hesitant to relocate employees overseas, Harsch-Porter said, the reason is not, as some believe, due to safety issues brought about by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"It seems to be more a reflection of the economy," she said. "And, as a greater percentage of revenue is generated outside the headquarters country, finding leaders with international expertise is likely to remain a priority."

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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