Expat Candidate Selection: Improving Success, Limiting Failure

Too often, selection of candidates for an international assignment is a reaction to an urgent need, a “gut” feeling about an employee, or an afterthought.

Your top executive has outpaced his rivals at headquarters in New Jersey. “Innovative,” “fearless,” “quick to adapt,” “a real leader” — all words his managers, colleagues and associates use to describe him. He’s the perfect guy for the start-up the company has planned in Malaysia. Offered a generous relocation package, he and his family are quick to accept the assignment, which his wife describes as “the perfect opportunity.” She has wanted to kick back for awhile and return to the interest of her college days: Landscape photography. The kids are just as excited, having learned about Malaysia from the Carmen San diego computer game and TV show.

The first six months of reports are glowing. The executive is a logistics genius. He has set up a network of new clients. He has forged contacts within the government, become accepted by local leadership, and won contracts that offer surprising and unanticipated link-ups with the company’s European affiliates.

But then, suddenly, just when it’s time to solidify business, you get a series of increasingly urgent messages that end, cryptically, “We’re coming home.”

The costs of relocation are up in smoke, the new contacts have vanished, you’ll have to recoup the lost ground right away.

What went wrong? And what do you do now?

Without the luxury of being able to conduct a long search to replace your executive, you call a panic-driven meeting of top managers from across the country. A list of names is bandied about half-heartedly. There are candidates with international experience, candidates with logistical brilliance, and candidates who have a reputation for solving emergencies. But it isn’t until late one night, when all seems lost, that the obvious choice emerges.

Here’s a candidate, fluent in two languages, who received her undergraduate degree in American studies, is unencumbered by a spouse and children, and is eager to gain international business experience.

After a year in Malaysia, she makes candidate #1 look like chump change. Her managerial abilities alone have helped you organize the local leadership into a force so coherent you’ll be able to use them for training throughout Asia. She understands the Malaysian infrastructure and is constantly being asked by other companies in the region for consultation and advice.

Think of all the time and money you wasted on the first candidate! Why didn’t you choose her in the first place?

Selection of candidates for international business assignments is too often a reaction to a disaster or an urgent need, a “gut” feeling about an employee, or an afterthought. Being unsystematic results in: Failed assignments in the form of early returns, lower productivity, and missing qualified candidates who are often working right under your nose.

The criteria for a successful international assignment can vary. Success comes about when:

  • The individual’s values coincide with the particular culture of her company
  • The values of the individual and the company strike a chord with the host country where the international assignment will be taking place
  • The individual has enough self-knowledge to understand what it will take to make the assignment work


But what tests are going to give you the information you need to choose the right candidate? You can give tests that will assess an individual’s level of intellect, personality functioning, cognitive ability, depression, anxiety, interests and aptitude. But what test can predict how our candidate will react to bugs in the tropics? What test can measure how the candidates family resolves conflicts? What test determines the reaction of the candidate’s spouse to crummy local schools?

The single most elegant way to assess candidates for international selection remains the structured interview. When cross-validated by two independent interviewers, the information you gain about a candidate — likes and dislikes, needs and limits, threshold for frustration, abilities to conform to new cultures — is invaluable.

Equally important: Companies are beginning to adopt a proactive stance to the task of candidate selection. Why wait for that phone call that says, “I’m outta here?” Why scramble through 96 hellish hours to find a quick replacement in order to safeguard your company’s reputation for stability?

Candidate selection, through a series of interviews, is being used to develop pools of qualified international employees who, like rapid-deployment personnel, can be tapped as resources for assignments. Interviews to select candidates are also used to:

  • Provide more information about a candidate already chosen by the company for the assignment


  • Help choose the candidate best-qualified from an existing pool of employees


  • Determine what a group of candidates needs to make the assignment work for them


Increasingly, in a global economy, companies are recognizing that selection of candidates for international assignment must be done systematically. Pseudo-scientific jargon, “gut” feelings, and panicked reactions have led to failed assignments, and a failure to recognize and tap resources that may be looking right at you.

How will you know for sure?





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