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A Successful International Assignment Depends on These Factors

  • Boris Groysberg
  • Robin Abrahams

Your marriage, your family, and your career will all benefit from advance planning.

The prospect of an international assignment can be equal parts thrilling and alarming: Will it make or break your career? What will it do to your life at home and the people you love? When you’re thinking about relocating, you start viewing questions of work and family — difficult enough under ordinary circumstances — through a kind of high-contrast, maximum-drama filter.

international assignment failure

  • BG Boris Groysberg is a professor of business administration in the Organizational Behavior unit at Harvard Business School and a faculty affiliate at the school’s Race, Gender & Equity Initiative. He is the coauthor, with Colleen Ammerman, of Glass Half-Broken: Shattering the Barriers That Still Hold Women Back at Work (Harvard Business Review Press, 2021). bgroysberg
  • Robin Abrahams is a research associate at Harvard Business School.

Partner Center

How to Combat International Assignment Failure

  • HR Insights
  • Internal Mobility
  • Strategic HR
  • Talent Management

Mark Costa-Rising

Global brands spend an incredible amount of money on overseas assignments. On average, over $300,000 including comp is invested annually in the practice, either for the purpose of transferring employees to fill empty job roles or to have senior staff take over foreign domestic management.

The benefits of international work assignments are numerous, hence the large commitment and expenditure. Employees already operating successfully within a brand are thought to have more value than those who have yet to be onboarded. They have internal connections, they know how the business functions and they have a proven track record.

Yet, those HR professionals who have worked on international project management know the practice is fraught with danger. Far from being the golden goose of success, 40% of all overseas assignments are actually deemed to be failures. Despite the apparent benefits of internal moving, a high proportion of assignments prove a waste of valuable time, money and resources.

Learn From the Failures

To seemingly contradict this point, however, I argue that this should not deter businesses from overseas assignments, nor should it mean HRs push back against proposals. This high benchmark of failure should, instead, be a lesson. Internal relocation can leave a brand poised to reap the benefits of an experienced and successful employee moving to an area that is seeking improvement, but it should never be assumed that they are capable of simply taking the reigns without prior considerations.

Global business executives who’ve experienced overseas failure have been vocal about what their primary barriers were, and with knowledge of their mistakes, we can look to overcome them on the future. But what exactly were the mistakes?

Technology Hasn’t Changed the Failure Rate

Many researchers who have studied data as far back as 1965 identified a failure rate of between 25-40% for international assignments in all decades leading up to the new millennium — figures matching our current problem. Despite the expansion of communication technology, our ability to travel and an explosion of global networking, brands still struggle with achieving the same success today as they did before man landed on the moon.

This leads us to face an unfortunate truth: the world of international work is not evolving. The same struggles and strains that existed 50 years ago still exist to this day. HR professionals need to be aware that no matter what their experience, no matter the depths of company integration into foreign markets, internal mobility relating to overseas relocation will always be a challenge.

The potential for failure should never be underestimated.

A Failure of Preparation

If the answer to the high failure rate of international assignments isn’t assuming things will improve as connections grow, what is the answer? Many experienced business leaders put success down to one key thing: preparation.

Preparing an overseas candidate for their role may seem obvious, but it isn’t something commonly practised in the corporate world. As many as 75% of businesses don’t provide adequate training or preparation prior to an international assignment, with around 16% of brands providing next to no pre-move support or guidance at all. But, while comprehensive preparation is largely missed out by businesses, the major problems identified by HRs could be remedied by carefully considering at least these three factors:

1. Language

87% of global recruitment HRs believe foreign-language skills are a core element to successful overseas assignments. However, only 18% of American businesses provide such preparatory materials. Strong communication is, unquestionably, a must-have skill in almost any career. Being unable to communicate effectively with your colleagues, subordinates and clients will result in an inability to function properly and thus leads to failed overseas work projects. It’s an incredibly simple barrier to overcome; one that requires basic preparation and negligible financial investment.

2. Cultural adaptation

In a similar vein HR leader find cultural barriers are a major problem for overseas working assignments. 48% identified an inability to operate within or understand a foreign culture as a contributing factor when accessing international employability.

Work cultures differ the world over and failure to understand them can lead to misunderstandings, an inability to convey information and even the breaking down of both internal and external relationships through seemingly disrespectful actions. Preparation is all that is needed to remedy this problem, however. Simply providing resource materials on what the work culture overseas is like is a strong start. Combine that with meetings with colleagues about office etiquette and interviews with clients about how they do business and you’ll secure a much more stable assignment.

3. Candidate’s comfort zone

It’s a trap many internal recruiters fall into: monitoring the success of a worker and believing they can replicate it elsewhere . However, a person who can achieve great success in an area they are comfortable with may be unable to do the same in a position outside of their normal routine and skillset.

International assignments can pose many challenges, and those unable to cope with the strain will not succeed. It’s vital that weaknesses like these be identified prior to a move, not during a project. For major overseas moves involving large investments and important goals, preparation should be carried out in form of testing a prospect’s fortitude to working outside their comfort zone. They may be able to handle high-pressure situations within an environment they know, but how do they cope in situations they are less familiar with?

Family and Personal Considerations

While working in the industry of corporate relocation and overseas assignments, you’d be forgiven for putting a focus exactly on that: the corporate aspect of a move. However, studies have revealed that personal and family issues are perhaps the largest factor involved in failed overseas projects, with as many as 70% of repatriations a result of personal strife .

Moving overseas is a stressful experience — and settling into a new home can be tougher still. Without support, a multitude of contributing factors such as culture shock, homesickness, isolation and general move management can result in families of your assignee, or the assignee themselves, being unable to cope with life overseas.

HR does, however, have the power to influence an assignee’s personal integration. Through either in-house management or third-party resources, HR can arrange and support all manner of personal move elements; from sourcing schools, finance management and accommodation, to arranging community integration and area orientation.

Supportive practices for the personal side of a move can be a powerful tool in international assignment retention. Negating as many of the potential personal pitfalls as possible increases the chance of your assignee falling into that of the 60% success rate and not being a part of the 40% that fail.

international assignment failure

How to prepare employees for international assignment success

To help boost your international assignment success rates and post-assignment staff retention, we discuss the key reasons for assignment failure, the problems with repatriation and what you as an organisation can do to prepare your employees.

Assignment failure

The number of international assignments being terminated early is on the rise. ECA’s latest Managing Mobility Survey revealed that the number of assignments cut short had increased by 50% compared to the figure seen in our 2012 survey.

Two main causes of assignment failure

What is happening here? The main issue seems to be a mismatch between expectations and reality. Nearly three in five companies report that assignments terminate early or fail to meet objectives due to assignees underperforming in their new role; the firm may initiate termination to cut their losses. On the other hand, the second most common explanation given for assignment failure, as reported by nearly 50% of employers, is dissatisfaction with the new role on the part of the assignee.

Assignee disillusionment is also common outside of work. A substantial number of employers – more than two in every five – report that when assignments break down they often or sometimes do so when an employee, or their family, finds themselves unable to adapt to their change in living circumstances. In almost half of cases when assignees fail to settle in, cultural issues play a significant role. Other common challenges that arise are feelings of isolation, difficulties with language, accommodation or children’s schooling arrangements and concerns about security and welfare.

Problems with repatriation

Post-assignment retention of employees is also a problem for many companies. One in eight repatriating assignees leave the company within two years, taking with them valuable skills and experience and other benefits gained from the costly assignment. Some regions fare worse than others in this area; European headquartered companies, for example, reported losing three employees for every 20 returning from assignment within two years and Australian and American companies reported higher attrition rates still. These sobering figures may even be underestimates, given that only three companies in five track post-assignment retention and career outcomes.

While relocating for an assignment is recognised to be substantially disruptive for assignees and their families, it is common for both employers and assignees to underestimate the upheaval of repatriating. Assignees and their families are not unaltered by their experiences living abroad, and neither does time stand still in the country left behind; hence the relocating assignee might find that their former workplace and colleagues, their social circles, and even the cultural and societal norms all feel unfamiliar.

Difficulties with settling into a new role or career upon return to the home location is certainly a commonly reported problem; 70% of companies find this is either sometimes or often behind an employee’s decision to leave. If assignees are ill-prepared for the potential hitches that can occur when returning to the home entity, they may be susceptible to overly high expectations.

The impact of repatriation on a returning assignee’s home life is also not to be underestimated. According to one in three companies, it is sometimes or often the case that family concerns – i.e. with regard to a partner’s career, children’s education or relocation issues – are the reason for post-assignment staff turnover.

What can be done to address these challenges?

The key to improving an employee’s ability to adapt to assignment and, later, post-assignment life is making sure they are well prepared for what is to come. 

In the 21st century, anyone can of course undertake a little online research at the click of a button. But the sheer number of search results returned, unreliable sources and a lack of resources geared towards the unique experience of being an assignee can result in confusion and misinformation, rather than genuinely useful knowledge and awareness.

Self-preparation tools that are tailor-made for the assignee experience are a more effective way to inform and guide employees about the realities of a potential move abroad and help to make the process less overwhelming. ECA’s three International Assignment Guides cover the main scenarios expatriating families face:

Planning to Work Abroad? is full of relevant and useful guidance about what to expect when going to live and work in another country and ensures that families really do consider all the pros and cons of such a move. This puts candidates in a better position to assess whether or not an assignment abroad is for them – rather than finding out the hard way during the assignment.

Together on Assignment enables assignees’ partners to weigh up the implications of accompanying them on assignment against those of remaining behind; it also sends a reassuring signal that the company is sensitive to the welfare of the family as a whole, not just the assignee.

Returning Home prepares returning families for the potential challenges they may encounter when trying to slot back into home country life. It also ensures assignees have realistic expectations for their post-assignment career. Greater pragmatism about this process can help reduce the number of returned assignees exiting the company, taking their valuable international experience and skills with them.

Each of the International Assignment Guides combines anecdotal advice and worksheets with real-life case studies to raise awareness of issues that should be considered, discussed and resolved before committing to an assignment. Quotes from former assignees provide practical tips that can only come from first-hand experience, while comprehensive checklists and questionnaires lay out all the decisions that an expatriating family face, and outline the potential pros and cons to be considered.

The International Assignment Guides can be provided directly to your mobile population through your company intranet for ease of access. ECA also provides location-specific Country Profiles to brief assignees with essential information about the location where they are preparing to live and work. For more information about how ECA can assist you with assignee preparation, please contact us .

To read this content please select one of the options below:

Please note you do not have access to teaching notes, success and failure in international assignments: a review and a proposed multi-dimensional model.

Journal of Global Mobility

ISSN : 2049-8799

Article publication date: 12 December 2016

The purpose of this paper is to review the literature on how success and failure for international assignments have been defined, and integrate several proposals for these definitions into a multi-dimensional model that considers task performance, relationship building, contextual performance and retention as all being part of how success or failure should be defined. The authors also discuss two proposed pre-requisites for success – absorptive capacity (operationalized at both the individual and the unit levels) and adjustment. The authors conclude by bringing in literature on performance management and how ideas about performance management must also be integrated into the discussion of the success or failure of international assignments.


This paper reviews existing proposals regarding the definition of expatriate success and failure, and proposes a multidimensional model of success based on the past literature. Based on this literature the authors also propose two pre-requisites for success and discuss several requisite KSAOs, as well as some suggestions from the literature on performance management.

The authors argue for a multidimensional model of expatiate success which includes task performance, relationship building, contextual performance and retention as part of what constitutes a successful assignment. The authors also argue that absorptive capacity and adjustment should be considered as pre-requisites for success, and that principles from performance management should be applied to dealing with international assignments.

Research limitations/implications

A more comprehensive definition of success and failure should aid research by providing a better dependent variable, and by leading to research on various aspects of this outcome.

Practical implications

The proposed model and approach can hopefully help practice by clarifying the different dimensions of success and how performance management techniques can be applied to dealing with international assignments.


There has been a lot written about how we should operationalize the success or failure of international assignments. The present paper reviews that literature and integrates a number of ideas and suggestions into a multi-dimensional model which includes information about pre-requisites for success and relevant KSAOs, along with ideas from performance management to help insure the success of these assignments.

  • International assignment
  • Absorptive capacity
  • Expatriate success
  • Performance management

DeNisi, A.S. and Sonesh, S. (2016), "Success and failure in international assignments: A review and a proposed multi-dimensional model", Journal of Global Mobility , Vol. 4 No. 4, pp. 386-407.

Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2016, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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Avert Assignment Failure: Support Spouses in Overseas Relocations

The corporate workplace is changing. International assignments are now viewed as part of the job description for a broader swath of employees working for global corporations.

International relocations create unique opportunities for the expatriate employee but can also create challenges for that employee’s spouse. These “trailing spouses” can be riddled with anxiety over everything from learning a new language to adjusting to a new culture. And if children are involved, things can get even more stressful.

Most experts believe that cultural training is essential to help the transition.

“Cultural training [is needed] before the assignment so the spouse knows exactly what to expect in [the new] country,” explained Val Gascoyne, managing director of U.K.-based Time Relocation. “An unhappy spouse and children are major factors in failed assignments, so this is a wise investment against the cost of early repatriation.”

Human resources and global-mobility departments can help smooth the transition for everyone involved, according to experts who work in the field. Too often, HR departments take a narrow focus when setting up support programs for the relocated employee, failing to provide adequate support services to his or her family. The spouse may begin to feel isolated, which could lead to conflict within the marriage and family and, sometimes, failure in the overseas assignment.

“One of the most common complaints we hear from partners is that the companies who are responsible for relocating them expect a great deal of them in the relocation process yet often barely acknowledge their existence,” said Evelyn Simpson, who with Louise Wiles started the consultancy Thriving Abroad, based in the U.K. “Companies are placing higher priority on employee engagement in the talent management process, but in an international relocation, extending engagement to the partner can make a difference, too.”

Statistically, families’ inability to adapt to the new environment is the largest cause of assignment failure, Simpson said, and most HR departments consider employees’ families a risk.

The family’s acclimation to the new location is “very personal and includes every aspect of … life,” explained Eileen Mullaney, who leads PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Global Mobility consulting practice.

“It is not just moving a job or personal items but moving a life and rebuilding that life in a new location,” she added. “While this is exciting for many, it can also be extremely stressful for others.”

Anxiety can be averted if families get support from the beginning of the assignment. Thriving Abroad helps companies create support programs for expat families and works with accompanying partners to guide them through the relocation process, with a focus on empowering employees’ loved ones to find their own purpose and fulfillment while abroad.

From Two Incomes to One

Thriving Abroad’s research reveals that almost 80 percent of accompanying partners wish to do some type of work while out of their home country (most of them worked before the international assignment), but legal and even practical challenges often preclude that from happening.

“These partners often struggle with issues relating to identity and the absence of meaning and achievement, considered to be the key elements of flourishing,” Simpson said. “These factors can be a problem even when partners choose not to work. In addition, they also have to adjust to some of the side effects of not working, particularly to financial dependence.”

As challenging as it can be to go from dual incomes to a single income, advance preparation and training can improve how an employee and his or her spouse navigate the new cultural landscape—putting the trailing spouse in as advantageous a situation as possible.

RiseSmart CEO Sanjay Sathe said the single-income factor greatly affects the success of some overseas assignments. “According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about two-thirds of families with school-age children rely on dual incomes,” he noted. “While a new career opportunity for one spouse may be exciting news, it can also be a time of stress for the other spouse. Even though the new position may come with a pay raise, the trailing spouse can be left unemployed in a foreign city, with no connections or job prospects.”

Companies should turn to outplacement services that can help spouses find work, Sathe said. “While many employers are concentrating on relocation benefits such as moving expenses and temporary living costs, neither provides a means for sustainable living and community connection. Once the initial aid runs out, the family is left with just the one income. Simply providing monetary compensation will not always solve the problem.”

Helping Spouses Acclimate

According to the 2012 Allied Workforce Mobility Survey, just 9 percent of responding companies offered spousal relocation. “Investing in spousal outplacement not only helps employees manage their careers but lends aid to the spouse’s career, as well,” Sathe observed. “Providing this type of assistance can give employers a unique advantage and help them attract and retain key talent.”

Cynthia Nerangis, president of LemonLime Consulting, a Chicago-based boutique cultural-training firm, said her company meets with spouses of transferred employees and asks how they would like to spend their time during the overseas assignment. LemonLime then offers customized training that covers everything from tips to successfully make it through the relocation process to learning about cultural differences to how culture affects business in the workplace. The firm also creates a plan of action for expatriates and families to help them achieve an overall rewarding international experience and adapt successfully to their new culture.

Nerangis thinks businesses with international assignments should make such training mandatory and provide it through their human resource and global-mobility departments.

“The initial experience for the trailing spouse can be both scary and intimidating,” she said, “but the outcome can be quite stimulating and exhilarating, depending on the individual’s willingness to adapt, learn and grow. The support they are offered can make a vast difference in the outcome of the trailing spouse’s international experience.”

According to Mullaney, adapting to a new environment is the biggest issue facing trailing spouses, but she is increasingly seeing companies make the necessary investments to ease the transition for relocated staffers and their families.

“Many companies are including spouse and family satisfaction into their program success measures, with family focus as one of the critical design requirements for their overall program,” Mullaney said. “We are also seeing more focus on internal programs to help support the transition. This can range from informal networking groups, spouse mentor programs, host-family support programs, as well as social activities and even internal social media sites to help connect the new families to other assignees and local families in the local community.”

Dawn S. Onley is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

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international assignment failure

Managing International Assignments: Compensation Approaches

A new international assignment landscape is challenging traditional compensation approaches

For many years, expatriate compensation has been focused on a dilemma: having assignees on expensive home-based expatriate package versus localization - which is about replacing expatriates with locals or at least transition expatriates from an expatriate package to a local salary. Many predicted that the traditional home-based balance sheet approach would gradually disappear. The predictions of the demise of the typical expatriate approach have been greatly exaggerated. We are witnessing the emergence of new compensation challenges instead, due to the complexity of having to manage multiple types of assignments and assignee categories.

The home-based approach still retains its utility for certain kinds of moves (e.g. business-critical assignments or moves to hardship locations). Local strategies are becoming more common but, due to the difficulty of applying them consistently in all transfer destinations, they are used only in some cases (moves between similar countries, developmental moves) and take multiple forms as “purely local” or local-plus approaches. Additional approaches like international compensation structures have emerged to address issues of global nomads.

The challenge for HR managers is, therefore, not so much to find the best approach applicable for all assignments as to deal with individual assignment complexity, envisage greater mobility policy segmentation and, if relevant for the company, map each compensation approach to a particular assignment in a consistent way.

The increasingly complex international assignment landscape: One size does not fit all anymore

Expatriates vs. Locals

One size fits all?

Let's localize assignees as soon as possible!


Rise of the third-country nationals

Need to add a cost efficient category for junior employees/developmental moves?

Traditional expatriates

Global nomads

Permanent transfers

Employee-initiated moves

Local or local plus?

Foreigners hired locally

Commuters (cross-border or regional

Multiple types of short-term/project/rotational assignments

Increasing number of home locations

Reviewing international assignment approaches in three steps:

Step 1: Understand the options available

Approaches linked to the host country (local or local-plus)

While these approaches sound logical and natural (when relocating assignees to a new country, they will be paid according to the local salary structure in that destination country) their practical implementation is often tricky. Few employees accept a salary decrease when moving to a low-paying country. It is often difficult to reintegrate assignees relocated to a high-paying country into their original salary structure due to their inflated base salary.

The host approach was historically not the most common for assignees on long-term assignments. However, we have witnessed a growing interest in recent years in host-based approaches – either a host approach or local-plus approach (host salary plus selected benefits or premiums) – as companies are trying to contain costs and as significant salary increases in many emerging markets make host strategies more attractive.

Approaches linked to the home country ("balance sheets")

Home-based approaches have been traditionally the most commonly used to compensate international assignees. Assignees on a home-based approach retain their home-country salary and receive a suite of allowances and premiums designed to cover the costs linked to expatriation. The equalization logic behind the balance sheet approach (no gain/no loss) encourages mobility by removing obstacles. Retaining the home-country salary facilitates repatriation. The balance sheet approach can, however, be costly. Many companies either look for alternatives or try to reduce the benefits and premiums included for less significant moves.

Other Solutions

Hybrid approaches attempt to combine the advantages of the home and host-based approaches. These often mean running a balance sheet calculation and comparing the results with the host market salary to determine what solution would make sense. A hybrid approach can work well for a small assignee population but it can generate inconsistencies when companies expand globally, and the assignee population grows significantly.

Finally, some companies rely on international compensation structures that do not use the host and the home structures at all. These might utilize the average salary in a selected group of high-paying countries where the companies operate. This approach facilitates mobility for global nomads and highly mobile employees. It is, however, often very expensive and doesn’t solve all assignment-related issues (e.g., currency issues, pension, taxation). It is typically used in specific industry sectors (e.g., energy and engineering) and for a few assignees (top level managers and global nomads.)

Step 2: Assessing assignment patterNs and business objectives

Assignment patterns

Are assignees moving between countries with similar salary levels, which would make the use of local or local plus easier or, on the contrary, are expatriates sent to host countries with different pay and benefits structures (low-paying to high-paying, or high-paying to low-paying country moves)? Are moves for a fixed duration – e.g., assignments lasting one to five years – or will the company rely on permanent transfers with no guarantee of repatriation?

Assignee Population

Are assignees coming mainly from the headquarter countries (typical for early stages of globalization) or is the number of third-country nationals already significant? A growing number of multinational companies report that the number of moves between emerging markets (“lateral moves”) is catching up with or exceeding the number from the headquarters, prompting a review of compensation approaches.

Are some assignees becoming true global nomads who move from country to country without returning home during their career? Employees, and especially the younger generations, are becoming much more mobile, but only a minority would be global nomads. These assignees are usually top-level managers, experts with unique skills, or globally mobile talent sourced from small or emerging countries where the absence of career opportunities perspective would preclude repatriation perspectives.

Company's philosophy and sector

Some industry sectors like services and finances relocate employees between major regional and financial hubs which facilitate the use of local approach, whereas energy and engineering companies transferred employees to hardship locations are a key feature of the business – and requires comprehensive expatriation packages often based on balance sheets and international salary structures.

Step 3: Assess segmentation needs

An increasing number of companies rely on expatriate policy segmentation to reconcile the cost control versus international expansion dilemma – how to have the same number of assignments or more without increasing the budget dedicated to international mobility. Segmentation means reallocating part of the budget to business critical assignees and limits the costs of non-essential moves.

Some of the commonly used assignment categories include strategic moves (business-critical), developmental moves (which benefit both the company and the employee), and self-requested move (requested by the employee but not essential to the business).

A consistent policy segmentation approach allows HR teams to present business cases or assignment options to management and provide a clearer understanding of the cost and business implications of relocation for different assignees.

It could also help manage exceptions into a well-defined framework based on a consistent talent management approach, as opposed to ad hoc deals.

Example of segmented compensation approach: the four-box model

Chart showing segmented compensation approach: the four-box model

Want to learn more about Expatriate Compensation Approaches?

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Expatriate Family Adjustment: An Overview of Empirical Evidence on Challenges and Resources

Mojca filipič sterle.

1 Department of Experimental Clinical and Health Psychology, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium

2 Department of Marital and Family Therapy, Faculty of Theology, University of Ljubljana, Ljubljana, Slovenia

Johnny R. J. Fontaine

3 Department of Personnel Management, Work and Organizational Psychology, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium

4 Psychological Sciences Research Institute, Université catholique de Louvain, Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium

Lesley L. Verhofstadt

The current theoretical paper presents a comprehensive overview of findings from research attempting to understand what happens with expatriates and their families while living abroad. Our paper draws on research on adjustment of individual family members (expatriates, their partners, and children) and families as a whole, across different literatures (e.g., cultural psychology, family psychology, stress literature). The key challenges of expatriation are discussed, as well as family members’ resources. Our findings lead to the following conclusions: First, there is lack of systematic research as studies are either missing a theoretical background or largely neglect the multi-informant approach. A comprehensive theory of expatriate family adjustment integrating multiple theoretical perspectives, including the culture identity formation and the impact of home country and host country culture, is called upon. Second, the majority of studies paid little attention to define the concept of family or failed to take into account the cultural aspect of relocation. Third, there is a call for more longitudinal studies including all family members as adjustment is a process that unfolds over time and therefore cannot be sufficiently explained by cross-sectional studies. Suggestions for future research and practical implications are provided, with a special focus on how families could be assisted during their adjustment process.


The vast research literature on expatriate adjustment has been long characterized by a predominant focus on individual adjustment of an expatriate employee ( James et al., 2004 ). Despite some recent research on successful outcomes of expatriate family adjustment and growing awareness that expatriate families need to receive special attention before and during the assignment, challenges of international assignments are still generally underestimated, both by organizations and families ( Lazarova et al., 2015 ). This is remarkable as family members’ inability to adjust to foreign environments has been noted as one of the most critical causes of expatriate failure ( Fukuda and Chu, 1994 ; Haslberger and Brewster, 2008 ). Expatriate success has been the major focus of management perspective on expatriation, traditionally studying traditional corporate expatriates who were supported by the company. Stress and coping literature identified several stressors and hardships of expatriate life ( Brown, 2008 ) and social capital theories tried to explain what kind of social support should be provided to expatriates in the host country (e.g., Copeland and Norell, 2002 ; Lauring and Selmer, 2010 ). Family systems theory was generally used as theoretical background to study adjustment of expatriate families and expatriate children (e.g., Van der Zee et al., 2007 ; Rosenbusch and Cseh, 2012 ). In contrast, cultural theories explaining the process of family adjustment to a new environment are lacking. The expatriate family adjustment literature needs a comprehensive up-to date general theory to incorporate different aspects of this very complex matter. The lack of an overview of findings resulting from different focuses taken in different domains of research on expatriate family adjustment provides a rationale for a narrative review of the research on this topic. More specifically, the aim of the current paper was to synthesize the contemporary research literature (family systems, family stress, cross-cultural adjustment, social support, identity theory, work-family literature) on expatriate family adjustment.

After conceptualizing the terms expatriate , family and adjustment , we outline the evidence on challenges and resources in the adjustment process of expatriates, partners, children, and an entire family system. Details will be provided about the major constructs studied, the methodology (designs of the studies), and the theoretical framework within which studies explored the expatriate experience of families. Major conclusions will be presented and implications for future research and practice will be discussed. We drew on empirical quantitative and qualitative studies published in English in peer-reviewed journals and listed in the Web of Science, Academic Search Complete and Google Scholar, in the last 30 years (between 1988 and 2018). In this paper we also refer to some theoretical articles and reviews, particularly when outlining definitions and discussing theoretical backgrounds of the reviewed studies. A narrative literature review as a type of a review article has been chosen because it allows the literature coverage and flexibility to deal with a wide range of issues (i.e., challenges and resources of expatriate family members) within a given comprehensive topic (i.e., expatriate family adjustment) ( Collins and Fauser, 2005 ). The contributions of our narrative review consist of conclusions derived from a holistic interpretation of the current state of the literature on expatriate family adjustment and are based on the synthesis of the empirical studies that have focused on this topic.

Conceptualization of Expatriate Family Adjustment

In the context of international work experience, acculturation is a dual process of cultural and psychological change that takes place as a result of contact between two or more cultural groups and their individual members and which involves various forms of mutual accommodation ( Berry, 2005 ). The outcome of acculturation is a longer-term psychological and sociocultural adjustment , in other words, relatively stable changes that take place in an individual or a group in response to external demands ( Berry, 2005 ). The acculturation literature identifies different types of global workers, such as sojourners, immigrants, refugees, expatriates, etc. ( Sam and Berry, 2006 ). To clarify the distinction between different types of cultural groups, Berry et al. (2011) proposed the following criteria: (a) migration, (b) voluntariness, and (c) foreseen permanence. For expatriates , the profile includes migration, voluntariness, and no foreseen permanence. Moreover, expatriates further differentiate themselves on average by a high educational level, and if not self-initiated, by support from their organization.

Expatriates were further defined as individuals who move to another country, change a place of residence and have a specific goal to work in the new environment ( Andresen et al., 2014 ); or as assignees across a range of assignment types involving international relocation (e.g., long-term, short-term, and extended business travel assignments) ( McNulty, 2015 ). In the work-family literature, family is any combination of two life partners, with or without children ( Caligiuri et al., 1998 ); or as two committed partners, where a partner refers to both spouses and significant others and it refers to a traditional expatriate situation where one partner works and one is unemployed ( Lazarova et al., 2010 ). McNulty (2014 , p. 5) provided the following comprehensive definition of an expatriate family: “married, de-facto, live-in, or long-term partners of the opposite or same sex, with or without children, with family members that reside in one or many locations; and legally separated or divorced (single) adults with children, with family members that reside in one or many locations.” This definition includes non-traditional types of expatriates which is a new field of enquiry evolving in recent research. It differs from traditional expatriates regarding their family composition (step, single parent, split, overseas adoption, multigenerational), family challenges (special needs or gifted children), family status (single expatriates, accompanying family members besides children), sexual orientation, and gender ( McNulty and Hutchings, 2016 ).

Black and Stephens (1989) defined adjustment as a degree of fit or psychological comfort and familiarity that individuals feel with different aspects of the foreign culture. Shaffer and Harrison (2001) described personal adjustment as identity reformation where personal and social roles are redefined when attachment and routines established in one’s home countries are broken, thereby adding a link between culture and personality changes in the context of expatriate adjustment. Haslberger and Brewster (2009 , p. 387) defined adjustment as follows: “Expatriates shall be called adjusted to a facet if they are effective in dealings in the new environment (in their own eyes and in the eyes of their hosts), perceive themselves as adequately knowledgeable about the local environment, and feel neutral or positive emotions overall.” Adjustment has been understood as a process that involves managing change, new experiences, and new challenges. As a positive outcome it can enrich expatriates’ lives ( Kempen et al., 2015 ), however, failure to successfully deal with the challenges can result in mental health consequences ( Brown, 2008 ). The underlying stressors are expatriate’s adjustment to a new job together with a move abroad, a partner giving up a job, children attending a new school, long periods of separation from their loved ones, occupying a new residence, changing family routines, a change in financial status, cultural differences, role conflict, etc. ( Patterson, 1988 ; Hechanova et al., 2003 ; Haslberger and Brewster, 2008 ; Bahn, 2015 ). Some of the stressors caused by adapting to life in a new environment may remain unresolved and become ongoing tensions (i.e., strains) ( Patterson, 1988 ), resulting in increased psychosocial distress ( Silbiger and Pines, 2014 ), depression ( Magdol, 2002 ), increased alcohol and substance abuse ( Anderzén and Arnetz, 1997 ), decreased physical and mental health, lower marriage satisfaction and readiness to re-assign ( Lazarova et al., 2015 ), and worsening subjective work environment ( Anderzén and Arnetz, 1999 ). Their emotional complaints are linked to identity issues, uprooting, repeated goodbyes, losses, constant changes, and unresolved grief ( Bushong, 2013 ).

Confrontation with stressors and challenges described above will trigger expatriates’ application of resources and coping behaviors ( Patterson, 1988 ). Previous studies found several individual characteristics that modify stress response and foster the expatriate’s adjustment to a foreign environment, such as internal locus of control, self-esteem, education, good command of languages, past foreign experience, cultural intelligence, communication ability, extraversion, agreeableness, emotional stability, and open-mindedness (e.g., Caligiuri, 2000 ; Ali et al., 2003 ; Hechanova et al., 2003 ; Copeland, 2004 ; Holopainen and Björkman, 2005 ; Lin et al., 2012 ).

Not much empirical research, however, has focused on how families of expatriate workers–both individual members and family as a whole- deal with stress and challenges of expatriate assignments, and which resources impact their adjustment. This is surprising for multiple reasons: first, according to the 2016 Global mobility trends survey which included respondents from 163 global companies representing over 11 million employees, 73% of expatriates were accompanied by a partner and 52% of expatriates who accepted overseas assignment took their children with them ( Brookfield Global Relocation Services, 2016 ). Second, family members’ inability to adjust to a foreign assignment has been identified as one of the most critical causes of expatriate failure ( Haslberger and Brewster, 2008 ; Lazarova et al., 2010 ). Finally, it has been argued, that an expatriate assignment is often seen as offering to a family and its members an opportunity to enrich their cultural and general life (e.g., new international experiences, educational possibilities) ( Suutari and Brewster, 2000 ; Richardson, 2006 ; Dickmann et al., 2008 ; Kempen et al., 2015 ).

Taken together, the literature on expatriate family adjustment shows that career decisions of expatriate workers are influenced by their family (and vice versa) and that understanding the challenges and the processes of adjustment of individual family members in determining the outcome of an expatriate family experience is therefore critical ( McNulty and Selmer, 2017 ; Shockley et al., 2018 ).

In the following sections we will summarize the main empirical findings about the specific challenges and application of resources of expatriate workers’ trailing partners, children/adolescents, and families as a whole. In line with the aim of the current paper, the inclusion of studies in each section was based on their unit of interest (i.e., partners, children/adolescents and family as a whole). The unit of measurement in most studies was the individual. In the partners section, the informants were partners themselves or expatriate employees reporting about their partner; in the children/adolescent section – the informants were children reporting about themselves and expatriate employees/partners reporting about their children. In the family section informants were expatriates, partners and children. In other words, the measures were administered to individual informants, and they measured individuals’ perception of themselves and their families/relationships.

Trailing Partner

Crossover effects.

Within the HR framework, the most frequently reported reason for a failure in an international assignment (when defined as a premature return) was found an inability or an unwillingness of a partner to adapt to the foreign environment ( Punnett, 1997 ; Haslberger and Brewster, 2008 ), together with a trailing partner’s career concerns ( Lazarova et al., 2015 ). Similarly, Black and Stephens (1989 ; a cross-sectional study; 220 expatriate managers and 157 expatriate spouses; assigned in Asia), showed that partner’s positive opinion about the overseas assignment is predictive of their own adjustment, which is in its turn, highly correlated with the adjustment of expatriate managers.

Many studies have indeed shown significant crossover effects among partners (e.g., Black and Gregersen, 1991a , b ; Forster, 1997 ). Van der Zee et al. (2005) conducted a cross-sectional empirical study in the Netherlands with a sample of expatriate partners from 21 home countries and found a crossover of stressors from the expatriate to their partner’s subjective well-being, and a crossover of the expatriates’ emotional distress to their partner’s distress and vice-versa. Based on the work-family and cross-cultural adjustment literature, Takeuchi et al. (2002) empirically tested and confirmed a crossover and spillover model of expatriate’s adjustment (cross-sectional study including 215 Japanese expatriates assigned in the midwestern United States, 169 spouses, and their superiors). Spillover effects related to the impact of expatriate attitudes in a particular domain (e.g., work) on other domains (e.g., home), whereas crossover effects related to the impact of expatriate attitudes on partner’s attitudes and vice versa. They found evidence for the reciprocal crossover effects between the cross-cultural adjustment of the expatriate worker and their partner. More specifically, a negative or a positive synergy between both partners had a significant impact on their cross-cultural adjustment (i.e., failure of one partner to adjust affected the other’s adjustment, causing a downward spiral of losses that could result in premature termination of the international assignment). Still in the framework of work-family interface, and integrating social capital and social networks theories, Lauring and Selmer (2010) conducted a systematic ethnographic field study using observation and semi-structured interviews with Danish expatriate partners in a compound in Saudi Arabia. They found that partners who feel well adjusted to the general environment in the host culture can have a positive influence on expatriates as they can support them with information on how to use transportation services, or in their social interaction, or even further the expatriates’ careers and repatriation opportunities by using different social strategies.

Specific Challenges

Lack of preparation, relocation, and cultural novelty induce quite some stress for partners ( Forster, 1997 ; a qualitative study with United Kingdom expatriate partners; Shaffer and Harrison, 2001 ). Some studies documented that expatriate partners have to link up more with the local culture as compared to the expatriate employee or their children ( Ali et al., 2003 ; a study with 247 expatriate spouses from 29 different countries, the majority from the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, and the Netherlands). Therefore, the adjustment challenges for partners are not only considered as different, but also greater ( Punnett, 1997 ). According to a field study of 45 male expatriate accompanying partners in the Asia Pacific region conducted by Cole (2012) , particularly male trailing partners feel isolated due to a small peer group; they clearly need assistance with establishing personal support network by joining a peer group in a host country. Partners often feel lost in a sense that they do not have an outside professional identity or a specific clarification of their family identity ( Rosenbusch and Cseh, 2012 ). A lot of partners see their employment status change and lose their career because of a move which causes disturbance within home and lowers the interactional adjustment (i.e., interaction with the host–country nationals) ( Shaffer and Harrison, 2001 ; Cole, 2011 ). In case where both partners pursue their careers in the host country, women seem to experience more work-personal life conflict than men ( Mäkelä et al., 2017 ). Brown (2008) in a cross-sectional study in London, the United Kingdom, used a public sample of expatriate couples and found that dominant stressors of partners of expatriates were reduced self, local pressures, and isolation. More specifically, partners (as well as expatriates) reported to be stressed by spending insufficient time together, not having close friends to confide in, by concerns over children and family, and by feelings of uncertainty about their future after the current expatriate assignment. Similarly, an interesting study by Lazarova et al. (2015) highlighted the most common causes of expatriate failure were partner’s career concerns, partner’s resistance to move and marital breakdown. The latter has only recently been addressed in the research literature, although relationship issues appear to be a big challenge for expatriate couples which may result in expatriate divorce ( McNulty, 2015 ). McNulty (2015) conducted a qualitative exploratory case-based study using data from 13 face-to-face interviews and 25 online survey participants. She found that expatriate marriages end in divorce because of two main reasons; either there has been a core issue in the marriage before expatriation (e.g., alcoholism), or one or both spouses are negatively influenced by expatriate culture to such an extent that it induces polarization behavior that is counter to how they would behave in their own culture (e.g., infidelity). In either case, findings showed that the outcomes of expatriate divorce were significant and may involve bankruptcy, homelessness, depression, alienation from children, even suicide. Taken together, the expatriate literature points to a more difficult situation of a trailing partner as compared to an expatriate employee ( Cole, 2011 ). However, the literature also revealed some factors that may foster partners’ adjustment.

The first category of resources consists of partners’ individual characteristics. Intercultural personality traits–emotional stability, social initiative, and open-mindedness- were found to be important resources for expatriate partners (and the expatriate employees’) psychological and sociocultural adjustment ( Ali et al., 2003 ; Van Erp et al., 2014 ). Intercultural personality traits as coping resources for expatriate couples’ adjustment were explored by Van Erp et al. (2014) , in a cross-sectional study with a sample of 98 Dutch expatriate couples (196 expatriates), and a longitudinal analysis of 45 couples from 43 different countries. They found the so-called compensation effect, whereby a partner’s lack of intercultural personality traits (as listed above) was compensated for by the other partner’s higher levels of those traits. High motivation, favorable opinion about the overseas assignment, previous expatriate experience, pre-move visit, cross cultural training and/or language training, host country language proficiency, social efficacy, self-efficacy and certainty about the duration of assignment proved to be positively related to partner’s adjustment ( Black and Stephens, 1989 ; Shaffer and Harrison, 2001 ; Copeland, 2004 ).

The second category of resources includes identity reestablishment and feelings of psychological security. For example, drawing upon identity theory and the expatriate literature, Shaffer and Harrison (2001) studied spouse adjustment using a mixed method design with a sample of 211 expatriate couples in 37 countries and six continents. Findings showed that cross-cultural adjustment depends to some extent on whether partners can re-establish their identity in the new culture, including their individual/personal base of identity (i.e., language fluency), interpersonal/social base of identity (i.e., having preschool aged children), and environmental/situational base of identity (i.e., culture novelty and favorability of living conditions). Similar findings–on professional identity and social status- were reported by Copeland (2004) . Herleman et al. (2008) found that a partner’s sense of comfort and psychological security in specific locations they regularly visit, a concept coming from Japanese culture called Ibasho , proved to be an important predictor of their adjustment and well-being. This study was conducted in Belgium and used a mixed method design with sample of 104 expatriate wives mainly coming from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

Thirdly, and at a more social level, company assistance prior and during expatriation, support from families, and support (e.g., network size, breadth of support, depth of support) from host country nationals, but also contacts with other expatriate partners, and time with old friends as well as new acquaintances were found to be essential to partners’ adjustment ( De Cieri et al., 1991 ; Shaffer and Harrison, 2001 ; Caligiuri and Lazarova, 2002 ; Ali et al., 2003 ; Copeland, 2004 ). Copeland and Norell (2002) studied the role of social support within the framework of social support theory with 194 trailing partners (American women residing in 17 host countries in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America) and found that better adjusted women had participated in the decision to relocate, experienced fewer losses in friendships, had more functions of social support adequately met and could rely on the support from local rather than long-distance providers, and they were coming from families with higher cohesion. Further empirical evidence showed that family cohesion and adaptability (i.e., the ability to change and adapt to new environments while at the same time remaining closely tied to each other), open communication among partners ( Ali et al., 2003 ), satisfaction with family relationships and extended family support ( De Cieri et al., 1991 ; Shaffer and Harrison, 2001 ) facilitate partner’s adjustment. In a qualitative study Gupta et al. (2012) used the grounded theory methodology with 26 Indian trailing partners accompanying their partners on assignments in four continents (Asia, Europe, North America, and Australia). Findings of this study corroborated previous research such that the level of trailing partners’ adjustment was greatly impacted by cultural novelty, support from family, peers and the organization, and their personality. Moreover, they found that expatriates’ perceived gender-role ideology and marital obligations toward their partners played a significant role.

Children and Adolescents

Third culture kids (tcks).

Pollock and Van Reken (2009) have introduced the following description of a TCK: “A Third Culture Kid is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her development years outside the parent’s culture. The TCK builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.” ( Pollock and Van Reken, 2009 , p. 13). The identity formation of TCKs and their cultural and intellectual development is taking place in the third culture, particularly in the international environment in the host country (first culture is understood as parents’ culture and the second culture is a host culture). TCKs share more common experience to other TCKs than to their peers who grew up in their home or host cultures ( Bonebright, 2010 ). Among difficulties, such as struggling with a sense of belonging and disruption of identity formation, having lived in different cultures also provided TCKs with skills to handle change, to be more open and accepting to different cultures and to successfully handle these differences. Bonebright (2010) in her review also pointed out the potential that adult TCKs can bring to HR looking for business expatriates. Besides being used to frequent travel and changes as part of an international mobile lifestyle and having good education and language skills, they also have experience of adjusting to a new work and life situation in a new location.

Selmer and Lam (2004) conducted a survey study with British expatriate adolescents (63 respondents living in Hong Kong, mean age 14 years), local Hong Kong adolescents ethnic Chinese (a sample of 103 adolescents, mean age 17 years), and a sample of British adolescents living in the United Kingdom with 88 respondents. They showed that British expatriate adolescents had distinct characteristics in terms of their perceptions of being international as well as their international mobility preferences and consequences. Moore and Barker (2012) were interested in cultural identity of third culture individuals and employed a biographical phenomenology or life story interviewing as a qualitative data collection method with a sample of 19 individuals between the ages of 18 and 44, of six nationalities, from 23 countries in all continents, with varied intercultural experiences. They found that TCKs possessed multiple identities or multicultural identity, they lacked clear sense of belonging but are competent intercultural communicators and perceive their experience as mainly beneficial.

Expatriate’s work satisfaction has been found to positively affect children’s adjustment ( Van der Zee et al., 2007 ). Further, the research has documented that effective adjustment of adolescents might lead an expatriate family to stay abroad longer than originally planned ( Weeks et al., 2010 ). However, little is known about the extent that demands faced by children have on their parents’ adjustment. It has been noted that crossover effects of family stress to children need to be acknowledged and talked about within the family ( Lazarova et al., 2015 ).

Depending on their own age, children have to face additional challenges and these may have significant effects on the moving family as a whole. One of these challenges, described by Rosenbusch and Cseh (2012) is children’s confusion about their role (specifically gender role expectations), as a result of being raised in different cultures. Other challenges for young children are linked to loss of their home and their social network, change of schools, making of new friends, and learning a new language ( Pollari and Bullock, 1988 ; McLachlan, 2008 ; Lazarova et al., 2015 ). Feelings of uncertainty, a sense of belonging to a culture and identity loss have been frequently reported ( Ali, 2003 ; Moore and Barker, 2012 ; Rosenbusch and Cseh, 2012 ). Emotional instability and an ambivalent attachment style were identified to be important risk factors that made children more susceptible to adjustment problems ( Ali, 2003 ; Van der Zee et al., 2007 ). In the framework of adolescent development theory and the concept of third culture kids, Weeks et al. (2010) used in-depth interviews to study the adjustment of expatriate 18 students age 14–19 of private international school in Shanghai, China, who were coming from the United States (the majority), Australia, Canada, Malaysia, and Philippines. They found that expatriate children have unique challenges of adjustment to a foreign environment, among which were the disruption of the identity formation process during their adolescence, concerns related to making friends, fitting in, and to be successful in school. One of the difficulties they tend to experience is that in their host culture they may stand out because of different look and usually they act differently than host country nationals. Lucier-Greer et al. (2015) explored normative and context risk factors and the role of relationships (family, informal networks, formal systems) as protective factors among adolescents from military families (a sample of 1036 adolescents between 11 and 18 years of age) located at four United States army installations, one of which was in Europe. They found that higher levels of cumulative risk experienced by adolescents were associated with more depressive symptoms, lower academic performance and lower persistence ( Lucier-Greer et al., 2015 ). International move can disrupt adolescents’ identity formation process, which is characterized by a growth toward more autonomy, becoming more independent from parents, and peers becoming new attachment figures.

At the individual level, being open-minded (i.e., understanding that cultures are different and that people around the world have different perspectives on a variety of issues) was reported by adolescents to be key to adjusting well ( Weeks et al., 2010 ). Secure attachment, emotional stability, and high level of social initiative were found to foster children’s adjustment ( Ali, 2003 ; Van der Zee et al., 2007 ). Because of having multiple experiences with different situations and people it is easier for them to interact with different people and to adapt to new situations ( Moore and Barker, 2012 ).

In terms of family resources, Van der Zee et al. (2007) studied family characteristics such as family adaptability (i.e., the extent to which a family is flexible and able to change its functioning; Olson et al., 1984 ), family cohesion (i.e., the amount of emotional bonding between family members; Olson et al., 1984 ), and family communication (i.e., the tool through which families can create a shared sense of meaning, develop and orchestrate coping strategies, and maintain harmony and balance; McCubbin et al., 1996 ). To examine the determinants of effective coping with cultural transition, they used a survey with a sample of 104 expatriate children and adolescents from 21 different home countries (the majority from the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium; who lived in 37 different countries; the majority in the Netherlands, Singapore, and France). They found that all three characteristics contributed to higher levels of intercultural adjustment of children, with family cohesion being the strongest predictor of both quality of life and sociocultural adjustment of expatriate children and adolescents. Traits and attachment styles were directly associated with better adjustment, and moreover, they also moderated the relationship between family and work-related factors and intercultural adjustment.

Family cohesion may also impact expatriate children’s ability to establish and maintain friendships with other children in the host country ( Caligiuri et al., 1998 ). In the early stage of a relocation to an unfamiliar environment, family members need to rely primarily on each other. The emotional support from parents and siblings and good discussion with parents about the move, where parents show sensitivity to children’s specific needs in the host country, were found as important facilitators in the adjustment process of children and teenagers ( De Leon and McPartlin, 1995 ; Ali, 2003 ; Weeks et al., 2010 ; Lazarova et al., 2015 ).

Another important social resource for children and adolescents is the support they receive from friends, primarily at school ( Weeks et al., 2010 ). Teenagers don’t seem to be bothered by the fact that they are often isolated from the host culture ( Weeks et al., 2010 ), however, they really seem to need friendships with peers who speak their mother tongue. Overall, some evidence shows that family support and informal networks buffer against depressive symptoms with adolescents and their academic performance as well as persistence were higher ( Lucier-Greer et al., 2015 ).

Family as a Whole

Expatriation demands major changes in family roles and living circumstances. Takeuchi (2010) and Lämsä et al. (2017) underscored the importance of considering the family and its members as stakeholders of a company to examine family’s expectations with regard to company support. Our overview of empirical evidence of the research on expatriate family adjustment showed that there is a limited number of studies that explored expatriate family as a unit and included all family members as informants. Below we discuss the studies that examined family level variables or explicitly focused on family adjustment (see e.g., Caligiuri et al., 1998 ; McLachlan, 2008 ; Rosenbusch and Cseh, 2012 ; Lazarova et al., 2015 ). Lazarova et al. (2015) conducted a large study using a convenience sampling approach with 656 expatriates, expatriate spouses and teenage children coming from 51 home countries and assigned in 77 countries using work-life balance, family systems, and crossover theory to explore family narratives on international mobility. Findings showed that a successful movable family should be adventurous, have a sense of humor and good communication where all members ‘pull in the same direction’ and all members are treated as important in family decisions, family members need to make an effort to socialize outside of the family and all the members should be committed to the move. Family members may have different needs that also surface at different times, and some tensions linked to the strains of moving, nevertheless, these stressful events may also bring family together. On the other hand, there is the need to perform, to be brave and to keep going, although at times it is barely manageable. Further, this study pointed to the changing face of expatriate family including both parents and children.

Indeed, there is a growing body of research on non-traditional family forms, such as women as breadwinners, single parents, step families, same sex families with dual careers and children ( McNulty and Selmer, 2017 ). McNulty (2014) reported on a case study with a sample of four female western expatriates living in Singapore, China, Brussels, and North Carolina – a single parent, overseas adoption, split family and lesbian assignees in their breadwinner roles. Fischlmayr and Puchmüller (2016) used social capital theory as a theoretical base for their study on the experiences of 25 female international business travelers living in dual-career families from four Western and non-Western countries on four different continents. The analysis of the interviews showed both similar and different experiences (i.e., childcare and support networks, and social acceptance), and understanding of integrating family and career life as female non-traditional expatriates across cultures.

An expatriate assignment offers opportunities for families: relocating may bring the family closer, especially if the host country is marked by limited social resources and strong cultural differences ( Copeland and Norell, 2002 ). De Cieri et al. (1991) found that a large proportion of women commented that their relationships with their children had become closer through the relocation, because they had similar challenges. It was documented that the expatriate experience usually starts with great excitement and positive expectations ( Punnett, 1997 ; Osland, 2000 ). In an interesting qualitative study by Osland (2000) , expatriates reported that the stage of leaving home and crossing the physical and cultural threshold of a foreign land lasts about 6 months and is characterized by strangeness, difficulties, ups and downs, by the feelings of uncertainty (questioning their own identity, their values, and their understanding of everyday life), a sense of uneasy responsibility for uprooting their family with no guarantee that every family member will adjust to the new culture, and by intense, accelerated learning. After their return home expatriates reported being proud of succeeding difficult work challenges, making it ‘on their own,’ feeling ‘special,’ and taking pride in their ability to acculturate and adapt to change.

Spillover Effects

Caligiuri et al. (1998) were the first to report on spillover effects between family life and work adjustment: if expatriates are well adjusted to working in the host country, their positive feelings will spill over to their family and facilitate family’s cross-cultural adjustment. This study used family systems theory as theoretical background and collected data from 110 families (mostly coming from Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom) on global assignments in 26 different countries. Some other studies confirmed a positive spillover of adjustment to expatriates’ partners and children ( Ali, 2003 ; Trompetter et al., 2016 ). Van der Zee et al. (2005) reported a negative spillover of expatriates’ home demands to their work roles. Shaffer and Harrison (1998) showed that expatriates with greater family responsibilities paid increasingly more attention to non-work factors in making their withdrawal decisions.

Rosenbusch and Cseh (2012) used family systems theory and expatriate adjustment as theoretical knowledge base to study cross-cultural adjustment of expatriate families in a multinational organization based in the United States. They recruited a sample of 15 expatriate families (111 expatriates, 15 spouses, and 7 adolescent children) and applied a case study with mixed method approach. Cultural, relational and psychological stressors had the highest impact on the cross-cultural adjustment, among which cultural stress seemed to be the greatest. Overcoming cultural differences, grasping the art of a new language and being understood by host country nationals were found big challenges in the adjustment process of expatriate families. Challenging were also physical health (i.e., weight gain), physical stress, feelings of loneliness, struggle to maintain a sense of stability and comfort within the family unit, attempts to make new friends and to keep in touch with old ones ( Rosenbusch and Cseh, 2012 ). Emotional distress (i.e., anxiety or depression) may result from expatriate family’s unsuccessful attempts of adjustment ( Rosenbusch and Cseh, 2012 ). A relocation takes extra toll on marriage and it has been argued that expatriate divorce increases stress and psychological trauma as it involves separation and custody disputes across geographical boundaries ( McNulty, 2015 ). Extreme novelty, stress of a new environment, and expatriate’s lack of knowledge about how to obtain social reinforcement in the new culture, often compels expatriate families to seek professional help ( Osland, 2000 ) and family counseling ( Lazarova et al., 2015 ). It has been noted that special attention needs to be given to non-traditional family structures, such as status reversal marriage (i.e., females as breadwinners), single parents, split families and gay partnerships ( McNulty, 2014 ).

A few studies focused on family characteristics/dynamics that may foster or inhibit adjustment of its individual members or the family as a whole. Having a sense of adventure, good and open communication, commitment to the move of all family members, trying to socialize outside the family unit were all found to facilitate family adjustment ( Lazarova et al., 2015 ). Rosenbusch and Cseh (2012) showed that of the six components of family flexibility, the components of roles, rules, leadership and assertiveness had the most impact on cross-cultural adjustment of expatriate families. More specifically, families experienced lack of role differentiation and were in need of specific clarification of family identity. Partners reported feelings of loss outside the professional identity due to career interruption. Leadership within the family seemed to be a core issue during the move, as family members found that part of their responsibility was to assist other family members in adjusting to a new environment. Sharing their opinions with one another ( assertiveness ) and staying connected as a family was important for family members. Families with a supportive climate, good family communication, and a positive perception of the international assignment experienced more successful adjustment ( Caligiuri et al., 1998 ; Copeland and Norell, 2002 ). Also, family members’ satisfaction with their family relationships has been shown to be significantly associated with psychological adjustment to relocation and satisfaction with life throughout the expatriation ( De Cieri et al., 1991 ; Richardson, 2006 – informants were expatriates). In particular, healthy relationships between partners were found critical for a successful expatriate family ( Lazarova et al., 2015 ).

The second category of family resources are external to the family . Help from the company in dealing with financial concerns related to the move and life in a new country, and good organizational and practical support, including providing contacts in the new country are all important support systems for adjustment of an expatriate family ( Lazarova et al., 2015 ). Active involvement within a church, school, youth organization, employing organization, health or welfare organization in the host country helps family members to adjust quicker to a new location ( Cornille, 1993 ). Schools (most often international ones) can offer support for families by encouraging dialog among families and the school and facilitate parent-adolescent communication during relocation ( McLachlan, 2008 – a qualitative study with 45 families at an international school in southern England).

A long-distance family support is crucial during assignment-imposed separation ( Richardson, 2006 ; Starr and Currie, 2009 – both empirical studies drew from expatriates as informants), and different forms of electronic communication allow family members to stay connected with their extended family and friends ( Rosenbusch and Cseh, 2012 ). The internet and social media is increasingly providing a new form of social communication with family and friends and thus enable emotional support provision from them ( Haslberger and Brewster, 2008 ), and which were also found to be reasonably good predictors of levels of perceived social support, loneliness and depressive states of adult expatriates shortly after their residential move ( Shklovski et al., 2006 ).

Conclusion and Implications

Summary of findings.

Based on the empirical evidence from the studies included in our review, the following conclusions can be made about the challenges and stressors that come along with living as an expatriate family. Cultural novelty, lack of preparation and relocation (financial) support, loss of home, change of social environment, increased demands related to organizing life in a new location (i.e., schooling system, learning about local culture and language, daily hassles, new work situation for expatriate employees), adjustment to work (expatriate employee), together with feelings of uncertainty, up-rooting and isolation are stressors that all family members need to face to certain extent (e.g., Osland, 2000 ; Haslberger and Brewster, 2008 ; Rosenbusch and Cseh, 2012 ; Lazarova et al., 2015 ).

However, there are some differences among family members, too. Children and adolescents are most concerned by fitting into new schools and making new friends and not so much by learning the local language and creating social networks outside school (e.g., Weeks et al., 2010 ). Trailing partners, on the other hand, are preoccupied with finding ways to organize family life, learning the culture and language of the host country, finding a job, and can feel isolated and lost without outside professional identity (e.g., Brown, 2008 ; Cole, 2011 ; Rosenbusch and Cseh, 2012 ; Lazarova et al., 2015 ). Establishing social contacts with local nationals and other expatriates, getting familiar with local culture and languages are necessary and important for the whole family ( Black and Stephens, 1989 ). International experience can bring family members together, which is an important positive outcome of expatriation, however, family as a whole may also feel isolated and lonely (e.g., De Cieri et al., 1991 ; Rosenbusch and Cseh, 2012 ). Taken together, during their adjustment process, expatriate families are confronted with the following challenges: children’s education, partners’ resistance and career issues, location difficulties, cultural adjustment, language issues, and support for other family members.

Our narrative review also documents the process by which individuals and families cope with the challenges and stressors described above (i.e., their coping resources ). Personal/psychological resources such as open-mindedness, emotional stability, high level of social initiative (e.g., Ali et al., 2003 ; Weeks et al., 2010 ; Van Erp et al., 2014 ) together with family resources such as flexibility, adaptability, and cohesion (e.g., Caligiuri, 2000 ; Ali et al., 2003 ; Van der Zee et al., 2007 ) act as resources for expatriates as well as for their family members. Good relationships within the family and beyond contribute to the subjective well-being of expatriates and their family members (e.g., Richardson, 2006 ; Lazarova et al., 2015 ). Turning to more social-level resources, maintaining contact with the extended family ( Richardson, 2006 ), friends and former colleagues–with the use of social media and internet- helps family members to overcome feelings of loneliness and isolation (e.g., Shklovski et al., 2006 ; Rosenbusch and Cseh, 2012 ). Talking to other people when in need of emotional support and asking for help with the everyday engagements alleviates distress with expatriates ( Caligiuri and Lazarova, 2002 ). Social support networks play an important role in the adjustment process – although expatriates, partners and children may use different ways to integrate socially. For children, good integration at their school is crucial ( Weeks et al., 2010 ), for partners support from host country nationals (e.g., Shaffer and Harrison, 2001 ; Copeland and Norell, 2002 ), and for expatriates and partners organizational support and company assistance are important (e.g., Ali et al., 2003 ; Cole, 2011 , 2012 ; Lazarova et al., 2015 ).

The third conclusion concerns reciprocal influence between family members in terms of stressors, application of resources, and adjustment. Crossover effects (for instance of stressors, subjective well-being, emotional distress) between partners have been documented in the literature (e.g., Takeuchi et al., 2002 ; Van der Zee et al., 2005 ; Lauring and Selmer, 2010 ). Also, family situation and work adjustment of expatriate employees are strongly related ( Caligiuri et al., 1998 ). Finally, crossover effects for all family members, including children, need to be taken into account when relocating with children ( Lazarova et al., 2015 ).

The fourth conclusion concerns the methodological characteristics of the studies included in our review. At the level of study designs, we can conclude that there is a growing body of qualitative studies attempting to provide insights into the subjective experience of expatriate family members, or studies using both quantitative and qualitative methods (see e.g., Lauring and Selmer, 2010 ; Lazarova et al., 2015 ; McNulty, 2015 ; Fischlmayr and Puchmüller, 2016 ). Qualitative studies mostly used interviews to gather data from expatriates to understand their expatriate complexity. The research on expatriate families, expatriate children and TCKs, is still evolving and such qualitative designs are helpful for better understanding the lived experience of the emerging expatriate (sub)groups. While most studies used methodological perspectives of cross-cultural psychology, cultural psychology perspectives are barely presented in the area of expatriate family adjustment. Research including empirical ethnographic field studies that incorporate the lived experience of a host country culture is scarce (see e.g., Lauring and Selmer, 2010 as an important exception). Finally, the majority of quantitative studies used cross-sectional designs, and longitudinal study designs are hardly applied.

Concerning the samples and geographical location we can conclude that the majority of studies used samples with English speaking expatriates, mainly coming from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia. The exceptions used samples from Asia (e.g., Japan, India), and Europe (mostly from Western Europe). There is a huge gap in studies featuring populations from Central, Southern and Eastern Europe, Africa, Latin America and most of Asia, and studies using non-English speaking samples.

Fifth, at the level of the theoretical background , it can be concluded that family systems theories, cross-cultural adjustment, expatriate literature and social support network theory prevail as the knowledge base for the research. Another observation is that management theories have studied adjustment through the lens of success – for a company and also for the expatriate and expatriate family. The successful assignment presents less costs for the organization. Cultural perspectives, on the other hand, remain largely unaddressed (see Shaffer and Harrison, 2001 ; Rosenbusch and Cseh, 2012 , for notable exceptions).

Sixth, and also at the conceptual level is the observation that the majority of studies failed to explain the definition of a family used in the study (see Caligiuri et al., 1998 ; Lazarova et al., 2010 ; McNulty, 2014 , for exceptions). It is understood that they involve parents and children, however, the traditional family definition is no longer useful because of the changing family constellations. The most comprehensive family definition was proposed by McNulty (2014) who also included non-traditional family forms such as long-term partners of opposite sex, single adults with children, and families of which members may reside in different locations. There is a huge gap in the research about self-initiated expatriate families. The majority of studies used the term spouse or wife to refer to a partner accompanying (usually) male expatriates on assignment. For our review we therefore decided to use the term trailing partner to refer to a significant person in an expatriate life that accompanies them on international assignment.

Taken together, the majority of the empirical research used quantitative methods studying expatriates in a given context, the focus in the existing research is predominately on challenges and hardships of expatriate life whereby the positive experiences of expatriation have been largely neglected. During the last decade the research agendas are also shifting from company based western male expatriates to new forms of expatriation and new types of non-traditional families.

Directions for Future Research

Based on the findings of our review, we can conclude that despite the fact that research on expatriate family adjustment is growing ( Caligiuri et al., 1998 ; Rosenbusch and Cseh, 2012 ; McNulty, 2014 ; Lazarova et al., 2015 ), the available empirical evidence is limited. Our review identifies the following avenues for future research .

First, the neglected area remains adjustment of expatriate children and adolescents , which cannot be explained by current adult-focused theories as children have different challenges than their parents ( Shaffer and Harrison, 2001 ). The existent TCK literature tends to rely upon the work of Pollock and Van Reken (2009) . More research is needed about identity formation and challenges that come along with living abroad, and particularly about resources that they can apply while growing up in the international environment. Namely, their culturally mobile upbringing defines them as being the very essence of multicultural individuals in a global society ( Moore and Barker, 2012 ). With many new forms of non-traditional expatriate families, TCKs’ profiles are also changing into even more globally oriented and independent. This is very important as TCKs have a great potential to become future expatriates and can be in advantage in the world labor market due to their specific international experiences ( Bonebright, 2010 ). The literature on TCKs needs an all-inclusive definition to explain the specifics of the identity formation of TCKs, taking into account the characteristics of different cultures and also the influence of parents’ culture. Furthermore, different types of families and also multicultural families need to be considered when studying the international experience of young people.

Second, more research is needed on the reciprocal influence between all family members (e.g., impact of expatriates on partners; impact of children on parents and vice versa). Since families living in a foreign country often become closer and need to rely on their own resources ( De Cieri et al., 1991 ; Copeland and Norell, 2002 ), their role to support each other to overcome potential crises may be even more important than in their home country (in which community/social sources of support are more available).

Third, so far studies on expatriate adjustment have mostly been overly restrictive in their focus and only a limited number of variables were investigated ( Takeuchi, 2010 ). Therefore, future research should broaden its scope to different stress variables (e.g., chronic strains, daily hassles) as well as to different outcome variables (e.g., short term crisis, long term adjustment). Further research should include the adaptation to changing family roles, to map relationships among forms of adjustment and to offer a systematic way to group adjustment antecedents ( Lazarova et al., 2010 ). Recently published articles on expatriate family experience (e.g., Lazarova et al., 2015 ; McNulty, 2015 ) call for more research on topics that do not focus on expatriate success but rather give in-depth insight into experience of expatriation for a family. Additionally, with the increased globalization, studies on expatriation could learn more from migration studies to improve conceptual refinements of concepts of expatriation and to deepen the knowledge base and provide relevant practical advice for different types of expatriates ( Andresen et al., 2014 ).

Fourth, many studies examining expatriate family adjustment lack a theoretical background or invoke the stressor-stress-strain perspective ( Bhaskar-Shrinivas et al., 2005 ), or the work-family literature as their underlying theoretical basis (see Caligiuri et al., 1998 ; Van der Zee et al., 2007 ; Takeuchi, 2010 ; Rosenbusch and Cseh, 2012 ; Lazarova et al., 2015 , as important exceptions). Studies on expatriate families, however, could integrate family psychology literature, family systems theory, and family stress models, positive psychology, and in particular, cultural psychology and cultural identity formation. A different culture and language barriers in the host country may be a challenging experience for expatriates, their partners and children involving the need to restructure, develop, and adapt in response to the requirements of the new environment. Capturing the cultural experience of the expatriate family would add to the existing knowledge where currently family and its members seem to be the sole generators of their adjustment process. More research interest is needed to better understand the interface between expatriate family adjustment and cultural aspects of relocation, and specifically, into the identity change of expatriate family members and family as a whole.

Fifth, on the methodological level, there is a need for longitudinal designs that examine adjustment as a long-term process rather than a momentary event ( Haslberger and Brewster, 2009 ). Most of the studies included in the current review were cross-sectional in nature and cannot inform us about the directionality of potential causal relationships between the variables under study. Qualitative designs including ethnographic field studies in different parts of the world and different cultures will be particularly useful to further our understanding of family members’ perception of their experience and meaning making during international assignments. So far cultural psychologists have not taken much interest in the research field. However, the understanding of expatriate family adjustment could be largely enriched and refined by cultural psychology’s specific concept of culture, its interest in thick descriptions and its preference for qualitative/hermeneutic approaches. More qualitative studies are needed also to provide insights and understanding of expatriate experience, particularly for non-traditional family compositions. For example, qualitative method interpretative phenomenological analysis ( Smith et al., 2009 ) could provide insights into the expatriates’ subjective lived experience as this method is suitable to gain rich understandings of topics with little theoretical and empirical evidence. Further, quantitative studies should include large samples of homogenous groups of expatriates and aim to explain different constructs and processes related to expatriate family adjustment. More mixed methods research designs are called for to gain more knowledge on the breadth and depth of the expatriate family experience of adjustment. Replication of findings with larger and more diverse samples (e.g., across countries of location of assignments) is also needed ( Herleman et al., 2008 ). Particularly, scholars should try to study different cultures in different parts of the world, as opposed to using mostly English-speaking samples from western countries.

Sixth, our recommendation points to the necessity of studies using a multi-informant approach where all family members – expatriates, trailing partners and children/adolescents – report on the variables of interest. The impression from the existing research is that such approach with large samples of expatriate families is difficult to apply ( Takeuchi, 2010 ). One plausible explanation could be that expatriate families are probably very difficult to recruit for research because of increased stress and lack of time after the move. Also, there is no particular spot where they report to when they come to live in a host country. Therefore, more research effort and perhaps collaboration with scholars in different countries and cultures should be enhanced to produce studies across different cultures.

Seventh, many studies have looked into the relationship between personality and cross-cultural adjustment, however, very few focused on partners’ and children’s personality traits (see Ali et al., 2003 ; Van der Zee et al., 2007 , for exceptions). Furthermore, we need more studies to focus on the positive side of expatriation for a family and how to address motives for international life.

Eighth, there is a call for more research on new family forms and non-traditional family structures, blended families with step-parents and half-siblings from prior relationships, single parents and status reversal marriages ( McNulty, 2014 ), the emerging self-initiated expatriate families, and dual-careers families.

Ninth, as research points to the fact that an expatriate assignment may affect the psychological well-being of the family system as a whole as well as each individual family member, attention should be given to the development of clinical interventions with the expatriate population. Feelings of alienation, uprooting, constant changes and goodbyes are common complaints expatriates which expatriates can address in psychological counseling ( Bushong, 2013 ). Specifics of multicultural counseling combined with family therapy could be useful professional support for families during their adjustment process. Findings of this narrative review therefore point to the need for future research on relational and family processes (i.e., dynamics, interactions, and stories) that influence the decision to move back or to prolong the stay.

Finally, there is a call for more research and more publishing on expatriate family adjustment. As mentioned above, expatriate families may be a difficult sample to recruit for the research. Further, one might argue that there is more research on expatriate families actually conducted than it appears in peer-reviewed journals.

Practical Implications

Based on our narrative review on expatriate family adjustment, some practical and clinical implications can be outlined. For example, families could benefit from pre-departure cross-cultural and language training ( Punnett, 1997 ; Copeland, 2004 ). During this training, the specifics of the host culture, past foreign expatriate experience, language skills, intercultural competences, and personal resources of the whole family could be targeted ( Shaffer et al., 2006 ; Van Erp et al., 2014 ). The preparation part should also not overlook the importance of family members’ perception of and motives for the international relocation ( Suutari and Brewster, 2000 ; Dickmann et al., 2008 ). Companies sending families on international assignments should be encouraged to include all family members in the pre-departure training ( Shaffer and Harrison, 2001 ) where their different roles and expectations should be taken into account. Family counseling could forewarn of the upcoming changes and clarify family roles and family functioning, and could alleviate problems ( Lazarova et al., 2010 ; Rosenbusch and Cseh, 2012 ). Additionally, more emphasis should be put on explaining the motives and positive aspects of relocation.

The preparation before the move and the actual process of adjustment may be highly influenced by the nature of the host culture. Particularly, it should be acknowledged that there is a difference if the host country is multicultural with different sub-cultures (e.g., the United States, big cities, such as London, Brussels, etc.) or monocultural (e.g., Japan). In cases where expatriate parents belong to one (the same) culture, they may not be completely aware that their children growing up as TCKs have different challenges. Therefore, it is of huge importance that parents receive counseling about how to support children during their most crucial developmental years, taking into account their identity formation and their developmental needs. While parents may be struggling with homesickness and planning their eventual return to their home country, for children the move may provoke additional stress as they may perceive it as adjusting to a new culture. TCKs belong to a ‘third culture’ which is placeless, and their restlessness and feeling uprooted may lead them to change places over and over again. TCKs feel best among other people with similar experiences which parents may find hard to understand and accept. In short, TCKs are different from their parents in terms of their cultural identity and families need to be educated and supported to deal with this challenge.

The possibility and availability of psychological support (e.g., family counseling) in the new location should be discussed with the family. Partners could specifically focus on how to use their time and resources when abroad ( Lauring and Selmer, 2010 ). Direct communication and support between the company and trailing partner could facilitate adjustment of the whole family, as it is usually trailing partners who have to deal more with hassles of relocation ( Lazarova et al., 2015 ). Children and teenagers could be prepared for the international assignment through video information about the life in the new school and friendships abroad ( Weeks et al., 2010 ). Further, family members who are moving abroad and host country nationals should be put in contact before the departure so that hosts in the host countries could play an active role in the preparation activities.

Even with the most thorough pre-departure training families cannot avoid experiencing some degree of adjustment stress shortly after the relocation, and therefore some follow-up on the adjustment process after the move is warranted. For example, host country nationals could be considered to assist newcomer expatriate families with learning about the host culture and local customs in the new location ( Osland, 2000 ). In particular human resources management could add value by providing adjustment assistance within the expatriate communities. For example, by supporting the development of friendships in the new environment (i.e., community groups, workplaces and online social media) ( Bahn, 2015 ). Furthermore, employer provided career assistance and consideration of roles and responsibilities of both partners is needed for expatriate partners who plan to continue their career in the host country ( Cole, 2011 ; Lazarova et al., 2015 ; Mäkelä et al., 2017 ). To be able to offer clear guidelines on how children facing many relocations in their life can obtain some degree of sense of stability when their family moves on international assignments, more research is needed on the nature of adjustment of children and teenagers.

In sum, our narrative review provides a summary of contemporary findings on expatriate family adjustment, including identification of challenges as well as personal, family, and community resources that foster adjustment of family members. Notably, clear conceptualization of expatriate family or expatriate family adjustment is needed. A general theory of expatriate family adjustment is called upon that would in a comprehensive way integrate multiple theoretical perspectives on expatriate family adjustment; work-family literature, adjustment and expatriate literature, stress and positive psychology, cultural and cross-cultural psychology, social theories, work transitions, family functioning, family relations, different types of families, and communication. Further, studies should not neglect culture identity formation of children and the impact of both home country and host country cultures. In particular, research using cultural psychology perspective is needed to enrich the understanding of expatriate family experience. Finally, more research should focus on shedding light on positive outcomes and opportunities of expatriate families.

Our narrative review represents an important contribution to expatriate family adjustment literature. It may serve as an important source of knowledge for experts in the field of expatriate family adjustment and related fields of research, such as cultural, cross-cultural psychology, family and organizational psychology. Because of its broad scope it can be accessible to broader audience, such as HR experts, teachers in international schools, clinicians working with expatriates, and of course present and future expatriate families.

Author Contributions

MFS and JF conceived the contents of the review. MFS reviewed the papers and drafted the manuscript. LV conceived the structure of the article. LV, JF, and JDM edited the whole manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Conflict of Interest Statement

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

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Psychological Adjustment and Post-Arrival Cross-Cultural Training for Better Expatriation

A Systematic Review

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  • Sheetal Gai   ORCID: 6 ,
  • Paula Brough 6 &
  • Elliroma Gardiner 7  

Part of the book series: Handbook Series in Occupational Health Sciences ((HDBSOHS))

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Globalization has produced increasingly multicultural workplaces, resulting in a proliferation of cross-cultural difficulties for expatriate employees and their work organizations. Expatriate workers often experience high levels of stress, and because of this, the rate of mental ill-health among expatriates is increasing. The review argues that examining psychological adjustment can advance our understanding of the role of mental health in expatriate success. Thus, this review first examines the prevalence and significance of measuring the psychological adjustment dimension among multinational corporation (MNC) expatriate workers in the cross-cultural literature. Second, this review examines the role of cross-cultural training (pre-departure and post-arrival) and its effectiveness on expatriation success. This review analyzed 22 empirical studies published between 1994 and 2020 that examined either or both: (1) cross-cultural adjustment, emphasizing the psychological adjustment component, and (2) cross-cultural training, emphasizing the effectiveness and impact of pre-departure and post-arrival cross-cultural training on long-term expatriation success among MNC expatriate workers. This review was conducted with a specific goal of increasing our understanding of the role of psychological adjustment and how appropriate cross-cultural training may increase expatriate success.

  • Expatriate employees
  • Cross-cultural adjustment
  • Cross-cultural training
  • Information and communication technology

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Gai, S., Brough, P., Gardiner, E. (2021). Psychological Adjustment and Post-Arrival Cross-Cultural Training for Better Expatriation. In: Brough, P., Gardiner, E., Daniels, K. (eds) Handbook on Management and Employment Practices. Handbook Series in Occupational Health Sciences. Springer, Cham.

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Received : 14 March 2021

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Published : 18 December 2021

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    Management recruiting firm Chalre Associates, detail the five top reasons for expatriate assignment failure as: International migration is on the rise. A report by Finaccord, predicts 56.6 million expatriates for 2017, a figure that's expected to grow by 3% a year.

  5. Life Cycle of an International Assignment: Supporting Employees Before

    In fact, cost of international assignments is one of the top mobility-related concerns of global employers, and 70% of respondents to a 2016 survey say that there is considerable pressure to reduce costs. ... Family inability to adjust is one of the primary causes of assignment failure. The average assignee is male, middle­ aged and has a family.

  6. An Employer's Guide to Successful International Assignments

    Part 1: Meeting the needs of the international employer Successful international assignments: A guide for global businesses 10 Stress is a key reason for assignment failure, impacted by a range of unattended needs, from personal security and support network, to a lack of cultural knowledge and failure to integrate with local teams at work.

  7. How to Combat International Assignment Failure

    Technology Hasn't Changed the Failure Rate. Many researchers who have studied data as far back as 1965 identified a failure rate of between 25-40% for international assignments in all decades leading up to the new millennium — figures matching our current problem. Despite the expansion of communication technology, our ability to travel and ...

  8. PDF Navigating expat assignment lifecycle challenges

    Of course, international assignments often include air travel, but the turbulence doesn't only happen 36,000 . feet up. Turbulent situations on the ground can lead to assignment failure — a result that comes with steep financial and emotional costs. Understanding the expat lifecycle is an important first . step in preventing assignment failure.

  9. How to prepare employees for international assignment success

    The number of international assignments being terminated early is on the rise. ECA's latest Managing Mobility Survey revealed that the number of assignments cut short had increased by 50% compared to the figure seen in our 2012 survey. The failure rate is highest among companies with more than 10 000 employees, for whom almost one in twelve ...

  10. Success and failure in international assignments: A review and a

    Originality/value. There has been a lot written about how we should operationalize the success or failure of international assignments. The present paper reviews that literature and integrates a number of ideas and suggestions into a multi-dimensional model which includes information about pre-requisites for success and relevant KSAOs, along with ideas from performance management to help ...

  11. Why Do International Assignments Fail?

    Abstract: Much has been said , and written , about failed international assignments , but few studies , if any, have explored the causes of failure from the perspective of the expatriates. In this article, we draw on a qualitative study of 64 expatriate families who se If- identified as having prematurely returned from an international assignment.

  12. Tracking International Assignment Failure

    The Impact of International Assignment Failure Rates. International assignment failure rates will depend on the country and challenges presented to the expat. One study estimates employee assignments to developed countries will have a failure rate of 25% to 40%, and in under developed countries the rate jumps to 70%.

  13. PDF International assignment perspectives*

    International Assignment Perspectives is a collection of thought leadership articles that explore current issues requiring the attention of today's HR leaders and tax directors who manage a globally mobile workforce. This publication from PricewaterhouseCoopers' International Assignment Services practice shares insights on a number of topics

  14. How to Understand & Prevent Expat Failure

    Similarly, other employees may hesitate to accept international assignments when observing their expat co-workers' shortcomings. Consequences for an Expatriate. Arguably, an expat experiences an even higher cost of failure than the organization, with failure imposing psychological costs as well as professional and financial burdens.

  15. Avert Assignment Failure: Support Spouses in Overseas Relocations

    The spouse may begin to feel isolated, which could lead to conflict within the marriage and family and, sometimes, failure in the overseas assignment. "One of the most common complaints we hear ...

  16. Managing International Assignments & Compensation

    A new international assignment landscape is challenging traditional compensation approaches. For many years, expatriate compensation has been focused on a dilemma: having assignees on expensive home-based expatriate package versus localization - which is about replacing expatriates with locals or at least transition expatriates from an expatriate package to a local salary.

  17. International Assignment Failure and Tracking Methods

    International assignment failure rates will depend on the country and challenges presented to the expat. One study estimates employee assignments to developed countries will have a failure rate of 25% to 40%, and in under developed countries the rate jumps to 70%. The impact for a multinational is both financial and business related.

  18. Why Do International Assignments Fail?

    Much has been said, and written, about failed international assignments, but few studies, if any, have explored the causes of failure from the perspective of the expatriates. In this article, we draw on a qualitative study of 64 expatriate families who self-identified as having prematurely returned from an international assignment. Our findings confirm prior research showing that family ...

  19. International Assignment Failure: Encountering Problems During

    International Assignment Failure: Encountering Problems During Repatriation. When an employee is sent on assignment abroad, one of the necessary elements is a repatriation plan for a smooth return to the home country when the assignment is complete. Repatriation planning includes setting a fixed end date, concluding assignment projects ...

  20. Revisiting the expatriate failure concept: A qualitative study of

    In particular, constructions of failure/success could be studied in relation to social phenomena as actual lived experiences during the international assignment. Similarly, failure and success could be studied within contexts with higher degrees of uncertainties, such as terrorism (Bader & Berg, 2014).

  21. Expatriate Family Adjustment: An Overview of Empirical Evidence on

    Crossover Effects. Within the HR framework, the most frequently reported reason for a failure in an international assignment (when defined as a premature return) was found an inability or an unwillingness of a partner to adapt to the foreign environment (Punnett, 1997; Haslberger and Brewster, 2008), together with a trailing partner's career concerns (Lazarova et al., 2015).

  22. Psychological Adjustment and Post-Arrival Cross-Cultural ...

    The fact that international assignments are costly and that the main reason for expatriate failures is adjustment-related issues, this review is clearly relevant and timely. An expatriate employee's success is their willingness to embark on new experiences, learn, and successfully adjust to working and living in a foreign culture.