10 April 2018

Why Top Talent is Refusing an International Assignment

  • Global Mobility
  • Globalization
Author: Learnlight

What is it that makes top talent turn down the apparently golden opportunity of an international assignment? Why is talent often not aligned with mobility needs, leading to gaps in assignment readiness?

We’re told that the simplest problems in our lives can be the direct result of a simple misunderstanding between two or more people. We’re also told that one of the key foundations in any strong, sustainable relationship is trust.

Understanding and trust; key ingredients in any professional relationship between an employer and employee, and essential when it comes to International Assignments.

Slipping off the career ladder

Let’s imagine a multinational company based in the Singapore with offices in 15 countries, as well as two more in the UK itself. ‘Helen’ is a hard-working young manager with a seemingly bright future, and the company has decided that it needs her to take his next professional step by transferring to the Miami office. Everybody thinks that it’s a great idea both for the business and for Helen, who has already been promoted twice in five years. Everyone that is, except for Helen herself, who politely turns down the assignment.

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Suddenly Helen’s future with the business is looking uncertain, even though her contract of employment doesn’t oblige her to take an overseas assignment.

What went wrong? Is there a simple fix? We’ll get back to Helen shortly.

To understand why this very common situation occurs we need to understand Helen’s motives, and her understanding of the company’s expectations of her. Just because an assignment looks good to most people, it doesn’t always follow that everyone will want to snap it up.

Fail to earn them and when it comes to handing out overseas assignments to those best suited for them, an organization may find more than the occasional “No Thanks” coming back to them.

The unwritten contract

In companies with operations that span the globe, it’s often assumed that the corporate ladder includes spending time overseas. It might not be written in black and white, but instead it forms part of the psychological contract. In fact, it’s very often never specified exactly what is required of an employee to advance within their organisation.

“We have provided a strong opportunity to progress and it has been refused. Why would we take the risk of offering another assignment?”

When employers see an employee turning down an assignment, they can often feel that someone has breached that contract. Their response will often be to mentally disengage from their plans to train, develop and progress that employee. They might think, “We have provided a strong opportunity to progress and it has been refused.
Why would we take the risk of offering another assignment?” Some would call it churlish, but many would see it merely as mitigating risk.

This type of assignment refusal also often happens of course when there is a mobility clause in place in the employee’s contract.

What’s missing here is mutual understanding. The company needs to lean in on Helen and figure out why she said “No”, because if they don’t they might be in for more disappointments down the line as Helen’s motives go undiscovered and are not discussed openly.

What’s behind the “no”?

While Helen has an excellent reputation in her company and works as hard as anyone else, her productivity and strong work ethic are only of true value to the business if she has a good relationship with her line managers. Through this relationship, the following ‘refusal factors’ would be easier to spot as Helen’s life outside of work would be easier to understand.

1. Inability

The 2016 Global Mobility Trends survey revealed that family pressures are the most common motivation for saying “No” to an international assignment.

Being a family carer, keeping children in the right school, or an ongoing medical issue within the family are all strong anchors keeping the potential assignee from jumping on the next plane to possible promotion. The assignee might be highly motivated to go overseas, but simply can’t.

Further reading

Staff Training and Development: Why upskilling your employees is a must

Why International Assignments Are Vital for Talent Attraction and Retention

7 Questions LGBTQ+ Expats Must Ask Before Accepting an International Assignment

2. Miscommunication

This is such an easy reason to avoid, and it’s rather incredible that it isn’t avoided more. Managers can dodge any potential misunderstanding by making sure that each member of their team understands exactly what is expected of them in terms of assignments, both contractually and psychologically.

Ideally this process would begin during recruitment so that the company only hired people who knew, understood, and would willingly follow the path ahead.

3. Unwillingness

Only if an employer has ‘banked’ credit in the past by, for example, accepting a difficult assignment at some personal cost, can they even think about saying “No” because they simply don’t want to go.

When the employee has contractually signed up for mobility, or it has been made very clear through communication with a manager that assignments are part of the expectation, a flat refusal is a very bad idea indeed.

Conclusion – Unable or awkward?

Employers worry about not being able to properly fill assignments, while employees are equally worried about damaging their career by saying no.

Employers worry about not being able to properly fill assignments, while employees are equally worried about damaging their career by saying no. The most acceptable reason for not accepting an international assignment is being unable to.

Whatever Helen’s reasons for saying “No” to her Miami assignment are, she will help herself by being honest and open with her employer about those reasons, unless of course she is simply unwilling.
If her employer understands and agrees, Helen should then find ways of earning progression through her performance in her current location.

On the other hand, the employers can benefit enormously from considering a change in culture when it comes to there being either a psychological or real contractual obligation to accept assignments. An assignee is more likely to succeed in their work overseas if they don’t have to say “Yes” to an assignment offer.

So, the next time an assignee says “No”, make sure that they understand their obligation and requirement.

Then simply ask “Can’t or Won’t”.

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