International Career Development: Preparing for an Expatriate Job Transition

By Sullivan, Sherry E.; Tu, Howard S. | Business Perspectives, Summer 1993 | Go to article overview

International Career Development: Preparing for an Expatriate Job Transition


Sullivan, Sherry E., Tu, Howard S., Business Perspectives


A current concern of many U.S. companies is how to remain profitable in the face of increasing international competition. With the unification of Germany, the democratization of Eastern Block countries, the establishment of the European Community, the current changes in Russia, and the proposed North American Free Trade Pack, U.S. firms will be operating in a even more competitive environment in the near future. As more U.S. companies expand their operation overseas in their quest to remain globally competitive, the need to send employees on international assignments should also increase.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, the use of expatriate managers by U.S. firms declined because of the high costs and failure rates of such managers. However, since the late 1980s, there have been indications that U.S. firms are reversing this trend and, like their foreign competitors, are increasing their use of expatriates once again. This change in business strategy should be a great opportunity for individuals interested in an international career or assignment. However, an international career is not necessarily appropriate for everyone.

The purpose of this article is to outline career development steps individuals should take in preparing for an expatriate transition. Specific career development strategies and resources are detailed.

Preparing for the Transition

There are three major steps an individual interested in an expatriate assignment should consider.

Self-evaluation--Most individuals who seek an expatriate assignment are motivated by their perception of the glamour, excitement, and adventure associated with such an assignment. However, the frustrations of the actual job experience coupled with the culture shock of being in a foreign environment often make expatriates long for the familiarity of their home country. Generally, about three to six months after the beginning of their international assignment, expatriates have either terminated the assignment early and returned home or have begun to adjust to life in the host country.

What differentiates those who successfully complete their assignments from those who return home early? Successful expatriates should be able to work with diverse groups of people in a culture that may be very different from their own. They should be able to recognize and accept societal and business norms that may seem alien or unethical to their own standards.

Before individuals choose an international career, they must determine if they have the willingness and motivation to effectively complete such an assignment. Personal characteristics which include the ability to adapt to different norms and modes of behavior, as well a high tolerance for ambiguity, are prerequisites for a successful international career. General exercises, such as those found in Richard Bolles' What Color is Your Parachute?, as well as more specific exercises such as those found in Nancy Adler's International Dimensions of Organizational Behavior, are valuable self-evaluation tools. Also, it may be useful to read recent publications, such as Gercik's (1992) On Track with the Japanese: A Case by Case Approach to Building Successful Relationships, that illustrate the psychological and emotional effort involved in dealing with a foreign culture.

Many expatriate assignments terminate early because of the spouse's inability to adapt. Spouses are vital to the success of an international assignment because they may be the most important social support to the expatriate worker. Individuals who wish to pursue international careers or assignments should include their spouses in the decision-making process. They should discuss their intentions with their spouses and seek their approval before any further commitment is made.

Once the husband and wife have made the decision to pursue such a career path, both partners should engage in training for the assignment. Employment or educational opportunities for the spouse should also be investigated at this time. …

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