Attitudes and Experience of Expatriates on International Assignments

January 22, 1998

Professor Rosalie Tung

Simon Fraser University Vancouver (at Harbour Centre)


In her 1995 book entitled, World Class: Thriving Locally in the Global Economy, Rosabeth Kanter identified the two dimensions associated with being "world class". These are: One, to "meet the highest standards anywhere in the world"; and two, the emergence of cosmopolitans who are rich in three intangible assets: Concepts (i.e., knowledge), competence (i.e., skills), and connections (i.e., networks). One effective way to develop these three intangible assets is to undertake international assignments. Such assignments provide the expatriate with greater opportunities to assume broader responsibilities usually associated with the smaller operation abroad and also facilitate the development of a global orientation.

While there are definite benefits to be derived from undertaking international assignments, there are also costs, the most salient of which is expatriate failure. The costs associated with expatriate failure are several-fold:

  1. Early return. Tung (1981) has shown that 7 percent of U.S. multinationals had expatriate failure rates of between 20 to 40 percent.
  2. Moving cost. To compensate for the cost-of-living differentials associated with living abroad and to make an international assignment financially attractive, multinationals often have to pay various types of premiums. The compensation paid to an expatriate is typically two to three times base salary. For assignments to high cost countries, such as London, it can cost as much as $500,000 per annum for a family of four.
  3. Down time. It takes time (weeks, maybe even months) before the person can adjust and settle comfortably into his/her job abroad.
  4. Burn out. This refers to a situation where the expatriate is not performing at peak efficiency because he/she is operating under a lot of stress and strains.
  5. Turnover upon repatriation. Research (Black, Gregersen and Mendenhall, 1992) has shown that approximately 20 percent of repatriates leave their companies within one year of return from an international assignment. This may stem, in part, from their frustration with not being able to utilize the skills and experience they have acquired abroad.
  6. Downward spiraling vicious cycle. In general, a single failure tends to get magnified a hundred-fold. Thus, high flyers that might be interested in pursuing an international career may be discouraged from undertaking such an assignment for fear of career setbacks.
  7. Damage to corporate reputation. When an expatriate fails to adjust in a foreign country, he/she may undertake actions that could damage his/her company's reputation in the host country.

The study reported here builds on my earlier research on the selection and training of expatriates for international assignments. The focus in this study is on the attitudes and experience of expatriates on international assignments.


Based on interviews with focus groups in three multinationals in Canada and the U.S., a 14-page questionnaire was developed. With the assistance of Arthur Andersen's International Executive Services, this questionnaire was sent to 800 expatriates who were currently on international assignment or who had returned from an overseas posting within the past five years (Tung and Arthur Andersen, 1997). After two follow-up mailings, 409 questionnaires were returned for a response rate of 51.12 percent.

Demographic Profile of Respondents

The vast majority of respondents was male (83.2%). Most were employed at the senior- and middle-management levels. They came from 49 U.S. multinationals and were employed in different functional areas, the principal ones being general management, marketing, and engineering. Over one-half (61.1%) has been with their company for more than 10 years and another 23.5% have been with their respective organizations for 6-10 years. The respondents have served an average of 1.7 international assignments of one or more years. As a group, the respondents were quite cosmopolitan, having lived abroad for an average of 6.7 years, both personal and career-related. Their assignments were to 54 countries around the world and the average duration of an assignment was 3.69 years. Of the 409 respondents, 61 were inpatriates, i.e., foreign nationals then on assignment to the United States. Most respondents had university or post-graduate education. Nearly one-half (43.9%) was between the ages of 36-45 and another one-quarter (25.8%) were between the ages of 46-55. The respondents were predominantly white (83.7%) and the balance were Asians, Hispanic or African-Americans.

The majority of respondents (67.1%) was in their first marriage and most of the spouses (63.65%) were not employed outside home. Most of the respondents (72.7%) have children with an average of 1.55 children still living at home. Over one-half of the respondents spoke one or more west European languages besides English and another 6.6% spoke an east or south-east Asian language. About one-third of the respondents had annual income in excess of US$150,000 per annum.

Attitude toward International Assignments

The following items gauged the respondents' attitude about the importance of an international assignment. The mean scores are reported in parentheses at the end of each item. 5-point scales were used with 5=strongly agree.
1 Essential for overall career development (4.0)
2 Positive impact upon subsequent career advancement either in current organization or elsewhere (4.2)
3 Acquire skills/experience not usually available at home (4.52)

Mode of Interaction

Based on research into sojourners and immigrants to Canada, Berry (1980) identified four modes of interaction between members of the mainstream and minority cultures. These are: Integration (need for cultural preservation and attracted to partner's culture), assimilation (no need for cultural preservation and attracted to partner's culture), separation (need for cultural preservation and not attracted to partner's culture), and marginalization (no need for cultural preservation and not attracted to partner's culture). Berry has shown that integration is the most effective mode of interaction between members of the majority and minority cultures, while marginalization is the most dysfunctional. Between these two extremes lie the assimilation and separation modes.

I applied this four-cell typology to the patterns of interaction between expatriates and host country nationals. The mean scores for the items designed to measure these various modes of acculturation are presented in parentheses at the end of each item.

4 Conform to norms of host country most of the time (4.02)
5 Conform to norms of corporate headquarters even if inconsistent with host country (2.93)
6 Important to select and choose from better elements of both home and host countries (4.2)
7 Keep a certain distance from host country nationals (1.76)
8 Socialize more with others from similar cultural backgrounds (3.07)
9 Be very knowledgeable about host country's culture (3.85)
10 Be attracted to culture of host country (3.95)

Experience in International Assignments

The respondents were asked how long it took them to feel completely comfortable in the foreign country. 22.3% said it took 1-3 months; 25.3% indicated it took 4-6 months; another 33.7% said it took 6-12 months; while 5.2% indicated that they never felt completely comfortable abroad.

An overwhelming majority of the respondents was very satisfied with their current/last international assignment (mean score of 4.07). However, when satisfaction was decomposed into "satisfaction with expatriation" and "satisfaction with repatriation", a different picture was revealed. The mean score for "satisfaction with expatriation" was 3.37, lower than that of overall satisfaction. This might stem from the fact that expatriates were dissatisfied with certain aspects of their company's expatriation policies and programs, such as the company's failure to guarantee a job upon successful completion of an international assignment, inadequate pre-departure training and failure to provide a realistic job preview of what was to be expected overseas. The mean score for "satisfaction with repatriation" was even lower (2.61). This relatively high level of dissatisfaction may be attributed to the lack of an acceptable repatriation policy at many companies. 59.1% of the respondents were not guaranteed a job at home upon successful completion of the international assignment. 32.9% were guaranteed re-entry at the same organizational level at which they were expatriated, while only 8% were promised a promotion upon return. A possible explanation for the apparent paradox - high level of overall satisfaction with international assignments and perception of the importance of an international assignment to overall career development, on the one hand, and high level of dissatisfaction with repatriation, on the other - may be found in Schein's (1996) distinction between internal versus external careers. Increasingly, a career may no longer be viewed as a progression of jobs within a single firm or industry. Rather, career progression may be perceived as a series of jobs in different companies held together by a "subjective sense of where one is going in one's work life".

Coping Mechanisms

Respondents were asked the extent to which they used the following mechanisms in coping with the stress and strains associated with living abroad. 5-point scales were used, with 5=to a very great extent.

12 Socialize primarily with other expatriates (3.25)
13 Socialize primarily with host country nationals (3.67)
14 Keep busy with sports/athletics (3.16)
15 Communicate with family/friends back home via phone, fax, etc. (3.37)
16 Learn more about host country (4.16)
17 Keep busy with work (3.14)
18 Engage in stress-relieving activities, e.g. consume alcohol (1.90)
Spend more time with family (3.47).


Berry, J.W. 1980. "Acculturation as varieties of adaptation". In A.M. Padilla (Ed.). Acculturation: Theory, Models and Some New Findings. Boulder, Co.: Westview Press.

Black, J.S., Gregersen, H.B., and Mendenhall, M.E. 1992. Global Assignments: Successfully Expatriating and Repatriating International Managers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kanter, R.M. 1995. World Class: Thriving Locally in the Global Economy.
New York: Simon & Schuster.

Schein, E.H. 1996. "Career anchors revisited: Implications for career development in the 21st century". Academy of Management Executive. Vol.10, No.4, pp.80-88.

Tung, R.L. and Arthur Andersen. 1997. Exploring International Assignees' Viewpoints: A Study of the Expatriation/Repatriation Process. Chicago, Il: Arthur Andersen Worldwide, SC.19

Tung, R.L. 1981. "Selection and training of personnel for overseas assignments". Columbia Journal of World Business, Vol. 16, pp.21-25.