Reasons for the failure of an assignment abroad and the pre-return of an employee

The reasons for the failure of an assignment abroad and the pre-return of an employee, is different and it depends on the foreign contributor’s culture and the persona of the expatriate. Expatriation can be a very costly staffing strategy for multinational enterprises (MNE’s), although it is a feasible process for enhancing the organisations’ understanding of their international operations. “Expatriates are employees / managers who move from the home country to an overseas location." (Tanner 2009, 360) One factor that determines the success of an assignment abroad, is when an organisation has the ability to transfer there core competencies on an international basis to the host contributor. This takes place as expatriation. Exploitation of inadequate selection methods of expatriates is a reason why expatriates fail. “According to (Burning 2005), expatriate failure is when an expatriate premature return from the international assignment." Research material shows that the most repeated reason for expatriate failure is the inability of the spouse to adjust to the foreign country, this put stress on the family.

There are also reasons such as the assigned employees’ inability to form a relation with the people that has different cultures and beliefs in the host country. They employee can also not adjust to the new environment and has poor personal adjustment issues. “According to (Briscoe 2004) the early return of the expatriate where mainly caused by poor performance in the foreign assignment, personal dissatisfaction of the expatriates experience, inability to adjust to the new environment, and not being accepted by the host-country subordinates and people." Organisations need to be sentient of their function as well as the significance of the spouse and family when managing expatriates successfully. As from the above it can be concluded that the main reasons for expatriate failure is, international cultural intransigence, incapability of spouse and family to adjust, poignant immaturity, responsibility overload and the inability to adjust to host- country peers which leads to physical breakdown.

1.1 International Cultural Intransigence.

International organisations need to have a clear understanding of the different cultures they are doing business with, what work in the home country might not work in the host-country. As an international human resource manager, it is vital to heave the familiarity of culture matters within the organisation to guarantee success. Organisational culture can be important as it has an influence on the change and development of the organisations strategy. “Organisational culture is the basic assumptions and beliefs that are shared by members of an organisation that operate unconsciously and define in a basic taken-for-granted fashion an organisation’s view of it and its environment." (Johnson 2008) Geert Hofstede an eminent writer, have publicized how attitudes to work, authority, equality and more vital factors that influence the culture differences from one country to another. Geert Hofstede is a very good approach to have a good understanding of culture diversity; he provides insights into national culture differences. “He defined culture as a collective programming of people’s minds, which influence how they react to events in the workplace." (Boddy 2005) Geert Hofstede identified five culture dimensions that will be described below; he was also able to determine how these differ between people from various countries.

1.1.1 Geert Hofstede five cultural dimensions. Individualism versus Collectivism.

“Individualism is the degree to which the people in a country prefer to act as individuals rather than as members of groups." (Robbins 2007, 105) “Collectivism describes societies in which people, form birth onwards, are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups which protect them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty." (Hofstede 1991, 51) Employees who seek challenges in the working environment are epitomized by high individualism and their prime motivator is self-actualization. The need for security, the desire for a safe emotional and physical environment is often personified by high collectivism. The degree of collectivism and individualism as an influence on interaction between employees, for example concerning the role of work groups, Japan has a more collectivist culture than the individualist of the United States. (Daniels 2009) Such differences can effect the organisation in various ways. The social and security needs of an employee can be met more easily in the parent country work environment. When human resource managers send employees abroad, it means that the employee needs to relocate. Relocating means that the family members must also relocate and find new jobs, thus the employee’s geographic mobility can be restricted. Uncertainty avoidance.

“Uncertainty avoidance relates to actions members of societies take in respect of ambiguous and uncertain situations." (Millmore 2007, 108). This identify to what level a culture can encode its associates to feel both comfortable and uncomfortable in amorphous situations. Amorphous situations are unique, unidentified, astonishing, and distinctive from what they use to. These situations are often minimised by uncertainty avoiding cultures, they avoid the situations by creating austere rules and laws, and they belief in the ‘truth’ on a religious basis. Uncertainty avoiding employees are more motivated by their personal anxious energy and are more emotional. An example of a high uncertainty avoiding country can be Germany. To avoid the uncertainty the Germans carefully plan everything, and they rely mostly on rules, regulations and laws. Employees with low uncertainty avoidance are more understanding and have different opinions of what they are use to, they only have a few rules. These employees are more easy-going and thoughtful and they do not show emotion in their environment, for example the United States has low uncertainty avoidance, they are more zealous on trying out new things. Power Distance.

“Power distance refers to this general relationship between superiors and subordinates." (Daniels 2009, 111) The way an employee interacts with his/her superiors may vary from organisation to organisation. When the nature of interaction fits the employee, they tend to perform better. Organisations are counselled to support management styles taking into consideration, the employees preference of interaction when dealing with superiors.

That is the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. This represents inequality (more versus less), but defined from below, not from above. It suggests that a society's level of inequality is endorsed by the followers as much as by the leaders. Power and inequality, of course, are extremely fundamental facts of any society and anybody with some international experience will be aware that 'all societies are unequal, but some are more unequal than others'.

For example, Germany has a 35 on the cultural scale of Hofstede’s analysis. Compared to Arab countries where the power distance is very high (80) and Austria where it very low (11), Germany is somewhat in the middle. Germany does not have a large gap between the wealthy and the poor, but have a strong belief in equality for each citizen. Germans have the opportunity to rise in society.

On the other hand, the power distance in the United States scores a 40 on the cultural scale. The United States exhibits a more unequal distribution of wealth compared to German society. As the years go by it seems that the distance between the ‘have’ and ‘have-nots’ grows larger and larger. Masculinity versus Femininity.

“Masculinity pertains to societies in which social gender roles are clearly distinct, femininity pertains to societies in which social gender roles overlap." (Boddy 2005, 119)

It is common for inexperienced expatriate managers to be taken completely by surprise at the deep cultural differences in their posted country. 


The expatriate finds that, after a seemingly open conversation about improvements to be made, the local manager who reports to him doesn’t show up for work for 2 days. In meetings, his local staffs think it is acceptable to spend hours talking on and on until every possible issue is agreed to by everyone. If the expatriate manager is to be successful, he will need to learn how to adapt to concepts such as “saving face" (the cause of the local manager not showing up for work) and “building consensus" that are important in Asia. He also needs to realize that transforming his new staff into Americans or Europeans has been tried a million times and it doesn’t work. All expatriates manoeuvre a narrow path between accepting local conventions on one side and aspiring to international standards on the other.


Southeast Asia has a rich variety of cultures. The differences in religion are one example. Thailand is graciously Buddhist, Indonesia is gently (but intensely) Islamic and Philippines are completely Catholic. As for Singaporeans, some say their only religion is work. Managing such varied peoples obviously requires different tactics. 

Dimensions cannot tell what will happen

The Hofstede dimensions do not directly predict any phenomena or dynamics. Applying them to make sense of what happens in the world always has to take into account other factors as well as culture - notably national wealth, history, personalities, and coincidences. There is no quick fix to understand social life after taking a dose of Hofstede. But the dimensions, when well understood, do allow predicting a little better what is likely to happen. And they become more useful as you go from the specific case to the trend, average, or expectation. For instance, knowing about culture hardly helps to predict what car you will buy - but the trend among your compatriots to buy certain types of car in the coming years can be predicted fairly well.

The study of dimensional differences can help global leaders both create and interpret policies at both local and corporate levels with a higher chance of success across company and geographic boundaries.

1.2 Family Stress

Most expatriate managers are challenged and excited to be in their new postings. They need to spend a lot of time at work since they are under pressure to adapt to the new culture and their overall responsibilities are often larger than they have experienced before. As a result, the wives of expatriates spend a lot of time by themselves – and yes, trailing spouses are still usually female – and are cut-off from their own family and friends. At the same time, the wife is usually dealing with problems for which she has no previous experience. She may catch a maid stealing or get stopped by a policeman who wants a payoff for a non-existent offence. She may have been told that internet connectivity is available but then finds it takes 6 months to install. All through this, she will probably discover that suitable employment for her is next to impossible in an emerging country – seriously damaging her own long-term career.

In short, it is generally the trailing spouse who suffers the greatest culture shock in the new country. The result can be an unhappy spouse who does her best to impair the performance of the expatriate manager. Total marriage breakdown is not an uncommon result. Unofficial numbers from the Asian Development Bank (a large development organization modelled after the World Bank) are that upwards of 60% of their expatriate’s marriages fail due to the stress of offshore postings. The consequence is that many expatriate postings are either terminated early or the performance of the expatriate managers is impaired.


1.3 Poignant Immaturity

In their home countries, most expatriates are middle-managers with relatively ordinary lives. Once relocated to Asia, they are suddenly thrust into the national spotlight as the Country Manager of a multinational organization. They have more people reporting to them than ever and often have more control over them.  On the personal front, they may have household servants for the first time, are called upon to meet senior government officials and are generally made to feel important. Further, the expatriate may be attracting enthusiastic attention of certain local females seeking their own type of fame and fortune by landing a high-status foreign husband or boyfriend. 

The combination of greatly expanded responsibility and social status can be difficult to handle for people lacking the emotional maturity to keep themselves grounded. It is not uncommon for expatriates to either destroy their career opportunities and/or marriages by ignoring responsibilities and succumbing to temptations. 

1.4 Responsibility Overload

In almost all cases, the new organization will be larger than the expatriate manager is used to overseeing. This is especially true when the posting is in an emerging country. He may supervise 5 to 10 times more people than ever before.  In other words, a German IT Manager who managed 15 people in his home country could have 100 in Malaysia. An American call centre manager with 50 people in the US can find himself overseeing 500 in Philippines.  Such large increases in responsibility are difficult for anyone to handle. Added to that, are the new challenges of managing expectations of head office managers and clients in other countries and who may not understand the cultural differences that are impacting results. 

1.5 Physical Breakdown

Expatriates are generally motivated to succeed and excited about gaining international experience. As a result, they often work long hours in the early part of their posting to do “whatever it takes" to be successful. They are also adapting to seemingly overwhelming cultural differences with local staff and greatly expanded responsibilities. On the home front, the families of expatriates are almost certainly going through their own severe cultural adjustments and may be clamouring for the managers’ time and attention to help them through it.

The combination of emotional despondency and physical exhaustion (otherwise known as burn-out) from elevated stress levels and overwork is a common problem for new expatriates. Unless alleviated, the result can be dramatically reduced effectiveness or work-interrupting illness for the manager.