By Rolf Rykken
Are they even there?
Hiring for any job is difficult, but hiring for expatriate postings can be one of the most complicated and risky of all human resource decisions, even for larger and experienced companies.
Anyone who has worked overseas knows the person selected to oversee a particular operation can often be the single most important factor in the making or breaking of that venture.
Yet finding the right person is usually a much more difficult challenge than is the case with a position at the home office. In part, this is because employees are becoming increasingly aware that overseas postings can also make or break careers, marriages and the basic ways in which the employees view themselves.
The good news is that there is no shortage of business lore about the sorts of characteristics or personality traits a company should watch for in a potential expatriate employee, or in an employee early in his or her assignment. In some cases, certain factors can disqualify even top, trusted home office staffers from positions abroad.
Concerns about misfires when making an expatriate hire or posting an employee abroad topped a recent survey by PwC on the international relocation responses of 270 European and U.S. firms.
Though overseas staffing has been a challenge for decades, the difficulty has been exacerbated in recent years by the growing reluctance of many workers to take overseas assignments. Nearly half the companies surveyed by PwC reported problems in filling at least some long-term international assignments.
Some 64% of the U.K. firms contacted, for instance, reported that at least some of their overseas operations are managed directly from the home office, with high-level executives juggling regular telecom link-ups with frequent business trips to oversee local operations.
The reasons cited for the staffing problems vary considerably. But the PwC survey showed that family issues and problems in accommodating a spouse's career were the two most common, according to the report, "International Assignments, European Policy and Practice." Unhappiness with the location of the assignment or fear about how an assignment will affect the employee's career were the third and fourth top concerns.
This growing reluctance to take positions abroad is taking a bite out of the expansion plans of many companies at a time of unprecedented overseas activity. U.S. manufacturers last year invested an estimated $46 billion in foreign operations, according to a Deloitte Research report.
As a result, companies are taking a variety of tacts to lure some of their more talented employees to accept overseas assignments, global workforce experts say.
To avoid the costs of keeping spouses happy, for instance, many firms are turning more to unmarried candidates for international assignments. Singles accounted for 36% of all international assignees in 1999, up from 27% in 1997, says Cendant International Assignment Services, of Danbury, Conn.
Companies meanwhile are also scrambling to develop and introduce more flexible pay and benefits packages for expatriates. These can range from extra accommodation reimbursements to special spouse allowances to bigger bonuses.
Ultimately, however, most companies are reticent to devote too much money to try to overcome any particular candidate's reticence about an overseas posting. At bottom, many employers feel it is better to hire a local manager or to oversee an operation directly from the home office than it is to send over the wrong person.