Is expat failure a myth?

You’ve probably heard of friends who emigrated to Australia/Spain/Singapore but have now decided to come back.  HR managers in multinational organisations have been aware of the problem for a while.  TV programmes like ITV’s ‘No Place Like Home’ exploit the sentiment. 

What am I talking about?  So-called ‘expat failure’ (although I am not sure most expats would like to call it that – ‘realism’, ‘maturity’ or ‘homesickness’ might be equally valid terms).  It’s about expats returning home prematurely, or feeling unhappy in their host country.

From the point of view of multinational organisations who have a policy of sending employees abroad for 2-4 years, it is serious and it is failure.  There is the real cost of selection, training, relocation, repatriation, replacement … and then the hidden costs of not performing at expected levels while on an international assignment, or (even worse) damaging long-term relationships with the host country.

A lot of ink has been spilt on this topic, with some researchers contesting the notion of ‘expat failure’ (notably Anne-Wil Harzing as far back as 1995, see http://www.harzing.com/download/failurerates.pdf)

What I am more interested in is whether the much-publicised difference in failure rates between expats from different countries actually stand up to close scrutiny.  Over and over again I read that American expats regularly suffer failure rates of 10-20%, while European and Japanese  expats suffer less than 5%.  Tempting of course for all America-bashers to laugh loudly that US companies and their employees are less culturally sensitive and adaptable, or more imperialistic and inflexible.

But is that really the case?  Do these studies take into account the fact that for Europeans and Japanese managers global mobility is a key factor for progression to senior ranks, since their own markets are quite small?  Do they look at gender differences between the US and Japan and see that the Japanese accompanying spouse (almost always the wife) is far less likely to complain about the difficulties of living abroad?  Or that Japanese expats themselves will ‘toughen it out’ rather than admit defeat and return home early?  How much research has been carried out on expats from smaller European countries, who usually have far higher language proficiencies and a more international outlook?  I also suspect the success rates of expats moving from a developing culture to a developed one are much higher, but where is the research on that?

And how about a truly revolutionary idea for ensuring expat success?  Keep them there longer!   After about 5-7 years, most people will ‘go native’ and adapt quite successfully to their host country.  However, it is claimed that repatriation is then almost impossible or that they have lost their skills and social contacts.  Clearly, this is not ideal for everyone, but perhaps organisations can benefit from having a true ‘culture broker’ in some key hub spots, someone who is immersed in both cultures, can switch easily between terms of reference and act as a mentor and coach for all those working there on shorter assignments.

Have you experienced difficulties when living abroad?  Have you returned home earlier than you expected?  What would have helped most to make your stay abroad more enjoyable or successful?

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