Surviving and Thriving on Overseas Assignment


Putting a cultural awareness plan in place before sending star recruits to overseas postings is a more certain guarantee of retaining staff in new countries, writes Barabara West.

Do you set your expatriate employees up for success on their international assignment? Or do you send your best and brightest overseas and just hope their professionalism, intelligence and experience allow them to be as effective in their new posting as they have always been for you at home?
A pre-departure and cultural adaptation program that emphasises cultural learning, instead of merely cultural and historical facts, allows the expatriate employee and family to adapt to their new home rather than tolerate it. It allows them to develop actionable cultural competence, which provides the context for both professional and personal success in the overseas assignment.
The statistics on the early return rate of expatriate employees range from 20 percent to 70 percent and the more dissimilar the two countries are (i.e. China and Australia) the more likely it is the employee will return early. With the high cost of expatriation – estimated to be between three and five times the employee’s domestic salary – this can be a very expensive experiment. Remaining on location for the entire contractual period, however, is not necessarily a sign the person is thriving overseas. About half the expatriates who remain overseas operate at a lower level of effectiveness than they did at home. And what does the HR literature say is the cause in both of these measures of failure: “Cultural adaptation trouble” or “An inability to adjust to foreign cultures.”
There are many ways to provide cultural support to expatriate employees and their families to combat these issues.  The cheapest and least effective way is to give them a briefing on the destination that includes history, holidays, foods and the like and to follow that up with practical information on housing, schooling, shopping, and other aspects of daily life.  This kind of pre-departure briefing may in some cases be enough to survive in the new country, but it certainly does not allow the employee and family to thrive.
For an expatriate employee and family to truly succeed on their international assignment the pre-departure and adaptation program must provide a framework for intercultural learning. The employee and family must be taught the “grammar” of intercultural competence, such as intercultural communication styles and channels, intercultural conflict styles and value structures. They must begin to understand the parameters of their own cultural understanding of the world as well as the basic cultural “vocabulary” for interacting in their new country, such as the specific communication and conflict styles and value structures they may come across in their new home. More importantly, they must be given the cognitive, affective and behavioural tools with which they can learn to operate within their new cultural home.
Ideally, such a pre-departure program should begin two or three months prior to leaving the home country, which allows time to practice and solidify newly identified intercultural skills in the home environment. It also allows time for further research and information-gathering based on the culture learning framework of the initial pre-departure session.
*Barbara West received her Ph.D. in cultural anthropology in 1995 and has spent nearly 20 years lecturing, writing and consulting in the areas of culture, international relations and intercultural communications. She is a director at The 100% Project and a founding partner at Culture Works, an intercultural training firm that provides trainings to business professionals from all sectors of the economy to facilitate cultural adaptability.
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