Best Practices for Selecting International Assignees (Part 1)

Alan Freeman – LOF International HR Solutions

This is the first of two installments on the subject of assignee selection.

A recent question, “Please share ideas on best practices for hiring candidates for an immediate international assignment” triggers a few thoughts.

First and foremost, the organization must definitively establish that it is not possible to recruit local nationals in the location where the job is based. Hence sending a foreigner as an International Assignee is both necessary and can be sufficiently justified to obtain assignment country work and residency permits. If so, then…

Recruitment must focus first on the technical skills, experience and educational requirements for the position. Other than clearly noting the work location and anticipated duration of assignment in recruitment communications, do not begin with the fact that an international assignment is involved – that comes later during the process of screening candidates. Recruitment should be based on the best methods necessary for finding prospects with the required background and job capabilities. If the candidate is not technically qualified for the position, all else is moot.

Once technically qualified candidates who are willing to consider the assignment have been identified, then the additional factors driven by the fact that the job involves an international deployment must be addressed. It’s well known and documented that beyond technical qualifications and willingness to go, there are a number of additional factors that are critical to assignment success.

Proven practices include:

Use an assessment and selection team. Include line executives responsible for the function in which the position is situated, staff that have depth of knowledge of doing business and living in the country where the position is to be based, HR staff including internal Talent Management, HR business partners at home and host, and International HR. Potentially, outside consultants with depth of expertise in global assignments, assignee selection and country-specific expertise can add a lot of value. Manage the team so they can perform their respective roles well and are empowered to collaborate.

Seek candidates that have a demonstrable record of successfully completing similar international assignments. Put a strong preference on success in the target country, secondary preference in culturally similar countries, third preference for other locations. We should emphasize the concept of demonstrated SUCCESS. There are many former assignees that were not successful but can tell good stories about having been assigned abroad. If they didn’t succeed in the past, how can we be assured that they’d be successful given a “second chance”? Sometimes, individuals who did very well studying abroad, working in the Peace Corps, or other similar endeavors in the target country can be good prospects even if they didn’t work in roles similar to the assignment job. The key is finding individuals who understand cultural differences in a practical way and know how to get things done in the assignment location.

Put strong preference on those who are fluent in the assignment location language. Don’t give credence to the old saw, “Well, they all speak English in the office.”. The reality is that they speak the local language with one another and do so all the time outside the office. Your assignee will command much greater respect and be much more effective if he/she can communicate in the local language.

Use validated intercultural adaptability and intercultural competence assessment tools. Assessment tools can be quite valuable in helping “weed out” those who really aren’t suited for the assignment. We don’t recommend using such tools as a sole basis for  “go / no go” decisions but they do add a great deal to the discussion and to the prospective assignee’s decision process. They also provide excellent input for developing intercultural training programs for the selected assignees.

Be sure to utilize someone who is certified to use the tools and has demonstrated competence in administering them. Many instruments are available and they range from quite good and very useful to, well, just the opposite! One must conduct due diligence to be sure they’re using reliable instruments and a competent assessor.

Include the accompanying spouse/partner in the assessment process. Their ability to adapt and flourish in the assignment location is critical to the success of the assignment.

Consider the candidate’s post-repatriation career prospects. By definition, an international assignment is temporary.  Will the candidate play a role and have qualifications that could provide long-term contributions (aka, ROI) to the organization after the assignment? If so, they should be evaluated on the basis of how they can best be utilized by the broader organization after the assignment with those having greatest potential for long-term contributions given preference.



Include the candidate’s spouse/partner in the process. Even if the spouse/partner will not accompany the employee on the assignment he she plays a critical role in whether or not the assignment will be successful.  Without spouse/partner support, the assignment is doomed to failure. Assignments of all types put tremendous stress upon families. If their issues are not properly addressed, the assignment may well fail. It’s imperative to deal with family issues to the extent possible.

By applying the steps discussed above, and those we’ll discuss in our next post, organizations can optimize their selection of assignees that are likely to achieve the company’s objectives and maximize the return on the significant investment associated with international assignments.

More About Alan:

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6 responses to “Best Practices for Selecting International Assignees (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Best Practices for Selecting International Assignees (Part 1) - International HR Forum - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. Alan —- this is an awesome article. It is such a shame that companies still to this day say in reactionary mode “Let’s get John over to Nigeria so settle this problem” and the next day poor John is on the plane to Nigeria. Sigh . . .. . sort of like “Ready, Fire, Aim”.

  3. Thanks, Jacque

    Indeed, there are still some companies that are not the most thorough in selecting assignees. We also can point to a number of firms that have “figured it out” and DO apply best practices. This, interestingly, leads not only to high levels of assignment success but also to much better post-repatriation career management and retention of key talent.

  4. Thanks very much for your comments and observations.

    You’re quite correct that determining whether or not an individual was successful abroad can be challenging, requires excellent interviewing skills and resourcefulness, and is often more a art form than a science. Whenever possible, it’s useful to obtain multiple inputs from those “in the know” rather than from only the candidate. I’ve also found behavioral interviewing techniques to be very useful.

    A few useful areas of inquiry to pursue include:
    – What were the objectives for the assignment and to what extent were these achieved?
    – What was the assignee’s impact on relations with local clients or customers?
    – How effectively did the individual interact with local staff, maintain and improve relationships and get things done?
    – How extensively did the individual assimilate into the local culture, socialize with locals and establish lasting friendships?
    – How did the individual spend his/her non-work time? Seeing the sites of the assignment country and soaking up local culture or hanging out in expat bars watching home country football matches on the telly?
    – When did the assignment end relative to the business plan?
    – How and why did the assignment end?
    – What was the assignee’s career path following the conclusion of the assignment?

    You’re also correct that employers would want to hire John if they hear, “John tripled our revenues, doubled our client base and reduced employee voluntary turnover by 65% in 2 years” vs. “John managed to sneak home just before the local lynch mob caught up with him. We had to close our office in Angora”.

    I’m not sure what you mean by the “international assignee market”. In my view, there isn’t “a market” for assignees rather, there are labor markets for certain talent sets. Assignments are involved when it’s necessary to import necessary talent into the work location. Certainly, when companies have a choice between someone who has proven abilities to do a job and those who have potential but are not yet proven, it’s an easy choice and we see it all the time – and we’ve seen it for many years. Early career professionals have, for as long as I’ve been in the game, been challenged with getting that “first break”.

    What tips should we offer? Well, that’s material for an entire blog post but a few ideas are:
    – Get a top-notch education including an advanced degree in one’s chosen field
    – Formulate a long-term career plan and have the patience and understanding that one does not start their career as the Senior Vice President of Global _____.
    – Target companies that have internal development and “high potential” programs, especially those that have programs for developing their future global leaders. Look for those that have established a global talent pool for “hi-pots”
    – Target companies with global operations
    – Obtain relevant certifications such as the GPHR for Human Resources, CPA for Accounting, GRP for Compensation, CEBS for Employee Benefits, etc.
    – Apply for positions for which you are qualified in the target companies
    – Once hired, volunteer for projects in line with one’s career goals and interests
    – Seek out professional mentors, especially in the organization you’ve joined
    – Learn about the cultures and learn the languages of countries of interest and of relevance to the employer

    I hope this is useful. I’m sure there are many more great tips our readers can share and we invite them to do so.

    Thanks again for your comments!

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