Assessing Expatriate Selection

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How does your company choose its candidates for international assignments? The answer may determine its success – or failure – in the global market.

At the beginning of the American Civil War, President Lincoln had a crucial decision to make about who would lead the Union army – McClellan, Sherman, Grant, Burnside, Sheridan? Lincoln’s first choice was Robert E. Lee, but Lee decided his loyalty lay with the Confederacy and his home state of Virginia. Lee’s decision – and Lincoln’s subsequent loss of the best person for the job – had tremendous consequences that still influence American society today.

Finding the right person for the job can have similar implications for American businesses. In fact, candidate selection is one of the most important activities an organization can perform. It supports every strategic business objective and tactical goal. It ensures the organization has the talent, technical skills and abilities to manage every function and perform every job, in both the short- and long-term. The company’s current health – and its future growth and survival – depends entirely on the people it chooses to respond and react to the functions and external conditions affecting the company.

Yet when it comes to international assignments, few companies today give candidate selection the attention it deserves. In ninety-eight percent of the companies responding to Selection Research International’s 1995 Survey of International Sourcing and Selection Practices, line managers interview candidates for international assignments using “technical skills” and the “willingness to relocate” as their chief criteria. However, when asked to determine the principal factors contributing to failed assignments and ineffective performance, these same companies pointed to “personality characteristics” and “interpersonal style” as the culprits.

The survey also reveals that the line managers have minimal training to interview for international positions, and that few rely on the results of a formal assessment protocol. None of the companies responding to the survey has a competency-driven system in place to integrate selection, training and development, and performance management.

But the hard truth is, without the necessary employee selection processes in place, America stands little chance of competing successfully in the global market.

International competencies, conditions and factors

International “competencies” are the characteristics or conditions that enable a candidate to adjust to new and novel situations, i.e., moving to another country. They also determine the candidate’s suitability for a position in an operation outside the employee’s home country. These competencies are the independent variables that initiate and sustain the dependent variables – successful adjustment and job performance. They are characteristics formed and shaped during an individual’s life and as such, occur as an inseparable configuration.

Another major category intimately linked to characterological factors is familial conditions – the accompanying spouse, children, and other relevant relationships. Companies must evaluate these factors as well if they are to predict how a person will perform in a different business context, culture and environment.

If the ability to live in different places and speak other languages, an intellectual curiosity and an interest in different cultures aren’t the principal factors for international success, what are? What, for example, enables a couple who have lived their entire lives in small-town Texas to move to northern England and do a terrific job by the standards of the corporation, customers and co-workers in the host country? To predict how well individuals will adapt to a foreign environment, we have to look at the ways they think and act, what they tell us about their beliefs, and how they manage tasks, make choices and interact with other people.

Except for a two-year assignment in New Jersey, the Texan couple in our example had spent most of the relocating employee’s career living in a small town with a population of 300. Neither had attended college or taken courses in “International Affairs” or “Literature of the World.” In light of the current simplistic definition of the “global manager,” their cultural exposure and sense of adventure seem limited.

What they did have, however, were internal resources that were undaunted by change. Both were involved in volunteer work because they believed it was important to contribute to their community – not because other company executives were involved. After working a sixty-hour week, the employee drove around on the weekends with his spouse picking up used clothing and furniture for her church rummage sales. They delivered food packages to the needy during the holidays. And, their religious beliefs dictated that people were to love their fellow human beings, regardless of background or upbringing.

The couple confessed that their move from Texas to New Jersey had been a real shock. Until that time, they had not known a person who was Jewish or Italian, yet in New Jersey, they lived in a predominantly Jewish community. Their children attended Hanukkah services, and in turn, invited friends to their house to celebrate Christmas.

When the family moved to the UK, they carried these same attributes with them. The wife joined the local British animal protection association. She also volunteered in community groups and at the school her children attended.

At work, the unionized British employees indicated to the company’s American management that they appreciated the husband’s interpersonal style. The couple was offered another three-year assignment, which they accepted. They still haven’t read the International Herald Tribune.

What can we learn from this couple? International adjustment and job performance are separate areas of competence that share certain foundational personality characteristics. Such characteristics include confidence and emotional maturity, social intelligence and interpersonal skills, critical thinking and decision making, the ability to handle novel situations and conditions, independence and self-reliance. They also encompass the ability to become interested in something without making quick, critical judgments — or knowing when not to express such judgments when they do exist. A person can be self-focused and live under the delusion he is tolerant, whereas a person who is intolerant and knows it, but acts with social sensitivity, is in reality the more tolerant individual.

The right tools for the job

How can companies ensure they find the best candidates for an international assignment? They can use an assessment protocol that involves a series of formal evaluation techniques, and assessors who have the appropriate education, training, qualifications and experience. The assessment protocol should be a research-based model capable of identifying relevant information about the candidates so employers can make legally defensible performance-related decisions.

Used correctly selection technology accomplishes several objectives. It allows the couple (or single employee), to make a well-informed decision by reviewing the present course of their lives. They can evaluate whether they and their family members are ready to relocate, or if they have needs and concerns that need to be addressed, either by themselves or with the company’s assistance.

It also helps the company identify and define the candidate’s and spouse’s skills and abilities for each of the factors or competencies. Only then can the company determine what training programs the couple may need, and tailor these programs to the couple’s strengths and deficiencies relative to the country and job. Unless these personal resources and abilities are properly assessed, it’s unlikely that training will be effective where issues do exist.

Formal assessment results also can be used to create a general pool of prescreened international candidates, identify global management/leadership talent, and create developmental plans. Equally important, they allow the company to address repatriation upfront by knowing how to manage an employee’s assignment in relation to organizational planning.

Beyond paper-and-pencil testing

Although people like tests with graphs and numeric ratings, because they look scientific, expatriate assessment is a complicated process that doesn’t fit into a simple paper-and-pencil test. Edmund Gaydos, Ph.D., Director of Assessment, Management Training and Development, and Organizational Development at Anheuser-Busch Companies does a good job of explaining why: “The more a company relies on paper-and-pencil testing, the less sophisticated is its assessment process. Numeric ratings give false precision. All tests are inferential; they cannot tell you how a person will actually compensate or act in a situation. The company must gather rich information about the person: from the employee and spouse, from the supervisor’s evaluation of the employee’s performance, through the Human Resources staff and a formal top line assessment…”

Expatriate assessment is a series of screening gates that give direction and meaning to subsequent training and development activities. Assessment provides areas with which companies can align compensation and performance evaluations, and it can be used to set guides for performance management during the assignment. It also eliminates personal and group biases, and deadline pragmatism from critical staffing decisions. Most important of all, it enables the company to carry out the succession, career and organizational planning so vital to its long-term prosperity.

 

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