International assignments have become increasingly popular in the past two decades, and this is expected to continue. Professional services company PricewaterhouseCoopers’ “Talent Mobility 2020” report predicts a 50 percent growth in international assignments by 2020.
International assignments are usually presented to employees as invaluable experiences and keys to their career advancement. However, international assignment experience may harm career outcomes. A 2011 study conducted by Burak Koyuncu (the author of this article) and Monika Hamori of IE Business School analyzed the careers of 1,001 chief executive officers from the largest 500 European and largest 500 American companies. The study found international assignments may slow down executives’ ascent to the top.
The findings can be explained by the “out of sight, out of mind” argument, meaning executives who leave headquarters to take international assignments may be forgotten while candidates closer to home are evaluated for promotions. Expat executives are likely to be removed from the company’s inner network, so upon their return they will need to rebuild their social relationships, which will play a role in their career advancement.
International assignment experience has become a more common trait in those who reach top positions in organizations (Figure 1), but the study showed that among the CEOs of the largest European and American corporations, the ones with international experience took approximately two more years to reach the top position than those without it (Figure 2).
This data might point to potential discrimination in career progression for employees who develop themselves and contribute to their employers by taking diverse and challenging assignments. To prevent biased rewards, executives should be careful to manage expatriates sent to a foreign office or coming to headquarters from another office.
International experience can slow down career advancement, but organizations can ensure these assignments do not harm careers.
Concern 1: Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Data indicated the more time executives spent in international assignments outside headquarters, the slower they reached the top position (Figure 3). Specifically, executives who took international assignments more than a year long spent more time reaching the top than their colleagues without such assignments.
If employees have a choice, they might take fewer and shorter assignments — a year or less — to decrease the risk of being out of mind. Another solution is to gain some international experience without leaving the headquarters by working in global teams, taking short-term/part-time projects abroad or managing operations for different regions. If executives are going to be on a longer international assignment, they should try to maintain their social relations with the people at headquarters. Frequent visits, regular online meetings with colleagues and managers, participation in annual events and involvement in home country projects can help these assignees if they plan to repatriate in the future.
Similarly, organizations can help employees by planning expatriation and repatriation processes carefully for each assignee. To deal with the out of sight, out of mind concern, some companies organize annual/biannual home country visits for their assignees. Others select mentors from headquarters to regularly inform assignees and support their careers by giving career advice or supporting them at headquarters for potential promotions. Diversity executives can assume this mentor position to assist international assignees, and assist the ones received in the local office by creating a communication channel and improving the relationship between home country and host country offices.
Concern 2: Assignment Location
International assignment location is also important in assignees’ career advancement. Certain locations can provide a more intense learning experience for expatriates based on cultural, social, economic or political differences between home and host country. Similarly, an expatriate who goes from Chicago to Dakar, Senegal, will have more diverse experiences than an expatriate who goes from Chicago to Toronto.
Although assignments in culturally different locations may help expatriates by providing them with greater cross-cultural learning opportunities, they can create problems in terms of adjusting to the new country and office culture. Sometimes employers don’t value these harder experiences. Different employers might perceive the value of international experience in a specific country differently.
If they have a choice, employees should assess the outcome of potential expatriation locations based on the visibility and strategic value of the location. More visible and strategic locations can provide better career rewards. The following questions can help to assess these aspects:
Visibility of the location: Is this country visible to the whole organization? How closely does the head office follow this country office’s operations? Are there teams or projects that require collaboration between the two countries?
Strategic value of the location: Does this country have strategic importance for the organization? Based on previous expatriates’ outcomes, how much is experience in this country valued in the organization?
Organizations can help their employees with assignment location by giving them several options, informing them about the differences between locations in terms of the culture, office culture and the way the business is done, and by explaining expectations in each location and how the company values experience in each location.
Concern 3: Assignment Purpose
Even though organizations usually promote international assignments as part of their global integration process, a leadership development tool or an organizational learning and knowledge transfer process, most of the time the reason behind the assignment is simply to fill a position. In this case, repatriation outcomes are likely to be vague and the employee’s career progression is not considered.
To help employees and improve international assignment success, organizations should plan carefully and clarify the details regarding the effect on an employee’s career, the repatriation process and expected outcomes. Even if the main purpose is to fill a position, organizations should benefit from the assignment in several ways and ensure that the position is offered to an employee who can benefit most from that assignment, based on his or her career plans.
Concern 4: Assignment Evaluation
When assignment success is evaluated with a narrow perspective, it might lead to unexpected consequences for the assignee. Further, these evaluations could be used against the employees to hide a lack of repatriation planning, especially when the organization did not plan a suitable position for the repatriates.
Typical problems with assignment evaluations arise with biases in the evaluation criteria and the biases of the evaluator. For example, when the evaluations are based only on objective results, such as the amount of sales, the assignee’s overall contribution may be undermined.
Also, evaluations may not take the adjustment factor into account. Sometimes organizations expect to see high performance results from the first day of the assignment. However, because adjustment to the social, cultural and work life in a new country takes time, expatriates may not have high performance in the beginning.
The success of an international assignee can be perceived differently by different evaluators. For example, a manager goes to a country where leaders are expected to be authoritarian, and he or she is not perceived as a good manager because of his or her democratic leadership style. If the evaluator is from the host country, this would create a biased evaluation. Similarly, when the evaluator is from the home country, there might be a bias in the evaluation because home country supervisors cannot closely observe the expatriate performance.
To deal with this concern, expatriates should communicate the details of their work with their managers from both the home and the host country offices. They should explain how much effort they put into their work, what types of challenges they face in the foreign environment and how their experiences can help them improve themselves and the organizational practices.
Organizations should be sensitive about expatriates’ performance evaluations as well. They should try to have multiple evaluators from both countries use multiple measures of performance and acknowledge the difficulties associated with working in a foreign environment. If possible, involving employees who previously had experiences in the same host country also may be helpful in the evaluation process.
Overall, international experience can sometimes hinder an employee’s career advancement. However, if employees and organizations address these four concerns carefully, international experience can be a valuable asset. Given the increasing need for managers with cross-cultural skills, international assignments will continue to be an effective managerial development tool. Executives should try to encourage diverse experiences by improving the processes and systems that influence the career outcomes associated with these experiences.
Burak Koyuncu is an assistant professor of management and a member of the Contemporary P@thways of Career, Life and Learning research group at the Rouen Business School. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.