Culture Shock during and after International Assignments

November 15, 2018

Culture Shock  during and after International Assignments

As more and more companies going globally, international assignments are used more frequently in companies to execute their global business strategies and develop global leaders. According to the survey conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC, 2010), the number of international assignments among multinational companies increased by 25% since 2000 and will have further 50% growth through 2020. However, this is not an easy task. Research shows that expatriates who are assigned to developed countries will have a failure rate of 25% to 40% and who are assigned to developing countries will have the rate jumping to 70% (Shay, J. P., & Tracey, J. B., 1997). One of the factors causes the failure is culture shock.

Since people usually are familiar with the places they live, the food they eat, and just follow routines even without thinking about them, the customs, daily actions, and the patterns of how they communicate with each other become the second nature and predictable over time (Diplomacy in Action, U.S. Department of State). Culture, in a short, can help define who we are. When an international assignee on his or her arrival in a new culture, they probably will have a hard time adapting the new environment because they may find them in a place where everybody else talks and behaves differently from the place they came from. Scholars have found that culture shock has a U-curve pattern. Expatriates usually experience an adjustment process that consists of four stages: honeymoon, culture shock, adjustment, and mastery (Dowling, Festing & Engle, 2009). Before arrival in a foreign country or region, people tend to have a period of “honeymoon” where the culture is fresh, exciting, and fun. Soon after culture differences emerge and disrupt their routines or even conflict with their faiths or beliefs,  assignees fall into the pit of culture shock. As they immerse themselves into the new environment and accept the differences or even become accustomed to those new practices, they will gradually regain their emotional and psychological stability and finally incorporate the new changes into their new identity.

Therefore, if appropriate actions can be taken by the company and the assignees to help them during the adjustment process, their assignment will be easier to be accomplished. Although in the past, companies often measure ROI of international assignments by looking at early repatriation as the expatriation failure, this became challenging as the complexities of assignments occurred (Aperian Global, 2016). It’s difficult to measure the failure of someone who is still on assignment but not performing well, or things like the effects of damaged client relationships, project delays, and underperforming teams. In recent years, therefore, some industry leaders such as E&Y and Brookfield tend to address more on choosing the right people, using a formalized assessment process and providing development like cultural competency training for expatriates and receiving managers, mentoring the assignees on assignment and building up a repatriation strategy before the assignment start.

A report from Brookfield indicates that 83% of companies surveyed suggested cultural competency training for expatriates was good or great (Brookfield, 2015). The learning programs cover only the basic do’s and don’ts of host country culture and but is also personalized for the assigned. The focus of the pre-departure and post-arrival program is to provide the expatriate tools and strategies to increase their effectiveness on the job (Aperian Global). It also increases the assignment success rate by growing their demands of the job in a new country and supporting them prior to the repatriation. Important country knowledge and practical strategies are outlined to ease the settling-in process for the assignees and their family. Tactical plans are then learned as they go throughout the international assignment life cycle. The results of an assessment report in the candidate selection process can be used to personalize and enhance the effectiveness of the expatriate’s training. For example, Aperian Global would evaluate an assignee’s readiness for a global assignment and offer comprehensive insight into the areas of preparation that need to be focused. The research was done by the Aperian Global also suggests that companies should carefully consider the team and employees who are ambitious and have global readiness skills that needed for adjusting to the cross-cultural environments, rather than just the technical skills. A candidate assessment process that employs validated instruments and a behavioral interview can be taken to confirm and prepare employees for international assignments. In addition, the company should invest in growth and developing future leaders. Successfully expanding products into growth markets and creating new work opportunities for employees not only help a business grow but also incentify them to work and live globally. Moreover, the company can create a new exchange of knowledge and skills by forging new allies in different regions, such as clients, new mentors, networks, and potential leads.

As for the expatriates return back to their home countries, there is another issue called reverse culture shock. As they’ve settled into the foreign host country, they probably feel home different from what they are used to after the long-term international assignment. According to the guidance provided by the U.S. Department of State, the most important thing for an individual can do is to expect that reverse culture shock will happen to you. It suggests that the expatriates should make sure that they have no regrets when they return home, such as visiting all the places and sites on the “must see” list, and saying goodbye to friends. They should also prepare in advance in the same way they did for the departure and make sure that they are prepared for the new things (Maclachlan, 2010). Finding people with similar experiences of living and working abroad under the same or other culture and hearing or sharing the stories and advises about international assignments will also help. Repatriation training may also need to re-assimilate the skills and knowledge of the expatriates to their home culture by examining the potential cultural, social and work challenges after returning home. Recent home country changes and developments and strategies for reintegrating into organizations can also provide the training. Last but not least, retention and satisfaction rate should also be monitored during and after the international assignments.

Do you need help to surpass cultural sock and homesickness? 

Author:  Tiantian Huang (MBA graduate)

Co-author: Luana Pereira (Professor – Kean University – Global MBA)


Aperian Global. (2016). Developing Cultural Competency for International Assignment: What

We Can Learn from Expatriate Challenges.

Brookfield. 2015. Brookfield Global Mobility Trends Survey

Diplomacy in Action, U.S. Department of State. Reverse Culture Shock.

Dowling, P. J., Festing, M., & Engle Sr., A. D. (2009). International human resource

management: Managing people in a multinational context (5th ed.). Mason, OH: South-Western Cengage Learning.

Maclachlan, Matthew. (2010). International Assignments: Understanding the Impact of Reverse

Culture Shock.

PwC. (2010). Talent Mobility 2020: The next generation of international assignments.

Shay, J. P., & Tracey, J. B., (1997). Expatriate managers: Reasons for failure and implications

for training. Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly, 38(1), 30-35.


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