Will an international assignment help or hinder your career? The pros and cons

Katie Smith, January 28, 2020

We are constantly hearing and reading about the benefits of accepting an international assignment for work... But is disrupting your life to such a degree worth it? Are there genuinely career boosting leaps to be made as a result of the relocation process? I’m looking at the positives and negatives of international assignments and the resulting impact on your life and career.

CONS

Assignment Failure

When you are being sold the idea of an international assignment, the risk is frequently played down, but the fact is that many international assignments do fail. Personnel Today reported that 40% of assignments failed in 2017, and in less developed countries the rate jumps to 70% (SheildGeo).  Sometimes failure is outside of the control of the assignee. Despite best efforts in terms of preparation, global mobility and relocation support, it must be said that some people simply aren’t cut out for the massive cultural shifts that international assignments frequently entail, despite hopeful intentions. An international assignment should not be entered into without due research on the part of the assignee – you need to be sure you are making the right move. Have you done your homework?

Those travelling and relocating with partners or children may also run the risk that their loved ones will be unable to adjust, thereby ending the assignment.  Partners being unable to create fulfilling lives for themselves in new locations is a big risk, so is the fact that not all children adapt easily to a new school, let alone a new country. Homesickness, disproportionate workloads in host locations or a change in responsibility may all be contributing factors to assignment failure. Regardless of the reasoning for an assignment being cut short, a returning assignee still runs the risk of being regarding as less reliable or resilient and therefore less promotable (or even less employable), as a result. Before you accept an international assignment, you need to be asking yourself; can you afford for the assignment to fail?

Losing Touch

International assignees are frequently being relocated away from well-established business environments, often their company’s HQ. Typically these locations are the home of key decision-makers and are the leading focal point for any business’s strategic direction. When being posted on international assignment, there is a risk that assignees will find themselves being taken from these pivotal locations to a secondary business environment that is still in its developmental phase (hence the need to draft in top talent). The risk associated with this is the distance placed between the assignee and HQ; assignees may find themselves being passed over or forgotten when it comes to promotion, due to being off-site. Therefore you need to consider; does the opportunity of an international assignment outweigh potentially missing out on a promotion?

Likewise, being situated away from the main business structure whilst on assignment can result in the assignee losing touch with the up to minute shifting dynamics of the business, finding themselves playing constant catchup. Essentially, if you move from a central business location, i.e. business HQ to a developing location or branch you usually find yourself being transported away from the cutting edge of all manner of business facets (e.g. strategic decisions, technological upgrades, industry discoveries and updates). It's possible that those colleagues who did not accept assignment will find increased opportunities for promotion, idea generation, technological and general industry advancement. Do you want to miss out for an international assignment?

PROS

International Work Experience

The fact is the world is constantly growing more mobile and accessible – business is a major driver of this. Today’s business leaders are not limited by geography. Experience working in international business environments and cultures is frequently listed as a prerequisite for most senior roles in leading international firms. Adding diverse and multicultural elements to your character and portfolio of experience instantly makes you more attractive for positions with global scope. International diversity is increasingly valued by global firms and there is no sign that this trend will cease to continue. Therefore, overseas experience gained by professionals on an international assignment is clearly going to help those aspiring to c-suite roles. If you are one of these aspiring professionals, the question should be whether you can you afford not to take an international assignment?

Companies expend enormous resources on international assignments. The assignments themselves are usually conducted for a specific purpose, with ROI being a key focus. For example, an assignee with a specific set of skills may be sent to a new country location to conduct a project for which their skills are deemed essential. Therefore being selected for assignment is often a compliment, however, it is also an opportunity. Fulfil the project brief well and you as the assignee will have proven yourself – providing you with the scope for career progression that comes with the credit of success. If you can take the pressure, an international assignment can prove lucrative. Are you ready to step up and succeed?

Life Enrichment

Relocating can be a chance for professional development global assignment, after all, a global assignment will expose you to new ways of working, thinking and putting plans into action... However personal development is also a factor which should not be underrated. Assignees that are well suited to their international assignment will enjoy immersing themselves in the culture of their new host country, making the most of their time to explore sites of interest, meeting new people, enjoying local cuisine and relishing the chance to pick up a new language. The fact is an international assignment is a great opportunity to visit a new part of the world and can be an extremely gratifying and rewarding experience (not to mention a chance to have fun and gain life experience)! Is this something that you want to do on a personal level?

Another factor to consider is regret. If you do not accept the international assignment on offer to you (perhaps because you see it as too risky or not viable for your personal circumstances) will you live to regret your decision? For some people, the answer will be no. Upon thorough assessment of the facts it's true that international assignment may not be right for everyone. However, if the idea of an international assignment fills you with excitement and the thought of not going is disappointing at best, it’s worth exploring the opportunity further. You just need to approach the matter with your eyes open and with the knowledge that accepting the assignment may be an excellent career move, however, it may also have the potential to hold you back. Are you willing to accept the risks associated with an international assignment? If yes, you are already on your way!

Written by Katie Smith - Assoc CIPD, Head of Special Projects - HR, Talent & Content at Alchemy Recruitment Ltd

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