International HR: An essay on expatriate selection

工商管理碩士 [gōngshāngguǎnlǐshuòshì] MBA This is an essay I wrote for the subject International and Comparative Human Resource Management at La Trobe. The topic for the essay is:

It is argued that technical ability, cross cultural suitability, family requirements (including those of dual career couples) and host country language skills are critical criteria that must be considered in the selection of an expatriate for an overseas assignment.

Hopefully, this posting will help other masters students of IHR with their assignment and/or comprehension of the subject. Please leave a comment if you find it useful or would want to ask a question.

Question one:

Discuss and critically analyse the importance of each of the criteria mentioned above in the selection of an expatriate employee.

The trend of overseas assignments has been steadily increasing over the past few decades although there have been short-term reductions in assignments during times of financial crisis such as in 2001 and 2008/2009 (Brookfield Global Relocation Services, 2010). The annual report published by Brookfield Global Relocation Services (2010) shows some interesting statistics that underlines the importance of the selection criteria for expatriates. For example, only 10% of expatriates had previous overseas experience, 70% of expatriates were married while only 79% of these had spouses or partners accompanying them while only 47% had children accompanying them. The report also shows the emerging destinations are China, Singapore, the United States, and India where China, Russia and India were the most challenging destinations. McCaughey & Bruning (2005) indicate that failure rates are ranging between 25% and 40% while the respondents in the Brookfield Global Relocation Services  (2010) report showed 6% of all assignments were deemed as failures. Of these failures, spouse/partner satisfaction was the main reason (65%), inability to adapt (47%), other family concerns (40%) and poor candidate selection (39%) (Brookfield Global Relocation Services, 2010).

Failed overseas assignments do not only result in costly premature repatriation, possible loss of revenues and goodwill but could also damage an organisation’s ability to find other willing candidates for replacement (Gertsen, 1990; McCaughey & Bruning, 2005). McCaughey & Bruning (2005) suggest that such failures boils down to a disconnect between human resource management practices and expatriate practices and that they can be prevented.

The statistics from the Brookfield report confirms some of the criteria in the essay question but doesn’t answer the importance of them in the selection stage. In the coming sections, the essay will discuss and critically analyse the importance of the given selection criteria using academic literature.

The importance of different selection criteria is depending on the overseas position that needs to be filled. For example, a chief executive officer (CEO) role will require less host country language skills and specific technical skills than for technical manager position (Downes, Varner & Musinski, 2007). Downes et al. (2007) suggest that the desirable traits of a CEO are tolerance for ambiguity, openness, flexibility, sense of humour and self-confidence along with a baseline of functional and technical skills. The selection criteria for a technical manager, who would be commissioned to transfer technology to the host country, must have the technical expertise to maintain credibility with host country staff and successfully perform the technology transfer (Downes et al., 2007).

Still, companies often select expatriates based on their technical abilities and fail to consider that other qualities are required in a different environment (Tung, 1987; Porter & Tansky, 1999). Black & Gregersen (1999) and Magnini & Avril (2007) suggest that overseas posts should be assigned to people that not only have the technical skills required but also the suitability to live and work in the host culture. The overemphasis on technical skills stems, according to Tung (1987), are caused by the inability to identify or measure the appropriate attitudes required for cross-cultural interactions and the self-interest of the selectors. Along the same lines of reasoning, Harris & Brewster (1999) suggest that decisions on who to send on an overseas assignment are often made in a closed and informal situation that identifies a direct technical need but fails to consider other factors such as cross-cultural suitability and family requirements. Conversely, Tung (1987), found that the technical ability of the expatriate manager was rarely the reason for an assignment failure. In her research, failures due to insufficient technical knowledge was ranked six out of seven where the seventh reason was the expatriates lack of motivation to work overseas (Tung, 1987).

The importance of selecting a candidate who possesses the right language skills is a matter that is subject to what language is spoken in organisation’s head-quarter, the language spoken in the host country environment and the linguistic skills of the candidates. The importance of possessing the right language skills facilitates better rapport with co-workers, customers and other stakeholders in the host country (Tung, 1987; Fixman, 1990) and can resolve workplace problems (McCaughey & Bruning, 2005). Although the right language skills are rare to find they are normally not high on an expatriate selection criteria list (Downes et al., 2007). Tung (1987) found that language skills, due to education and exposure, attribute to the success of many European companies. Similarly, Japanese companies also recognize the importance of language skills and therefore invest large sums in training before sending expatriates overseas (Tung, 1987). Hutchings (2005) and McCaughey & Bruning (2005) suggest that expatriates that hold host country language skills are more able to adjust and gain deeper cultural understanding of the host culture. On the other hand, Downes et al. (2007) propose that expatriates who doesn’t speak the local language can still become locally proficient by embracing the local culture and that this trait can be more meaningful than having the right language skills.

Arguably, the most important factor when selecting a candidate for an overseas assignment is his or her ability to adapt to the host-country environment (Caligiuri, 2000). This is further complicated when the candidate has a family that will also need to fit in the host country environment. The failure to consider the expatriates family can be seen in the Brookfield report (Brookfield Global Relocation Services, 2010) as the cause main cause for expatriate failures. Selmer (2001) posits that the family support of an expatriate can also be the support of successful assignment and Porter & Tansky (1999) warns that if the expatriate’s family is unable to adjust to the host environment can cause failure. Therefore, the importance of considering the family requirements during the selection stage is very important. Selmer (2001) suggest that companies should be sensitive to the needs of a candidates spouse, and if the spouse is working, then the company should look at assisting him or her to find employment in the host country. Porter & Tansky (1999) suggest a pre-assignment assessment of the spouse as well as the expatriate candidate. They argue the importance of assessing the spouse’s suitability to that he or she may in fact be more exposed the host culture than the expatriate him/herself. The reason for this that he or she is often taking care of the family and will therefore be more exposed to the new and different host culture while the expatriate that works in the same company as in the home country will be in a familiar environment (Porter & Tansky, 1999). Punnett (1997) states that including the spouse in the selection process is both costly and time consuming but will be well worth the effort.

The cross-cultural suitability of both the expatriate candidate and his or her spouse is arguably the most important aspect to consider during the selection process. Gertsen (1990) writes that the main reason for failures of foreign assignments is due to the inability of either the expatriate or his/her family to adjust to the host country culture.

Some degree of cultural awareness can be achieved through training programs for the selected candidate and family (Tung, 1987) but most of the literature points toward different types of personality traits that are more suitable for overseas assignments (Gertsen, 1990; Downes et al., 2007; Mesmer-Magnus & Viswesvaran, 2007). Gertsen (1990) outlines different traits and attitudes proposed by other writers that enhances intercultural competence where the most frequent mentioned are empathy, openness, flexibility and tolerance. She also mentions prejudice, stereotypes and ethnocentrism as potential impediments to cross-cultural interactions (Gertsen, 1990).

Most people that move to a foreign environment will go through stages of adjustments (Gertsen, 1990). These are, according to Oberg (cited in Gertsen, 1990), the honeymoon stage, crisis stage, recovery stage and finally adjustment stage and although training could help the expatriate deal with the effect of culture shock it will not eliminate it (Gertsen, 1990). The sooner an expatriate and his or her family can reach the adjustment stage the sooner he or she will be more effective in the role (Andreason, 2008). Some literature shows that previous overseas experience is likely to help an expatriate to adjust quicker to a new foreign environment (Tye & Chen, 2005; Andreason, 2008; Haslberger & Brewster, 2008). Interestingly, Furnham & Bochner (cited in Selmer, 2001) propose that expatriates can conform to new cultural norms in the same way as learning a new language and then be discarded when no longer needed.

Sociability is the ability to be outgoing and possessing the desire to establish relations with the host nationals and openness allows an expatriate to learn and change his or her behaviour in new situations (Caligiuri, 2000). This author agrees with Caligiuri (2000) in that sociability and openness are two main abilities that are important to look for when selecting a candidate and his/her family.

Having discussed and critically analysed the importance of technical abilities, language skills, family requirements and cross-cultural suitability when selecting an expatriate for overseas assignment, the essay will now look at the second question.

Question two:

Describe which elements of the selection process can be used to evaluate a candidate’s strength in each of the criteria.

Dipboye & Johnson (2007) describe two main approaches to evaluate candidate’s strength and they call the first approach the rational/analytic and the second approach the social/intuitive. The former is a formal, planned and analytical approach commonly found in westers countries while the latter, more common in non-western countries, is informal, unplanned and intuitive (Dipboye & Johnson, 2007). The essay will first describe elements using the rational/analytic approach of the selection process that can be used the strengths of a candidate in the given criteria.

The selection process in most western organisation begins with identifying the attributes required for the position and the ideal candidate and the second stage is where information about candidates is gathered. The third stage is where the candidates are judged on the requirements of the position which will be further described. The fourth and fifth stages consist of hiring and evaluating the effectiveness of the process (Dipboye & Johnson, 2007).

Having established the attributes required for the expatriate position such as the knowledge, skills, abilities and other characteristics required as well as information about each candidate, the next stage is to evaluate the fit of the candidates to the criteria (Dipboye & Johnson, 2007). The evaluation can be performed through reviewing biographical data, interviews, tests, work samples, assessment centres and job simulation among others.

A candidate’s technical ability can be evaluated by reviewing educational background, past performance and work samples. Equally, language skills can be evaluated by reviewing educational history, interviews in the subject language and work samples. The family requirements of an expatriate candidate will be subject to each candidate’s situation and considerations will need to be taken to if or not the candidate is married, has a partner, have children that will accompany him or her to the foreign location. Ideally, the spouse or partner should be interviewed and assessed in a similar fashion as the expatriate candidate with the aim to understand their motivation, if he or she will need any training, assistance in locating work opportunities and to asses his or her cross-cultural suitability (Punnett, 1997). Finally, the expatriate candidate (as well as his or her spouse or partner) will need to be assessed on overall cross-cultural suitability. Suitability can be established through review of any past overseas experiences and references to these or the use of assessment centres and behavioural interviews. To establish traits such as sociability and openness, the selectors can use personality type tests (Magnini & Avril, 2007).

If a company uses a more social/intuitive approach as described by Dipboye & Johnson (2007), then the job requirements are more subjective to the personal belief of the decision maker, interpersonal relationship often guide the process and candidate assessments are more often based on intuition and general impressions rather then impersonal and mechanical processes. In other words, if the person selecting a candidate for an overseas assignment, he or she would look for someone whom they have a good feeling would be suitable for the job and whom they get along with well. Personal recommendations would also play a very important influence (Harris & Brewster, 1999).

Technical ability and language skills are easier to measure and quantify so a rational/analytical approach will function well. However, when considering the difficult-to-measure family requirements and cross-cultural suitability, the ideal approach is probably found somewhere in-between the rational/analytic and social/intuitive approaches (Dipboye & Johnson, 2007). This author believes that to evaluate sociability and openness suggested by Caligiuri (2000) as the more important abilities requires a close knowledge of the candidate and his or her family. This knowledge requires both time to develop and good understanding of people’s personalities. Or, it could be as Anderson (2005) suggests, a successful selection simply boils down to good luck.

To conclude this essay, it is suggested that technical skills and language abilities, although important in the selection process, are rarely the reasons for failures of expatriate assignments. Instead, it is much more common with failures due to cross-cultural adjustment problems of either the expatriate or his/her family. Therefore, the focus for managers involved in the selection process is to properly evaluate these areas for best assignment results. Managers involved in the selection process will have a range of methods and tools available similar to the ones used during an initial hiring process with the exception that the candidate and his/her family’s ability to a host environment will also need to be considered.


Anderson, B. 2005. Expatriate selection: good management or good luck? International Journal of Human Resource Management, 16, 4, 567-583.

Andreason, A. 2008. Expatriate Adjustment of Spouses and Expatriate Managers: An Integrative Research Review. International Journal of Management, 25, 2, 382-395.

Black, S. & Gregersen, H. 1999. The Right Way to Manage Expats. Harvard Business Review, 77, 2, 52-62.

Brookfield Global Relocation Services 2009. 2009 Global Relocation Trends Survey Report Global Relocation Trends Survey Report. Brookfield Global Relocation Services, LLC.

Caligiuri, P. M. 2000. Selecting Expatriates for Personality Characteristics: A Moderating Effect of Personality on the Relationship Between Host National Contact and Cross-cultural Adjustment. Management International Review, 40, 1, 61-80.

Dipboye, R. & Johnson, S. 2007. The Clash between “Best Practices” for Selection and National Culture. In: Stone, D. (ed.) The Influence of Culture on Human Resource Management Processes and Practices. Hoboken, NJ, USA: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Downes, M., Musinski, L. & Varner, I. 2007. Personality Traits as Predictors of Expatriate Effectiveness: A Synthesis and Reconceptualization. Review of Business, 27, 3, 16-23.

Fixman, C. 1990. The Foreign Language Needs of U. S.-Based Corporations. American Academy of Political and Social Science, 511, 25-46.

Gertsen, M. 1990. Intercultural competence and expatriates. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 1, 3, 341-362.

Harris, H. & Brewster, C. 1999. The coffee-machine system: how international selection really works. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 10, 3, 488-500.

Haslberger, A. & Brewster, C. 2008. The Expatriate Family: An International Perspective. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 23, 3, 324-346.

Hutchings, K. 2005. Koalas in the land of the pandas: reviewing Australian expatriates’ China preparation. International Journal of Human Resource Management, 16, 4, 553-566.

Magnini, V. & Avril, A. 2007. A holistic approach to expatriate success. International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management, 19, 1, 53-64.

McCaughey, D. & Bruning, N. 2005. Enhancing Opportunities for Expatriate Job Satisfaction: HR Strategies for Foreign Assignment Success. Human Resource Planning, 28, 4, 21-29.

Mesmer-Magnus, J. & Viswesvaran, C. 2007. Expatriate Management: A Review and Directions for Research in Expatriate Selection, Training and Repatriation. In: Harris, M. (ed.) Handbook of Research in International Human Resource Management. Hoboken, NJ, USA: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Porter, G. & Tansky, J. 1999. Expatriate Success May Depend On A “Learning Orientation”: Considerations For Selection And Training. Human Resource Management, 38, 1, 47-60.

Punnett, B. 1997. Towards Effective Management of Expatriate Spouses. Journal of World Business, 32, 3, 243-257.

Selmer, J. 2001. Expatriate selection: back to basics? International Journal of Human Resource Management, 12, 8, 1219-1233.

Tung, R. 1987. Expatriate Assignments: Enhancing Success and Minimizing Failure. Academy of Management Executive, 1, 2, 117-126.

Tye, M. & Chen, P. 2005. Selection of Expatriates: Decision-Making Models Used by HR Professionals. Human Resource Planning, 28, 4, 15-20.

9 comments to International HR: An essay on expatriate selection

  • Paolo Cerruti

    Personal experience valid for any “difficult” location:
    0- Local language skills are not critical unless the expat is the main front office to the local customer.
    1- A real motivation and interest of the candidate must be checked carefully. Exclude immediately people seeing expatriation as a quick way to improve salary. Obvious, but have a look around in Tokyo or India and you’ll see that corporate HR did not do the job 100%.
    2- More than 50% of the the success resides in the family well being so that the expatriate can be fully and entirely dedicated to bring value to the company. School and housing being the most important drivers.
    3- Precise job expectations and targets are MUST, define organization charts and roles. Setup a coacing system where difficulties can be shared with someone knowledgable of the corporate organization but without direct reporting line to the expat. A functional HR can be a good idea.
    4- Do not cut the link with the HQ. People fear to be forgotten, become “tranparent” in the organization. Held expat meetings where the corporate main information is cascaded, invite such or such executive 15′ in a confcall to comment some precise topic etc…
    5- Encourage people to expand their local network beyond their own company and this is valid for the family members also.
    6- If a dual career is not possible, NPO and Charities are real opportunities to experience new challenges and avoid a break in the professional curriculum of the non working partner. Excellent opportunity also to improve the spoken language if it is a challenging one.
    7- Do not underestimate the shock of being back home: for example is the children where exposed to a highly international and stimulating environment, being back in the middle of nowhere is a trauma even if this is actually the place they were born a few years before.

    • David Petersson

      Hi Paolo,

      Thanks for sharing your professional experience.

      I think all of above are very important points to consider. I see that you haven’t mentioned a candidates personality and how it could contribute to his or her ability to adapt and/or work with the host country’s culture.

      What are your thoughts on this?

  • Paolo Cerruti

    You are right, David, personality and capacity to adapt to a different environment are key success factors. There are two layers in my opinion: a first one related to the “intelligence” of a person or his/her capacity to understand the difference, accept it and use it as an asset. A second one one that is related to the awareness of the difference. To some extent it is something you can learn reading books, observing, getting into the culture, even take classes with special consultants.
    In a nutshell the most successful people are sensitive and curious. Common sense…

  • Edward G Courey

    Very interesting topic and an excellent essay. I can add very little to the points mentioned directly. Paolo does a great job of outlining all the major concepts here at the beginning. I may be able to add three derivative discernments from all the truths stated above:

    1.) U.S. citizens have a bigger problem than Europeans because of the lack of an international perspective in our education. This goes way beyond our lack of geography skills. We do not yet understand and accept that we are no longer the moving force in the world. The longer it takes to get education back on track in the U.S., the further the U.S. will fall behind.

    2.) The skilled Paolo outlines are not acquired overnight. They really come from years and years of experience. The trial and error of opening overseas branches is a school like no real school will ever be. Hence, older managers should have an advantage here due to their more extensive practical experience.

    3.) Once an executive learns how to be tolerant and open up, those skills can be used across the board in many cultures. I have worked in Panama, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Spain and Singapore. The concepts you learn (or “unlearn” from your previous U.S. viewpoint) are applicable everywhere. You learn to become more tolerant of other view points, you learn to listen and you learn that there is not always “one best way” to do everything.

    Thank you for sharing

  • Peggy Cao

    I think it is very necessary to have a second thought if an expat is really necessary. Could the position be fulfilled by a local candidate either from internal or external talent pool? For instance, positions (for instance, in Sales and HR) that need direct people interaction and connection will be more challenging for an expat to Perform effectively without knowing the Chinese language and deep understanding of Chinese culture. The worst scenario is that due to the placement of an expat, the company might have lost a high cabler local Chinese employee if he/she has the expectation to be promoted to the position.

    The Chinese employees in MNCs have much higher expectations of an expat comparing with 10~ 20 years ago. If an expat could not demonstrate his/her superior professional capability to get things done and gain the respects of local Chinese employees, and are not accepted to be part of the local Chinese team, he/she would not be able to get full supports from the team and hear the real voice from the ground and the market. This will cause the failure no doubt.

    Being open minded of local thoughts & best practices and willing to social with local team & local professional societies has become extremely crucial for the

    It is hard and takes longer for HQs to have any negative feedbacks of an expat (who is resuming a top mgnt position in a location or a manufacture) from the local employees. This might eventually hurt the local biz.

    Working in JVs will be extremely challenging for expats due to huge gap of mindsets. communications and biz & leadership approaches, etc. It is not easy even for a local Chinese managers in MNCs.

    There are more to share but it would be too long to read.

    Best regards,

  • Lily Xu

    Personally, I don’t think expatriates failure in China with high percentage is the problem for themselves, namely their level of CQ (Cultural Intelligence). Based on my observation, Senior Management (decision makers) must seriously consider for getting the right person (Appropriate Knowledge + Appropriate Experience + Compatible Personality) in the right place (Local Market + Local Team + Local Client) at the right time (Start-up purpose or Expertise for key account/global client or Management/Operation Build-up/Improvement) for the right price (Global Standard + Local city index / Will become more complicated in JV structure…). All above factors will impact the final result.

    When you decide to hire an expatriate or relocate somebody to China, the preparation work is very important. Study and observe the difference, test your hypotheses about the conflicts, listen for signals that your (senior management) help is needed, estimate the probability of improvement, work out an Action Plan. The Action Plan should include 6 categories: People, Work, Rewards, Opportunities, Local Company Practices and Quality of Life.

    Frankly speaking, the key for success is Ongoing ‘Communication’. Check the progress on the action plan, refine the approach, blend inquiry with advocacy, and give immediate feedback. It’s a real challenge for finding a suitable person who can lead the relocation or foreigner hiring program.

    • David Petersson

      Yes, what Lily touched upon is the performance feedback of the assigned expatriate. A larger organisation would be wise to have their HR team perform a feedback survey of how the local employees perceive their expatriate colleague and then channel that feedback back to the expatriate with suggestions on how to improve. Hopefully, the expatriate will be open to these suggestions and adjust his or her behaviour.

  • Jason Zhang

    As a local chinese, I’ve seen lots failure and success expatriates during my 10 years working as HR staff.

    Totally agreeed that the selection of the right candiates is key to whether the expatriate could be successfuly in China. As Danniel mentioned above, a quick starter or sb just have some asian connection will hardly success in China. HQ should understand China is not different from the western county. If u think a quick starter is not able to take senior postion in his home coutry, how could u expect that he will do well in China? A somehow asain connected persion is for sure a joke.

    If HQ would like to have a successfully expatriate in China, we’d better assign sb really good. But the point is that the good people preferred to stay in the home country and the HQ used to hold them in HQ.

    Why Chinese staff are always gathering together to see expatriate come and go? Chinese staff doesn’t want to have sb come to pretend to be an expert just because he is an expatriate.

    So, be careful to assign the right person.

  • David Petersson

    Here is a link from Network HR that covers pretty much what I came up with in my research. Almost wish that I had read it before doing the research.

    Thanks to Morry Morgan for pointing this way.

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