Mitigating the risk of relocation failure

A look at best practices to ensure costly foreign assignments don’t go awry
By Neil O’Farrell
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/09/2012

The ability to move employees across borders efficiently and economically is critical for any international firm. Industrial competitiveness, after all, stems in large part from operational flexibility.

By following best practices through the five stages of the assignment process — candidate selection, preparation for the relocation and the assignment, on-assignment, repatriation and post-repatriation — employers can mitigate the risk a relocation will fail.

And there are more than a few ways a relocation can go wrong, including: low acceptance rates of international assignments; an early return of the employee to the home country; work-related and family-related problems while on assignment; low levels of satisfaction upon return; and the resignation of the employee within two years of return from assignment, according to Worldwide ERC’s 2006 Global Benchmarking Survey.


Employers must consider an array of factors when choosing a suitable candidate. These include her mobility, ascension within the company, the extent to which the assignment will help her progress within the firm, and succession plans following repatriation.

Companies must also take into account the employee’s technical competencies relating to the assignment, meaning her relevant skills and ability to handle all tasks and work-related aspects of the new position.

Assuming the candidate is willing to take on the assignment, the essential process of pre-departure assessments begins. These assessments hold two essential purposes.

First, they enable a company to ensure the employee, and his family, are disposed, willing and fit to go on an international assignment. Second, they facilitate reflection and dialogue on the part of the employee and his family to better understand all of the implications of the move.

The initial assessments of the candidate relate to her “relational competence” concerning the assignment, meant to gauge such variables as adaptability, cultural empathy, intercultural understanding and communications, emotional stability and knowledge of foreign languages. These assessments are designed to identify red flags that may present a barrier to a successful assignment.

It’s important that companies encourage a thorough understanding of the cultural issues and implications of the employee’s destination and develop a systematic process for ensuring success in those locations that present the greatest challenges. In cases where the candidate and family are unfamiliar with the assignment country, mandatory intercultural training can be extremely beneficial.

During this phase, the company should encourage the family to reflect on and consider all facets of life that may be impacted by the appointment. It should also facilitate dialogue around whether or not they are fit for the assignment and gauge cross-cultural competence and suitability for the relocation.

Accordingly, the family (most notably the spouse) must be closely integrated into the pre-departure assessment process, particularly if it is the employee’s first move abroad. Top family challenges to foreign assignments include spouse resistance, family adjustment, children’s education and adapting to the host location. These are common reasons for costly, premature returns from international assignments.

To further maximize the value of pre-departure assessments, a long-term plan should be in place to extend the assessment findings beyond the pre-departure phase. An employer ought to use these findings throughout the assignment and, eventually, the repatriation phase, identifying possible services to assist the family and deal with possible concerns.

Employees generally take six months to settle into a new role. In an effort to improve effectiveness upon arriving in the foreign location, the employee’s managers for the assignment should be made aware of issues that may cause decreased performance, distractedness and substandard relationship-building in the new location.

Career planning and repatriation

During these initial stages, discussions should take place with the employee regarding potential career paths upon repatriation from the assignment. If the assignment provides a developmental opportunity for the employee, this should be clearly positioned in her overall career plan.

This is especially important for high-potential employees selected for key assignments, where the risk of loss to the company is greater. Thus, the company should establish objectives, a tangible succession plan and a repatriation timeline for the employee.

These should be revisited over the course of the assignment to ensure they remain valid and current.

Discussions regarding potential jobs for the returning expatriate should be initiated by HR with home country managers about six months prior to the expected date of return.

As well, a mentor from the home location should be assigned to the employee abroad to communicate regularly (preferably through monthly telephones calls) and ensure she is aware of developments on the organizational front in the home location.

This role should be included in the mentor’s professional and development goals, and will require her manager’s approval and support.

The HR professional responsible for the assignee should also keep in touch with her to ensure issues identified during the pre-departure assessments have been resolved, or to determine if further action is needed.

As the assignment approaches completion, HR has an opportunity to continue leading the process of sourcing subsequent employment for the employee, but in an increasingly inclusive and comprehensive manner.

It should work closely with the employee and international manager to ensure they understand the expectations laid out over the course of the assignment.

This will help ensure HR is equipped to proactively hold the business discussions necessary for a successful sourcing exercise. Throughout this process, it is imperative potential new managers are involved in discussions to ensure their buy-in of the returning employee.

Finally, measuring the success of an international assignment does not end with the employee’s final performance management report at the assignment location. Rather, it ought to be gauged upon completion of the repatriation process.

Determining the return on investment should include tracking retention rates, monitoring future performance management ratings of returning assignees and conducting interviews with past assignees and managers to measure their corporate engagement.

The implementation of best practices can amount to a virtuous circle in corporate relocation. Successful foreign assignments lead to company and employee satisfaction, increased payoffs and the likelihood high-potential employees will be eager to take up such assignments in the future.

In a corporate climate that values aptitude and mobility, such achievements will give international firms a crucial edge.

Neil O’Farrell is an analyst at Ward O’Farrell Consultants in Montreal. The firm, which specializes in the benchmarking, design and implementation of employee mobility programs, also has an office in Toronto and can be reached at (514) 697-3857, (905) 474-4080 or

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