Published : Sep 1, 2017

Learn From Other’s Mistakes; Why Foreign Assignments Frequently Fail

A foreign assignment is one of the costliest investments a company can make in a single employee.

Costs can run from about $400,000 to more than $1 million a year, according to the Society for Human Resource Managers. Yet, between 40 percent to 50 percent of foreign assignments are unsuccessful (higher in some developing countries), costing businesses hundreds of millions a year.

Understanding why foreign postings fail helps to understand how to make them succeed.


Family issues represent one of the most common reasons expatriate assignments go sour.


Many companies spend thousands of dollars preparing workers for a foreign post, including cultural and language training. Many, however, forget to include their families, particularly the spouse.

He or she often find themselves isolated in a strange land, with different customs, surrounded by people speaking a language they don’t understand. Often, there is little or no in-country support to help them adapt.

Unhappy spouses result in unhappy, frustrated employees.

Less recognized, isolation of the employee him or herself.

The old cliché, “out of sight, out of mind,” applies here.

There needs to be some mechanism, or someone responsible, to ensure expats are kept informed, involved and current on corporate affairs. Most employees also want regular feedback on their performance, just like they receive at headquarters.

These also help them re-acclimate once they return home.

Choosing the wrong employee condemns the foreign assignment right from the start.

Just because a person performs well at home doesn’t mean he or she will be a success abroad.

Some questions to consider:

  • Is he or she flexible or rigid?
  • Are they willing to invest some of themselves in understanding foreign values and customs?
  • Is he or she really confident in themselves? More than one executive has frozen due to lack of confidence when making a presentation to a foreign audience.
  • Is the employee up to handling the vastly increased responsibility and exposure that often comes with a foreign assignment?
  • Is he or she capable of nurturing foreign talent abroad?

The cost or relocation is not as expensive as the cost of failure. Fences may have to be mended, relationships repaired and a new employee will be dispatched at even greater expense.

There’s also a cost related to the employee who came home. A significant percentage leave their jobs within two to five years, sometimes to join a competitor.

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