It is a challenge for those responsible for selecting staff for international assignments to determine appropriate selection criteria.
Table of Contents
Process of Selecting Expatriates
The figure illustrates the factors involved in the expatriate selection, both in terms of the individual and the specifics of the context concerned. These factors are interrelated.
- Technical Ability
- Cross-cultural Suitability
- Family Requirements
- Cross Cultural
- MNCs Requirements
A person’s ability to perform the required tasks is an important consideration and so technical and managerial skills are therefore an essential criterion in selecting expatriates. Indeed, research findings consistently indicate that multinationals place heavy reliance on relevant technical skills during the expatriate selection process.
For example, the Price Waterhouse survey (International Assignments: European Policy and Practice) of 184 European firms( nearly a quarter of which had their worldwide headquarters in the US) reports that the most important selection criterion were job-related skills (99 per cent) and leadership skills ( 76 per cent).
Reinforcing the emphasis on technical skills is the relative ease with which the multinational may assess the candidate’s potential, as technical and managerial competence can be determined on the basis of past performance.
Since expatriates are predominantly internal recruits, personnel evaluation records can be examined and checked with the candidate’s past and present superiors. The dilemma though is that past performance may have little or no bearing on one’s ability to achieve a task in a foreign cultural environment.
The cultural environment in which expatriates operate is an important factor in determining successful performance. Apart from the obvious technical ability and managerial skills, expatriates require cross-cultural abilities that enable the person to operate in a new environment.
An American manager who is considered an excellent communicator by his US colleagues because of his face-to-face and to-the-point style may be a disaster when required to communicate with say, Chinese or Japanese subordinates who value subtle, indirect forms of communication. Hence, the country where the posting is to be and its culture are likely influences in the selection of the candidates.
According to experience and research, there appears to be a consensus that desirable attributes should include cultural empathy, adaptability, diplomacy, language ability, positive attitude, emotional stability and maturity The managerial and technical competence is regarded as primary for an expatriate’s success, but, effectiveness and coping skills are also necessary.
Effectiveness skills is defines as the ability to successfully translate managerial or technical skills in to the foreign environment, whereas coping skills enable a person to become reasonably comfortable or at least survive in the foreign environment. It is not easy to define inter-cultural competence and even more difficult to measure it. What is needed is to measure relational ability of a person, i.e his/her ability to relate with another cultural group, which is also a personality related trait.
The contribution that the family, particularly the spouse, makes to the success of the overseas assignment is now well documented. For example, Black and Stephens (1989) examined the influence of the spouse on an American expatriate’s adjustment. They found that the adjustment of the spouse was highly correlated to the adjustment of the expatriate manager.
Hence, firms interview the spouse as an essential part of the selection process. Answers are sought to questions like, Will you be interrupting a career to accompany your spouse on an international assignment? If a formal interview evokes resistance, then the spouse is contacted informally and attitudes ascertained indirectly thorough friends.
Apart from the accompanying partner’s career, there are family considerations that can cause a potential expatriate to decline the international assignment. Disruption to children’s education is an important consideration, and the selected candidate may reject the offered assignment on the grounds that a move at this particular stage in his or her child’s life is inappropriate. The care of aging or invalid parents is another consideration.
Requirements In some cases, the multinational may wish to use an expatriate and has selected a candidate for the international assignment, but may find that the local Government do not allow it. Many developed countries are changing their legislation to facilitate employment related immigration which will make international transfers somewhat easier –for example the European Union Social Charter allows for free movement of citizens of member countries within the EU. It is important that HR staff keep up-to-date with relevant legislative changes in the countries in which the MNC is involved.
Further, the host country may be an important determinant. Some regions and countries are considered ‘hardship postings’: remote areas away from major cities or modern facilities; or war-torn regions with high physical risk. Accompanying family members may be an additional responsibility that the multinational does not want to bear. There may be a reluctance to select females for certain Middle East or South East Asian regions and in some countries a work permit for a female expatriate will not be issued.
These aspects may result in the selection of HCNs rather than expatriates. To overcome this problem, a group of more than 20 large multinationals (including Shell, British Airways, Unilever, Pricewaterhouse Coopers and Siemens) has established an organisation called ‘Permits Foundation’in an attempt to promote the improvement of work permit regulations for spouses of expatriates. It also aims to raise government awareness of the connection between work permits and employee mobility.
Apart from expatriate related factors, there are contextual factors, such as management philosophy and approach of the MNC- whether it is ethnocentric, polycentric, region-centric or geocentric. The status of the MNC-whether it is an international, multi-domestic, transnational or global company-also influences this decision to a great extent. Other situational factors include:
- The mode of operation involved: Selecting staff to work in an international joint venture may involve major input from the local partner and constraints imposed by the JV agreement terms.
- The duration of the assignment: Family members tend not to accompany an expatriate when the assignment is for a short duration, so family may not be a strong factor in the selection.
- The amount of knowledge transfer inherent in the expatriate’s job in foreign operation: If the nature of the job is to train local staff, then the MNC many include training skills as one of the selection criterions.
Language skills are be considered as of critical importance for some expatriate positions, but lesser in others, though some would argue that knowledge of the host country’s language is an important aspect of expatriate performance, regardless of the level of position.
Differences in language are recognised as a major barrier to effective cross-cultural communication. Yet, in terms of the other selection criteria we have examined above, from the multinational’s perspective, language is placed lower down the list of desirable attributes.
In the past, US multinationals have tended to place relatively low importance on foreign language skills. For example, in a 1990 study of US multinationals, Fixman found that foreign language skills were rarely considered an important part of international business success. She comments: ‘Language problems were largely viewed as mechanical and manageable problems that could be solved individually’.
This view is also conûrmed by the consistent and relatively poor performance of young Americans on polls of geographic literacy sponsored by the National Geographic Education Foundation. In the most recent 2006 poll of young American adults between the ages of 18 and 24 the following results were reported:
- 50 per cent of the sample thought it was ‘important but not absolutely necessary’ to know where countries in the news are located.
- 75 per cent did not know that a majority of Indonesia’s population of 245 million is Muslim (making it the largest Muslim country in the world).
- 74 per cent of the sample thought that English was the most commonly spoken language in the world, rather than Mandarin Chinese.