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Effective Intercultural training & expat posting

by Liz Trapichler


Some HR managers still wonder why expat failure rates seem to remain high in spite of the increasing number of intercultural training programmes.

This article is to reflect that intercultural training is just part of the ‘expat relating HR management portfolio’. It is an important slice but not the whole cake!

Mystified expatriate failure rates

Expatriate failure rates are rather difficult to measure. A lot of research (predominantly on American expat postings) failed to deliver an adequate data-base of findings and relating research methodology. As a consequence, quite a few vulnerable results have been published. Notwithstanding, some conclusions have been derived, for instance that failure rates among American expatriates are higher than those among European countries and Japan. (You can find a brief overview of some research results in R. Mead: International Management Cross-Cultural Dimensions, 2nd Edition, p.400)

There have been no universally relevant findings on the expat failure rates, which is no wonder when considering significant cross-cultural differences in numerous cultural dimensions on the one hand, and ‘individual concerns‘, on the other hand. These later mentioned aspects call for a number of delicate HR issues like recruitment and selection, training and motivation, and not least, managing the family situation.

This later mentioned aspect has been gaining more and more importance. Reassuring evidence coming from practice suggest that the role of spouses is crucially important in successful expat posting. Supporting ‘double careers’ in a family, care and education of children, host-country housing, advising on shopping and life-style differences, as well as opportunities etc. should also be part of the relating HR planning.

Again, based on very little empirical proof, at universities are often lectured that nine out of ten expat’s failures are family-related. Let it just be 50% of the reasons, the relevance is self-evident.

HR relevance:

It is crucial not to underestimate the relevance of expat failure rate. Expatriate failure has clear economic consequences. Moving expenses which can run into the hundreds of thousands of Euros in case of high-level executives or even worse, the company is losing a million EUR corporate investment in the executive and number of dependents; just to mention some examples from the company point of view without the the list being intended to be exhaustive. It is interesting to examine the other side as well, i.e. the manager might suffer a loss of self-esteem, promotion opportunities, motivation etc. A vicious circle that might set back his/her career.

Highlights of relating HR management:

  • appropriate recruitment and selection process:

(some basic criteria: competence, flexibility, adaption, problem solving, communication, motivation, mental and psychological criteria, ethnic affinity etc.)

It is desirable to measure some competencies like empathy, openness, conflict-management abilities etc. so that intercultural trainings are more efficient, and also later, it helps the candidate finding his/her feet.

  • investigation on the family situation:

(spouse adjustment programmes, nursery school, education for the children, further education and/or help with job applications for the spouse etc.)

  • high-quality cross-cultural training:

in order to develop people’s awareness of the cultural differences and to understand their own ‘culture web’

to develop people’s knowledge and understanding of the reasons behind them

to enable them to manage successfully across cultures (including limiting the impacts of country shock, culture shock and reverse culture shock)

  • not least, basic language, culture training in order to bridge the language trap

  • on-going individual support and mentoring during the whole period of assignment:

flexible working support (technical back-up, communication, training, career security, promotion chances etc.)

on-going support for living (housing, medical facilities, educational shopping, customs, insurance cultural support, social events, holiday etc.)


Professional cross-cultural training is not the sole end having an impact on the success of expatriate postings. A specialized expat candidate selection process, on-site family programmes, culture and language trainings, as well as ongoing professional mentoring programmes are all key success factors. Notwithstanding, cross-cultural trainings place improved human resource capability at the centre of growth and development, an absolute must for international companies in the 21st century.

Further food for thoughts…

The dilemma between expatriate posting vs. local contract still remains. On the one hand, it is often believed that it is more effective to train candidates willing to receive local contracts. One argument is that they really want it, as opposed to expats in time of necessity. Notwithstanding, in case of many assignments there is no chance to avoid expat postings. Not least, because the expat is not only the ambassador of the head office to this country, but oftentimes its general with far-reaching decision-making powers. (S)He will have to have an intimate experience of the head office’s corporate culture and strategic goals, as well as of the local surroundings of the country (s)he is posted. Locals will usually excel in the latter, while lacking substantially in the former, if they have not been expats themselves at the company’s headquarters.

I do believe that those expats with just local contracts do receive the best cross-cultural training ever, namely, they get first hand experience. The more you see and experience, the more you know. However, it requires fluency in the target countries native language, as well as cultural openness. But if the best possible candidates will apply for positions offering, usually quite less favourable local terms, is to be questioned. For instance, many managers will bring their families with them and without the – expensive but necessary – family programmes previously enumerated in place, the spouse cannot play the required supporting role and be a success factor. Moreover, even being an expat within Western EU countries can mean huge losses in salaries and wealth, for instance, going from Germany to Spain in many cases. Why should the best candidates be willing to work for less? Of course, this might be less important for high potentials just graduated from college. They might, quite correctly, see the expat position as an investment in their careers.

Those expats who are basically just interested in a given project or assignment but not really the local culture, tend to be disinterested in being involved in local social life, for instance. They often fly home for the weekend, which is crucial for social relationship building. In many Arab countries, meeting in person several times a year is an absolute must for effective business relationships. Being invited to their homes is a great honour, comparatively rarely extended. On the other hand, it always in entails the expectation of an invitation to the expat’s home and hearth. But how should this be possible if he is just a long-term hotel visitor? So at the end of the assignment, they hardly gain any additional cultural competence.

Unfortunately, such “suitcase” candidates are likely to fall into the failure rate percentage, in spite of even the highest-quality intercultural education. Therefore , the challenge for HR professionals and managers is to have an effective selection process verifying the cultural openness of potential candidates and not least to prepare then the candidates appropriately to the overseas assignment

© 2009 by Erzsébet Trapichler, last edited 29 June, 2011.

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