“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
– President John F. Kennedy, 1961 Inaugural Address
On March 1, 1961, John F. Kennedy created the US Peace Corps. In August of that year, the first 52 Peace Corps volunteers arrived on the shores of Ghana. Today’s 4,000 or so annual volunteers are a devoted and skilled bunch of mostly early career professionals. Yet those first volunteers were among the nation’s best and brightest, all graduates of Harvard, Yale, or Princeton at the behest of Ghanian President Kwame Nkrumah.
Despite their credentials and commitment, it wasn’t long before issues arose. Perhaps most infamously, an early volunteer to Nigeria wrote a letter home describing the state of living conditions as squalid, horrifying and primitive. Intercepted by the local postal service, it was soon on the front page of major Nigerian newspapers, sparking outrage among the populace.
In my Peace Corps assignment to Central Asia’s Kyrgyz Republic, roughly one-third of the assignees departed prior to the end of their 27-month assignments (including yours truly, who resigned early in favor of a local faculty position in order to research governmental corruption without tainting US-Kyrgyz relations). To help improve the fit between volunteers and host countries, the Peace Corps is among the earliest known organizations to perform psychological assessments on applicants interested in volunteering abroad. The results of this early experiment were reportedly mixed. However, psychological assessments have improved with time and are now a recognized best practice to use in expatriate selection for organizations staffing international offices.
The expatriate selection process can be complicated. At its best, it involves many stakeholders, including managers, HR staff, and host country professionals, each of whom has input on what is relevant to the determination. What are the key questions they should ask, and what steps can organizations take to prepare the employees they choose for international assignments?
Expatriate Selection: Who Chooses?
At its best, expatriate selection is a collaborative effort. Participants include management, HR professionals, and host-country recipients, each of whom has a particular (if at times overlapping) role to play. Host country staff are primarily responsible for assessing technical skills. They answer the question: can this candidate complete the required tasks?
While this is a crucial question, it is not the only question. Unfortunately, scholars have for decades documented that technical competence regularly overshadows other issues of concern. What other factors should companies consider in selecting expatriates?
Other key elements include whether the expat candidate has the cultural and social skills to succeed in the new assignment. Family questions may also be relevant. HR and host country managers should have an expansive role to better assess these variables.
A significant barrier to expatriate success is cultural distance. This measures how different the host country’s culture is from the home country. A forthcoming article will discuss this in more detail, but for now, know that cultural differences may present themselves in many ways. And for the home country staff, these differences may not be obvious.
Host country staff, however, may shed light on which cultural practices most challenge foreign national workers. These may be language or communication differences, social norms, or business practices. The deeper the differences, the more important it is that the chosen expatriate brings prior international experience to the job. In addition, host country staff may coordinate with HR and home country staff to assist in the expatriate selection and identify which foreign nationals most flourish amidst these cultural differences.
Furthermore, HR staff may spearhead those pre-departure psychological assessments that the US Peace Corps popularized so many years ago. These practices are among the most important – but least understood – of all selection practices.
Also Read: Resources & Articles for Expats
“Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance”
Grit. It’s a topic popularized by Wharton Professor Angela Duckworth in her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Grit is the ability to remain committed to long-term goals despite challenges, sometimes for years at a time. As Duckworth revealed in a series of groundbreaking studies, grit may be the single most important variable for employee success. More so than skills. More so than intelligence.
And for the expat, grit may be even more important than among domestic employees. An individual accepting an international assignment is taking a leap of faith. No matter how much support is received – and later articles review exactly what kind of support expatriates tend to need and want – the expatriate will inevitably face challenges.
These challenges may be from work styles or relationships with co-workers or supervisors, challenges for the family in adjusting, or social setbacks. Consider the ongoing Covid pandemic and the upheaval this caused for expatriates. New concerns sprouted about healthcare, travel restrictions and closing borders, and social isolation in countries where restaurants and other public venues closed en masse.
Selecting for grit – and yes, there are surveys that do just this – is, therefore, one of the key psychological variables that organizations should look at when assessing expatriate candidates. What else?
What Factors Should Companies Consider for Expatriate Selection?
The so-called Big Five Personality traits are openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion/introversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. They are among the most important and best understood of the many personality traits which make up an individual’s character. (An easy trick to remember the Big Five? Take the first letter of each trait. It spells “OCEAN”). Put simply, if you understand where someone falls on each of these traits, you can predict a lot about their attitudes and behaviors in life and work.
Extraversion measures sociability and leads to expat success. Studies show that extroverts are less likely to quit their jobs, while supervisors rate them higher in performance. Extraversion also correlates with ambition, which also leads to higher job performance.
However, don’t take these studies to mean that organizations should exclude introverts from international assignments. After all, they represent around 50% of the population. And as Susan Cain documents in her well-researched book, Quiet, introverts also offer employers valuable skills.
Consequently, this is more about understanding in which positions each can flourish. For instance, extroverts are well-positioned to handle international assignments that require regular contact with the local population. By contrast, introverts do well when given space for their creative and thoughtful juices to flow and when they have quiet workspaces far away from daily chaos. In addition, introverts may require more organizational support in terms of socialization and integration with host country nationals.
Openness to Experience
Another trait predicting expatriate success is openness to experience. These individuals seek out novelty and adventure. They’re more likely to try different foods, listen to new music, and support cultural activities. They are, in turn, primed for positive attitudes when it comes to embracing the changes and opportunities of a new national culture.
Indeed, studies show that expatriates high in openness to experience tend to perform at higher levels. In one study, higher-performing expatriates were more likely to report that they took the international position for the love of travel and the opportunity for new experiences. Furthermore, these individuals tend to gain more value from their interactions with host country nationals – enthusiastically soaking up information and using it to improve their day-to-day performance. Finally, spouses high in openness to experience adjust better, as well.
Neuroticism and Conscientiousness
Organizations may also seek expatriates that are low in neuroticism and high in conscientiousness. Neurotic types tend to struggle with ambiguous and stressful environments, with which, as we know, foreign assignments are rife. Finally, conscientiousness measures dependability and diligence and is related to grit. It predicts higher job performance for both domestic and international workers.
Click here for a survey that measures each of these so-called “Big Five” personality traits. In addition, companies can customize open-ended interview-style questions to assess where expat candidates fall on each of these traits.
Expatriate Preparation: How To Prepare Employees for International Assignment
Your expatriate selection process is complete, now what?
Expatriate research reports that the most important pre-departure expatriate preparation involves a series of in-depth training sessions. There are many types of training for expatriates. The primary categories are area studies, cultural practices, language training, sensitivity training, and field experience.
At the most basic level, expats must understand practical living conditions. Can they drink the water? Where do they go for medical treatment or for groceries? And what are the best neighborhoods to live in?
In addition, training for accompanying family members is key. This means including spouses and even children in some training sessions and providing families with information about schooling for children and spousal employment.
Finally, expatriate training should include business-relevant matters, such as local business laws and relationships with local partners. Expatriates should, furthermore, be clear about their job expectations, their performance management systems, and their compensation policies.
In addition to training, the company often undertakes other concrete activities on behalf of the international assignee. This includes visas and other bureaucratic support, which can be a byzantine nightmare for the uninitiated employee.
Studies also show that expatriates are grateful for long lead times before departure. Rushed assignments such as those with two months’ notice or less prove troublesome in terms of selling a house, buying or renting a new one, changing schools, and organizing a move (and to another country, at that).
The US Peace Corps learned some lessons the hard way but responded by putting more effort into their selection policies. In so doing, they – and all organizations following suit – give those selected the best chance of succeeding in even the most challenging environments. When paired with pre-departure and training preparations, your expatriates will arrive in their host countries with every possible advantage.
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About the author: Dr. Thomas J. Bussen, with a Doctorate of Business Administration, JD, and MBA, is Assistant Teaching Professor at Miami University, and a former professor with the African Leadership University and the American University of Central Asia. He is the author of several books, including Shaping the Global Leader and Compliance Management: A How-to Guide. His latest book, Enlightened Self-Interest: Individualism, Community, and the Common Good, makes the case for a more inclusive and equitable professional mindset and is expected for release in Fall 2023 with Georgetown University Press.
Sources and Further Reading
Anderson, B. A. (2001). Expatriate management: An Australian tri‐sector comparative study. Thunderbird International Business Review, 43(1), 33-52.
Harris, H., & Brewster, C. (2002). An integrative framework for pre-departure preparation. International Human Resource Management: A European Perspective, 224.
Hung-Wen, L. (2007). Factors that influence expatriate failure: An interview study. International Journal of Management, 24(3), 403.
Lin, C. Y. Y., Lu, T. C., & Lin, H. W. (2012). A different perspective of expatriate management. Human Resource Management Review, 22(3), 189-207.
Mesmer-Magnus, J. R., & Viswesvaran, C. (2007). Expatriate management: A review and directions for research in expatriate selection, training, and repatriation. Handbook of research in international human resource management, 197-220.
Our Most Famous and Infamous RPCV. Peace Corps Worldwide.
Suutari, V., & Brewster, C. (2001). Expatriate management practices and perceived relevance: Evidence from Finnish expatriates. Personnel Review.
Wang, C. H., & Varma, A. (2019). Cultural distance and expatriate failure rates: the moderating role of expatriate management practices. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 30(15), 2211-2230. – see page 2213 for an overview of the selection process.
Zeitlin, Arnold (1986). First Group of Peace Corps Volunteers Marking 25th Anniversary. AP News.