Cover Story

When Sally Lipscomb and her husband followed his work to the small village of Rixensart, Belgium, in 1992, they found they had few tools to ease their adjustment to a new life. Lipscomb, a registered nurse with a master's degree in public health, had run employee-assistance programs for large organizations. But unable to obtain a work visa and struggling to communicate in French, she felt incompetent and socially isolated.

"When all you have to do are simple tasks and you cannot even make the simplest request understood," says Lipscomb, "you feel pretty dumb."

Those feelings, combined with uncertainty about the future and dreadful weather--it rained for a solid month after they arrived--brought on health problems and the early signs of clinical depression.

"It took all my professional and personal resources to ameliorate my health problems and reverse the early signs of depression," Lipscomb remembers.

Her story is familiar to the hundreds of thousands of Americans who live and work overseas. Recognizing the needs of these employees, psychologists have increased their exploration of how to select, prepare and support people working and living abroad.

Although research in these areas has begun to find its way into organizational practice, many researchers worry that companies still pay too little attention to what psychologists have learned, leaving expatriates ill-prepared for international experiences.

Meanwhile, much more remains uncertain--particularly in two areas: understanding how certain personality and family characteristics help people thrive internationally and whether such traits can be trained, and identifying how to help people navigate the repatriation process.

Preparation and support

As business has gone global, more and more organizations have recognized that it's in their economic interest to fully prepare and support employees on international assignments.

"Expatriates are expensive to train and to transfer," explains industrial-organizational psychologist David A. Harrison, PhD, of Pennsylvania State University. "If they come home early, a lot of money is wasted."

Studies have shown that in predicting which employees will succeed in international assignments, it's critical to weigh not only technical suitability for international assignments, but also a host of psychological factors, including employees' open-mindedness, flexibility, emotional stability, intellectual curiosity, relationship skills and ability to cope with stress and ambiguity, says Paula M. Caligiuri, PhD, an industrial-organizational psychologist at Rutgers University.

Equally important are family characteristics such as family cohesion, communication and, especially, the spouse's willingness and ability to adjust to an international environment. Indeed, Caligiuri notes, family dynamics have become a principal focus of research in expatriate research, in part because expatriate assignees, younger now than ever, are more likely to be in dual-career relationships and to have young children than was the case even 10 years ago.

Rather than assuming that one test exists that will fully predict who will succeed internationally, argues Caligiuri, it is most important for organizations to help guide prospective expatriates through the decision-making process for themselves. For her consulting practice, she has developed a self-assessment tool that encourages employees and family members to think about whether an international assignment is right for them.

One advantage of using such self-assessments, Caligiuri observes, is that many predictors of global assignment success are dimensions that, for legal or practical reasons, managers would want to stay away from--for example, if an employee's child has a learning disability.

In addition to identifying factors that predict success in international assignments, researchers have reached consensus on some "best practices" for organizations. These include providing employees and families with rigorous cross-cultural training both before departure and after arrival in the host country, sending families for trial visits, establishing clear job expectations for employees, providing continuing practical support and encouraging expatriates to immerse themselves in local culture rather than living and socializing only with other expatriates.

Such practices have started to seep into some companies' standard procedures. But, says social psychologist Mark E. Mendenhall, PhD, of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, "It would still be rare to find a company that is utilizing everything that research has shown us about selecting, training, developing and supporting expatriates."

Most of the time employees and their families receive little or no training before they go overseas, "which is like sending people into combat without teaching them how to fight," he says.

In addition, says Caligiuri, there are few psychologists with rigorous industrial-organizational backgrounds working as consultants in the area. As a result, she laments, "The space is being filled with people who are administering or selling tests that have dubious reliability and validity."

And that's more than bad business, says Mendenhall.

"We're dealing with people's lives here," he says. "Many of us who work in this field have lived and worked overseas and have seen a lot of depression, failure and lowered self-confidence because people didn't have the tools--nobody was there to teach them. That's where psychologists who are interested in cross-cultural adjustment and have research skills can make a difference."

Understanding a hero's journey

Even as psychologists have developed an understanding of the personal and family characteristics that predict expatriate success, nagging questions remain.

"We have a pretty good handle on what the skills and traits are that are necessary to do well in a cross-cultural environment," says Mendenhall, "but we still don't really know whether we can effectively train people in those skills."

The difficulty of conducting long-term studies with expatriates and the near-impossibility of staging experiments in which participants are randomly assigned to different study conditions have also slowed psychologists' understanding of the processes by which expatriates adjust to their new environments.

Likewise, few studies have explored how to prepare people for their return home--a time fraught with upheaval and, sometimes, disappointment. According to an article in the March-April 1999 issue of the Harvard Business Review, 25 percent of expatriate employees leave their companies within a year of repatriation.

Although some researchers doubt that figure, "One thing we do know is that when people come back, they're different--it's a transformational process," says Mendenhall. "But why? That's much harder to research. It's not just a matter of sending out a few questionnaires."

Qualitative research by Joyce S. Osland, PhD, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Portland, provides some hints. In lengthy interviews with American expatriates, Osland detected seven acculturation processes that seemed central to expatriates' success--processes that she likens to those of the "Hero's Journey" described by the mythologist Joseph Campbell.

The research underscores, for example, the importance of people's being motivated to become a part of the host culture, of having a strong sense of self and of finding a cultural mentor. The interviews, Osland hopes, will add to scientists' understanding of why it is often so difficult for people to return home.

Says Mendenhall of Osland's research, "The traditional social scientific literature had isolated what kinds of weapons you might need for an international assignment. She found out, in a rich way, what the actual battle felt like."