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Selecting Global Assignees

July 1, 1998
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Related Topics: Expatriate Management, Featured Article
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The success of your entire overseas venture may rest in the hands of one expatriate employee and his or her family. So how do you make sure you send the candidate most likely to live up to the challenge? This was the question on the minds of three readers who recently posted discussion threads on the topic in the Global HR Forumon Workforce Online. Responding to their inquiries, we asked an authority on the subject to share her perspective. Here she outlines a strategic approach to expatriate selection. She includes an overview of how assessment tools can aid the process.

Dr. Paula Caligiuri from Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey, researcher on the topic of managing global assignees, says:
Selecting global assignees is both a critical and frustrating topic for global HR professionals. Most human resources professionals agree that not all employees sent on global assignments will succeed. Some will flourish, while others, unfortunately, will fail. Seasoned global HR professionals may pride themselves on the fact that they can predict the outcome of an assignment -- after just a few interactions with a prospective assignee. They have developed the sixth sense for selecting global assignees.

Despite the sixth sense that these HR professionals may have, the unfortunate reality is that most are unable to stop a risky global assignment from moving forward. Frequently, an assignee is chosen within the business unit based only on the person’s technical or managerial skills. HR has little involvement, except to process the appropriate paperwork. This typical scenario is both myopic and deleterious for organizations valuing the strategic management of their human talent worldwide.

Appropriately, this scenario is beginning to change in many multinational organizations as global HR is becoming more integrated into the overall global business strategy. In fact, research suggests that your involvement in the global assignment process is related to better bottom line success. As a function, global HR is becoming more involved in the strategy and practice of managing the global assignment process.

Many global human resources professionals have started their strategic roles with improvements on the global assignee selection process. The process outlined below is a description of what global HR professionals in these strategic multinational organizations are doing to select their international assignees.

The most effective process for selecting global assignees involves four distinct phases:

  1. Self-selection
  2. Creating a candidate pool
  3. Technical skills assessment
  4. Making a mutual decision.

Phase One: Allow for self-selection.
Employees who may be on the track for a future global assignment should begin the decision-making process about a year or more before a position becomes available. (The way companies identify this group will vary.) In this self-selection phase, employees introspectively question whether they are right for a global assignment, if their spouses and children would be interested in relocating internationally, if this is the best time for them professionally, and so on.

The greatest criticism of self-selection is that candidates and their spouses will not be honest. I have found this criticism is unfounded given that most people are very honest with themselves -- if they know that the information is private and confidential. People would rather learn for themselves that they may not have what it takes for a global assignment, rather than go through formal company-initiated testing -- a process they are likely to fake to save themselves the embarrassment of failing the test.

Given that the consequences of being unsuccessful on a global assignment are high, people will seek out information that helps them predict the likelihood of their success living in another country. During self-selection, your employees and their families can be honest with themselves without fearing negative repercussions from the organization and without the pressure of having to make a quick decision.

Self-selection instruments such as The SAGE (Self-Assessment for Global Endeavors) and The SAGE for Spouses (both by Caligiuri & Associates in Edison, New Jersey) can help employees and their families through the decision-making process. Some organizations, such as Plano, Texas-based EDS, have made a self-selection instrument generally available on their company’s intranet to encourage self-assessment among those who may not have previously considered a global assignment.

Other organizations, such as Wilton, Connecticut-based Deloitte and Touche LLP, give the self-selection instrument to targeted employees. Then human resources is available for follow-up discussion meetings after the employees have taken the instrument. In either case, the purpose is for HR to provide information and assist in the decision-making process -- without evaluating the candidates’ potential.

Phase Two: Create a pool of candidates
After the self-selection process, employees should have the option of putting themselves in a candidate pool. You can organize this candidate pool in an electronic database. Each multinational organization may organize the database differently, depending on its staffing needs. Some examples of employee information for the database include: the year the employee is available to go, the languages the employee speaks, the countries the employee prefers and the jobs for which the employee is qualified.

HR, in this phase, creates and manages the database. It’s imperative that you include all possible candidates who may be considered for a global assignment in the database.

Phase Three: Assess candidates’ technical skills
Once the business unit has identified a position, you should scan the database for all possible candidates for a given global assignment. This short list is forwarded to the department requesting the assignment. It’s now the job of the sending manager to assess each candidate on technical and managerial readiness relative to the needs of the assignment.

You can offer guidance in phase three to help the sending manager identify the knowledge, skills, abilities and experience needed to perform a given job. In this phase, the job requirements of the global assignment should be the focus.

If a global assignment is for director of production in China, for example, assess candidates on their records as production managers, not on their cultural skills or competencies to operate in China. (The exception to this would be if a position had been analyzed for the necessary global competencies. It has been my experience that this is done very rarely.

Phase Four: Make a mutual decision.
In this final phase, the sending manager has identified one person as an acceptable candidate based on his or her technical or managerial readiness. You know the candidate family is willing to accept the assignment because it has placed itself in the candidate pool. At this point, an assignee has been tentatively “selected.”

To offer a realistic preview to these tentative global assignees, organizations have matched repatriate families with the selected families. The purpose is for the repatriate families to share experiences and difficulties.

As a caution, the repatriate families doing the previews should be chosen carefully. Find repatriates who had positive experiences but who are also realistic about the challenges of the assignment. If possible, match families with children of similar ages.

An honest discussion between repatriates and future assignees gives the assignees more information and an additional opportunity to deselect if they feel that a global assignment is not right for them. Often, these meetings are encouraging and supportive -- strengthening a family’s commitment to the assignment.

Some organizations, such as Brampton, Ontario-based Northern Telecom, conduct a more thorough assessment of the selected assignee and his or her family, in an attempt to ensure their assignees’ success. Some consulting organizations, such as Thornhill, Ontario-based FGI Global Relocation Services, conduct a pre-departure family assessment. The relocating family and a family counselor determine what, if any, accommodations the family may need to be successful in the host country. Then human resources works through the counselor to provide the family any necessary accommodations detected in the assessment process. This is a very proactive strategy.

Post-selection preparation.
Many consulting organizations offer thorough cross-cultural preparation to prospective global assignees and their families. These cultural preparation programs, while falling under the heading of training, sometimes uncover specific cultural concerns. From an assessment standpoint, HR can use this knowledge to prevent a potential problem when the family is on assignment.

In the extreme cases, a family realizes that its decision to accept the assignment was a mistake. Employees may, even this late into the process, deselect. As with Phase One, I recommend that the decision to refuse an assignment in this phase be made by the assignee and not by the organization. Fortunately, for organizations going through the first three phases, a deselection at this stage is a very infrequent occurrence.

In conclusion, there are three themes in this global assignee selection process.

The first is to plant the seed as early as possible. You will get the best possible candidates when you cast a large net and engage individuals’ decision-making processes long before a position becomes available.

The second theme is to involve the family from the very beginning. A global assignment will disrupt the lives of every family member -- and each member will influence the assignment positively or negatively.

The third theme is to allow for deselection at every phase. Traditional selection methods simply do not work for global assignments -- unless a thorough job analysis is conducted for each assignment.

The decision needs to be mutual among the employee, his or her organization, and his or her family. Organizations should convey to their employees that a global assignment is not right for everyone.

Global Workforce, July 1998, Vol. 3, No. 4, pp. 28-30.

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