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Managing International Assignments


International assignment management is one of the hardest areas for HR professionals to master—and one of the most costly. The expense of a three-year international assignment can cost millions, yet many organizations fail to get it right. Despite their significant investments in international assignments, companies still report a 42 percent failure rate in these assignments.1

With so much at risk, global organizations must invest in upfront and ongoing programs that will make international assignments successful. Selecting the right person, preparing the expatriate (expat) and the family, measuring the employee's performance from afar, and repatriating the individual at the end of an assignment require a well-planned, well-managed program. Knowing what to expect from start to finish as well as having some tools to work with can help minimize the risk.

Business Case

As more companies expand globally, they are also increasing international assignments and relying on expatriates to manage their global operations. According to KPMG's 2021 Global Assignment Policies and Practices Survey, all responding multinational organizations offered long-term assignments (typically one to five years), 88 percent offered short-term assignments (typically defined as less than 12 months), and 69 percent offered permanent transfer/indefinite length.

Managing tax and tax compliance, cost containment and managing exceptions remain the three principal challenges in long-term assignment management according to a 2020 Mercer report.2

Identifying the Need for International Assignment

Typical reasons for an international assignment include the following:

  • Filling a need in an existing operation.
  • Transferring technology or knowledge to a worksite (or to a client's worksite).
  • Developing an individual's career through challenging tasks in an international setting.
  • Analyzing the market to see whether the company's products or services will attract clients and users.
  • Launching a new product or service.

The goal of the international assignment will determine the assignment's length and help identify potential candidates. See Structuring Expatriate Assignments and the Value of Secondment and Develop Future Leaders with Rotational Programs.

Selection Process

Determining the purpose and goals for an international assignment will help guide the selection process. A technical person may be best suited for transferring technology, whereas a sales executive may be most effective launching a new product or service.

Traditionally, organizations have relied on technical, job-related skills as the main criteria for selecting candidates for overseas assignments, but assessing global mindset is equally, if not more, important for successful assignments. This is especially true given that international assignments are increasingly key components of leadership and employee development.

To a great extent, the success of every expatriate in achieving the company's goals in the host country hinges on that person's ability to influence individuals, groups and organizations that have a different cultural perspective.

Interviews with senior executives from various industries, sponsored by the Worldwide ERC Foundation, reveal that in the compressed time frame of an international assignment, expatriates have little opportunity to learn as they go, so they must be prepared before they arrive. Therefore, employers must ensure that the screening process for potential expatriates includes an assessment of their global mindset.

The research points to three major attributes of successful expatriates:

  • Intellectual capital. Knowledge, skills, understanding and cognitive complexity.
  • Psychological capital. The ability to function successfully in the host country through internal acceptance of different cultures and a strong desire to learn from new experiences.
  • Social capital. The ability to build trusting relationships with local stakeholders, whether they are employees, supply chain partners or customers.

According to Global HR Consultant Caroline Kersten, it is generally understood that global leadership differs significantly from domestic leadership and that, as a result, expatriates need to be equipped with competencies that will help them succeed in an international environment. Commonly accepted global leadership competencies, for both male and female global leaders, include cultural awareness, open-mindedness and flexibility.

In particular, expatriates need to possess a number of vital characteristics to perform successfully on assignment. Among the necessary traits are the following:

  • Confidence and self-reliance: independence; perseverance; work ethic.
  • Flexibility and problem-solving skills: resilience; adaptability; ability to deal with ambiguity.
  • Tolerance and interpersonal skills: social sensitivity; observational capability; listening skills; communication skills.
  • Skill at handling and initiating change: personal drivers and anchors; willingness to take risks.

Trends in international assignment show an increase in the younger generation's interest and placement in global assignments. Experts also call for a need to increase female expatriates due to the expected leadership shortage and the value employers find in mixed gender leadership teams. See Viewpoint: How to Break Through the 'Mobility Ceiling'.

Employers can elicit relevant information on assignment successes and challenges by means of targeted interview questions with career expatriates, such as the following:

  • How many expatriate assignments have you completed?
  • What are the main reasons why you chose to accept your previous expatriate assignments?
  • What difficulties did you experience adjusting to previous international assignments? How did you overcome them?
  • On your last assignment, what factors made your adjustment to the new environment easier?
  • What experiences made interacting with the locals easier?
  • Please describe what success or failure means to you when referring to an expatriate assignment.
  • Was the success or failure of your assignments measured by your employers? If so, how did they measure it?
  • During your last international assignment, do you recall when you realized your situation was a success or a failure? How did you come to that determination?
  • Why do you wish to be assigned an international position?

Securing Visas

Once an individual is chosen for an assignment, the organization needs to move quickly to secure the necessary visas. Requirements and processing times vary by country. Employers should start by contacting the host country's consulate or embassy for information on visa requirements. See Websites of U.S. Embassies, Consulates, and Diplomatic Missions.

Following is a list of generic visa types that may be required depending on the nature of business to be conducted in a particular country:

  • A work permit authorizes paid employment in a country.
  • A work visa authorizes entry into a country to take up paid employment.
  • A dependent visa permits family members to accompany or join employees in the country of assignment.
  • A multiple-entry visa permits multiple entries into a country.

Preparing for the Assignment

An international assignment agreement that outlines the specifics of the assignment and documents agreement by the employer and the expatriate is necessary. Topics typically covered include:

  • Location of the assignment.
  • Length of the assignment, including renewal and trial periods, if offered.
  • Costs paid by the company (e.g., assignment preparation costs, moving costs for household goods, airfare, housing, school costs, transportation costs while in country, home country visits and security).
  • Base salary and any incentives or allowances offered.
  • Employee's responsibilities and goals.
  • Employment taxes.
  • Steps to take in the event the assignment is not working for either the employee or the employer.
  • Repatriation.
  • Safety and security measures (e.g., emergency evacuation procedures, hazards).


Expatriates may find the reality of foreign housing very different from expectations, particularly in host locations considered to be hardship assignments. Expats will find—depending on the degree of difficulty, hardship or danger—that housing options can range from spacious accommodations in a luxury apartment building to company compounds with dogs and armed guards. See Workers Deal with Affordable Housing Shortages in Dubai and Cairo.

Expats may also have to contend with more mundane housing challenges, such as shortages of suitable housing, faulty structures and unreliable utility services. Analyses of local conditions are available from a variety of sources. For example, Mercer produces Location Evaluation Reports, available for a fee, that evaluate levels of hardship for 14 factors, including housing, in more than 135 locations.

Although many employers acknowledge the necessity for thorough preparation, they often associate this element solely with the assignee, forgetting the other key parties involved in an assignment such as the employee's family, work team and manager.

The expatriate

Consider these points in relation to the assignee:

  • Does the employee have a solid grasp of the job to be done and the goals established for that position?
  • Does the employee understand the compensation and benefits package?
  • Has the employee had access to cultural training and language instruction, no matter how similar the host culture may be?
  • Is the employee receiving relocation assistance in connection with the physical move?
  • Is there a contact person to whom the employee can go not only in an emergency but also to avoid becoming "out of sight, out of mind"?
  • If necessary to accomplish the assigned job duties, has the employee undergone training to get up to speed?
  • Has the assignee undergone an assessment of readiness?

To help the expatriate succeed, organizations are advised to invest in cross-cultural training before the relocation. The benefits of receiving such training are that it:3

  • Prepares the individual/family mentally for the move.
  • Removes some of the unknown.
  • Increases self-awareness and cross-cultural understanding.
  • Provides the opportunity to address questions and anxieties in a supportive environment.
  • Motivates and excites.
  • Reduces stress and provides coping strategies.
  • Eases the settling-in process.
  • Reduces the chances of relocation failure.

See Helping Expatriate Employees Deal with Culture Shock.

The family

As society has shifted from single- to dual-income households, the priorities of potential expatriates have evolved, as have the policies organizations use to entice employees to assignment locations. In the past, from the candidate's point of view, compensation was the most significant component of the expatriate package. Today more emphasis is on enabling an expatriate's spouse to work. Partner dissatisfaction is a significant contributor to assignment failure. See UAE: Expat Husbands Get New Work Opportunities.

When it comes to international relocation, most organizations deal with children as an afterthought. Factoring employees' children into the relocation equation is key to a successful assignment. Studies show that transferee children who have a difficult time adjusting to the assignment contribute to early returns and unsuccessful completion of international assignments, just as maladjusted spouses do. From school selection to training to repatriation, HR can do a number of things to smooth the transition for children.

Both partners and children must be prepared for relocation abroad. Employers should consider the following:

  • Have they been included in discussions about the host location and what they can expect? Foreign context and culture may be more difficult for accompanying family because they will not be participating in the "more secure" environment of the worksite. Does the family have suitable personal characteristics to successfully address the rigors of an international life?
  • In addition to dual-career issues, other common concerns include aging parents left behind in the home country and special needs for a child's education. Has the company allowed a forum for the family to discuss these concerns?

The work team

Whether the new expatriate will supervise the existing work team, be a peer, replace a local national or fill a newly created position, has the existing work team been briefed? Plans for a formal introduction of the new expatriate should reflect local culture and may require more research and planning as well as input from the local work team.

The manager/team leader

Questions organization need to consider include the following: Does the manager have the employee's file on hand (e.g., regarding increases, performance evaluations, promotions and problems)? Have the manager and employee engaged in in-depth conversations about the job, the manager's expectations and the employee's expectations?

Mentors play an important role in enhancing a high-performing employee's productivity and in guiding his or her career. In a traditional mentoring relationship, a junior executive has ongoing face-to-face meetings with a senior executive at the corporation to learn the ropes, set goals and gain advice on how to better perform his or her job.

Before technological advances, mentoring programs were limited to those leaders who had the time and experience within the organization's walls to impart advice to a few select people worth that investment. Technology has eliminated those constraints. Today, maintaining a long-distance mentoring relationship through e-mail, telephone and videoconferencing is much easier. And that technology means an employer is not confined to its corporate halls when considering mentor-mentee matches.

The organization

If the company is starting to send more employees abroad, it has to reassess its administrative capabilities. Can existing systems handle complicated tasks, such as currency exchanges and split payrolls, not to mention the additional financial burden of paying allowances, incentives and so on? Often, international assignment leads to outsourcing for global expertise. Payroll, tax, employment law, contractual obligations, among others, warrant an investment in sound professional advice.

Employment Laws

Four major U.S. employment laws have some application abroad for U.S. citizens working in U.S.-based multinationals:

  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
  • The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA).
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
  • The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA).

Title VII, the ADEA and the ADA are the more far-reaching among these, covering all U.S. citizens who are either:

  • Employed outside the United States by a U.S. firm.
  • Employed outside the United States by a company under the control of a U.S. firm.

USERRA's extraterritoriality applies to veterans and reservists working overseas for the federal government or a firm under U.S. control. See Do laws like the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act apply to U.S. citizens working in several other countries?

Employers must also be certain to comply with both local employment law in the countries in which they manage assignments and requirements for corporate presence in those countries. See Where can I find international employment law and culture information?


Companies take one of the following approaches to establish base salaries for expatriates:

  • The home-country-based approach. The objective of a home-based compensation program is to equalize the employee to a standard of living enjoyed in his or her home country. Under this commonly used approach, the employee's base salary is broken down into four general categories: taxes, housing, goods and services, and discretionary income.
  • The host-country-based approach. With this approach, the expatriate employee's compensation is based on local national rates. Many companies continue to cover the employee in its defined contribution or defined benefit pension schemes and provide housing allowances.
  • The headquarters-based approach. This approach assumes that all assignees, regardless of location, are in one country (i.e., a U.S. company pays all assignees a U.S.-based salary, regardless of geography).
  • Balance sheet approach. In this scenario, the compensation is calculated using the home-country-based approach with all allowances, deductions and reimbursements. After the net salary has been determined, it is then converted to the host country's currency. Since one of the primary goals of an international compensation management program is to maintain the expatriate's current standard of living, developing an equitable and functional compensation plan that combines balance and flexibility is extremely challenging for multinational companies. To this end, many companies adopt a balance sheet approach. This approach guarantees that employees in international assignments maintain the same standard of living they enjoyed in their home country. A worksheet lists the costs of major expenses in the home and host countries, and any differences are used to increase or decrease the compensation to keep it in balance.

Some companies also allow expatriates to split payment of their salaries between the host country's and the home country's currencies. The expatriate receives money in the host country's currency for expenses but keeps a percentage of it in the home country currency to safeguard against wild currency fluctuations in either country.

As for handling expatriates taxes, organizations usually take one of four approaches:

  • The employee is responsible for his or her own taxes.
  • The employer determines tax reimbursement on a case-by-case basis.
  • The employer pays the difference between taxes paid in the United States and the host country.
  • The employer withholds U.S. taxes and pays foreign taxes.

To prevent an expatriate employee from suffering excess taxation of income by both the U.S. and host countries, many multinational companies implement either a tax equalization or a tax reduction policy for employees on international assignments. Additionally, the United States has entered into bilateral international social security agreements with numerous countries, referred to as "totalization agreements," which allow for an exemption of the social security tax in either the home or host country for defined periods of time.

A more thorough discussion of compensation and tax practices for employees on international assignment can be found in SHRM's Designing Global Compensation Systems toolkit.


How do we handle taxes for expatriates?

Can employers pay employees in other countries on the corporate home-country payroll?

Measuring Expatriates' Performance

Failed international assignments can be extremely costly to an organization. There is no universal approach to measuring an expatriate's performance given that specifics related to the job, country, culture and other variables will need to be considered. Employers must identify and communicate clear job expectations and performance indicators very early on in the assignment. A consistent and detailed assessment of an expatriate employee's performance, as well as appraisal of the operation as a whole, is critical to the success of an international assignment. Issues such as the criteria for and timing of performance reviews, raises and bonuses should be discussed and agreed on before the employees are selected and placed on international assignments.


Employees on foreign assignments face a number of issues that domestic employees do not. According to a 2020 Mercer report4, difficulty adjusting to the host country, poor candidate selection and spouse or partner's unhappiness are the top three reasons international assignments fail. Obviously, retention of international assignees poses a significant challenge to employers.

Upon completion of an international assignment, retaining the employee in the home country workplace is also challenging. Unfortunately, many employers fail to track retention data of repatriated employees and could benefit from collecting this information and making adjustments to reduce the turnover of employees returning to their home country.

Safety and Security

When faced with accident, injury, sudden illness, a disease outbreak or politically unstable conditions in which personal safety is at risk, expatriate employees and their dependents may require evacuation to the home country or to a third location. To be prepared, HR should have an evacuation plan in place that the expatriate can share with friends, extended family and colleagues both at home and abroad. See Viewpoint: Optimizing Global Mobility's Emergency Response Plans.

Many companies ban travel outside the country in the following circumstances:

  • When a travel advisory is issued by the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, International SOS or a government agency.
  • When a widespread outbreak of a specific disease occurs or if the risk is deemed too high for employees and their well-being is in jeopardy.
  • If the country is undergoing civil unrest or war or if an act of terrorism has occurred.
  • If local management makes the decision.
  • If the employee makes the decision.

Once employees are in place, the decision to evacuate assignees and dependents from a host location is contingent on local conditions and input from either internal sources (local managers, headquarters staff, HR and the assignee) or external sources (an external security or medical firm) or both. In some cases, each host country has its own set of evacuation procedures.

Decision-makers should consider all available and credible advice and initially transport dependents and nonessential personnel out of the host country by the most expeditious form of travel.


Navigating International Crises

How can an organization ensure the safety and security of expatriates and other employees in high-risk areas?

The Disaster Assistance Improvement Program (DAIP)


Ideally, the repatriation process begins before the expatriate leaves his or her home country and continues throughout the international assignment by addressing the following issues.

Career planning. Many managers are responsible for resolving difficult problems abroad and expect that a well-done job will result in promotion on return, regardless of whether the employer had made such a promise. This possibly unfounded assumption can be avoided by straightforward career planning that should occur in advance of the employee's accepting the international assignment. Employees need to know what impact the expatriate assignment will have on their overall advancement in the home office and that the international assignment fits in their career path.

Mentoring. The expatriate should be assigned a home-office mentor. Mentors are responsible for keeping expatriates informed on developments within the company, for keeping the expatriates' names in circulation in the office (to help avoid the out-of-sight, out-of-mind phenomenon) and for seeing to it that expatriates are included in important meetings. Mentors can also assist the expatriate in identifying how the overseas experience can best be used on return. Optimum results are achieved when the mentor role is part of the mentor's formal job duties.

Communication. An effective global communication plan will help expatriates feel connected to the home office and will alert them to changes that occur while they are away. The Internet, e-mail and intranets are inexpensive and easy ways to bring expatriates into the loop and virtual meeting software is readily available for all employers to engage with global employees. In addition, organizations should encourage home-office employees to keep in touch with peers on overseas assignments. Employee newsletters that feature global news and expatriate assignments are also encouraged.

Home visits. Most companies provide expatriates with trips home. Although such trips are intended primarily for personal visits, scheduling time for the expatriate to visit the home office is an effective method of increasing the expatriate's visibility. Having expatriates attend a few important meetings or make a presentation on their international assignment is also a good way to keep them informed and connected.

Preparation to return home. The expatriate should receive plenty of advance notice (some experts recommend up to one year) of when the international assignment will end. This notice will allow the employee time to prepare the family and to prepare for a new position in the home office. Once the employee is notified of the assignment's end, the HR department should begin working with the expatriate to identify suitable positions in the home office. The expatriate should provide the HR department with an updated resume that reflects the duties of the overseas assignment. The employee's overall career plan should be included in discussions with the HR professional.

Interviews. In addition to home leave, organizations may need to provide trips for the employee to interview with prospective managers. The face-to-face interview will allow the expatriate to elaborate on skills and responsibilities obtained while overseas and will help the prospective manager determine if the employee is a good fit. Finding the right position for the expatriate is crucial to retaining the employee. Repatriates who feel that their new skills and knowledge are underutilized may grow frustrated and leave the employer.

Ongoing recognition of contributions. An employer can recognize and appreciate the repatriates' efforts in several ways, including the following:

  • Hosting a reception for repatriates to help them reconnect and meet new personnel.
  • Soliciting repatriates' help in preparing other employees for expatriation.
  • Asking repatriates to deliver a presentation or prepare a report on their overseas assignment.
  • Including repatriates on a global task force and asking them for a global perspective on business issues.


Measuring ROI on expatriate assignments can be cumbersome and imprecise. The investment costs of international assignments can vary dramatically and can be difficult to determine. The largest expatriate costs include overall remuneration, housing, cost-of-living allowances (which sometimes include private schooling costs for children) and physical relocation (the movement to the host country of the employee, the employee's possessions and, often, the employee's family).

But wide variations exist in housing expenses. For example, housing costs are sky-high in Tokyo and London, whereas Australia's housing costs are moderate. Another significant cost of expatriate assignments involves smoothing out differences in pay and benefits between one country and another. Such cost differences can be steep and can vary based on factors such as exchange rates (which can be quite volatile) and international tax concerns (which can be extremely complex).

Once an organization has determined the costs of a particular assignment, the second part of the ROI challenge is calculating the return. Although it is relatively straightforward to quantify the value of fixing a production line in Puerto Rico or of implementing an enterprise software application in Asia, the challenge of quantifying the value of providing future executives with cross-cultural perspectives and international leadership experience can be intimidating.

Once an organization determines the key drivers of its expatriate program, HR can begin to define objectives and assess return that can be useful in guiding employees and in making decisions about the costs they incur as expatriates. Different objectives require different levels and lengths of tracking. Leadership development involves a much longer-term value proposition and should include a thorough repatriation plan. By contrast, the ROI of an international assignment that plugs a skills gap is not negatively affected if the expatriate bolts after successfully completing the engagement.


Additional Resources

International Assignment Management: Expatriate Policy and Procedure

Introduction to the Global Human Resources Discipline



1Mulkeen, D. (2017, February 20). How to reduce the risk of international assignment failure. Communicaid. Retrieved from

2Mercer. (2020). Worldwide Survey of International Assignment Policies and Practices. Retrieved from

3Dickmann, M., & Baruch, Y. (2011). Global careers. New York: Routledge.

4Mercer. (2020). Worldwide Survey of International Assignment Policies and Practices. Retrieved from