Public Release: 

Study Shows Climb Up Corporate Ladder Often Stalled By Overseas Assignments

Simon Fraser University

Executives who accept overseas postings face their biggest challenge, not upon arrival in a foreign country, but when they return home, according to a major Simon Fraser University study involving the biggest U.S. multinational companies.

Rosalie Tung, a professor of international business at SFU, contacted 409 expatriates to explore the attitudes, challenges and benefits of overseas postings.

She discovered that overall satisfaction with such assignments is generally high, but repatriation is frequently marred by uncertain advancement prospects, decreased responsibilities, reduced perks and family adjustment challenges.

Says Tung: "These individuals generally accept overseas postings for reasons of overall career development and financial rewards. But, often, they return home to find that their multinational employers do not really value what they have learned abroad."

Tung believes her study shows that some multinational corporations are giving executives "conflicting messages" on the benefits of international experience. These companies may claim that such experience is a requirement for advancement, but, she adds that many are not following through with promotions.

Most executives believe their employers provide adequate support to them before and during their overseas postings. They are far less satisfied with post-assignment support.

"Multinationals should be more proactive in offering returning executives formal reintegration workshops, career counselling and mentor programs," concludes Tung. "These supports will help ensure that these individuals are not lured away by competitors anxious to make use of the executive's new and valuable expertise."

Tung worked with the corporate head offices of Arthur Andersen International Executive Services in Chicago to reach executives in 56 countries around the world, including such exotic locales as Mozambique, Azerbaijan, Peru, Thailand and, even, Canada.

In addition to support from Arthur Anderson, the world's largest accounting firm, Tung's study was financed by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. She conducted a similar study in the 1980s.

Among the study's findings:

  • Executives are selective about the countries to which they are being posted. Political stability and local living conditions are the most important concerns, far outweighing any differences in culture and religion.

  • Expatriates frequently spend a substantial portion of their overseas postings feeling uncomfortable as they adjust to the local culture and language. Respondents claim that it takes up to a year to feel relaxed in assignments which are relatively short (31 per cent last two years or less). Tung recommends that companies provide executives with a more realistic preview of what they can expect overseas to facilitate adjustment.

  • Acquiring a facility in the local language is important.

  • An interest in and knowledge of the local culture is a prerequisite for success.

  • While international executives are willing to sacrifice a great deal for their careers, few will accept overseas assignments if their families strongly object or are unable to accompany them.

Arthur Anderson has posted a summary of the study at its corporate headquarters' web site. The address is: <http://www.arthurandersen.com/ies/globalhr/tungsurv.htm>.

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Contact: Prof. Rosalie Tung, 604-291-3083, 291-5170
Ken Mennell, media/public relations, 604-291-3929

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