Working Abroad Isn't Always a Holiday

Many company relocations overseas end in failure, usually because the employee's family fails to adjust to their new home.

Two years ago, Barak, a 36-year-old computer professional, received an interesting job offer advertised on LinkedIn: An African company was looking for a data security expert for a job in Ghana. The attractive living conditions and high salary looked irresistible. He passed various checks and screenings by his prospective employer and was found to be a suitable candidate, and eventually went on a short pilot trip to check out Ghana up close. After a short while, the entire family flew to the new country.

We thought we could spend at least two years there and put away some money, said Barak. However, the assignment came to an end after four months that can be described in one word – 'awful.'" Barak says the children may have integrated well into the local American-run school, but his wife could find no work. There were no places to go for entertainment or leisure activities, he says. All there was was 12 to 14 hours a day of work, he says. You could go crazy. It was simply depressing.

Barak says the quality of life in Ghana for his family was high. They lived in a nice house and had domestic help, but they had no social network. The one thing that compensated for my depression was the money, but that wasn't enough after a certain stage, he says. The attractive employment terms can blind you when you are looking for work abroad."

Barak belongs to a large group of Israelis who cut short their stays abroad in what can be described as failed relocations. According to a recent survey by the company Relocation Jobs, of 1,500 relocation assignments every year, a large proportion end in failure. This year the rate has been 25%, which is relatively low: In 2012, 34% of job relocations ended in failure, as did 38% in 2011.

The decline in the rate of failures stems from an understanding that to prevent this sort of own-goal, the relocation process has to be done professionally, says Relocation Jobs CEO Eynat Guez. That means learning from the experience of companies that relocate staff overseas.

Delving into the figures shows that in 56% of all cases, the relocation fails after 17 months. Surprisingly, relocations carried out by large companies have a larger chance of failing. Some 65% of failed relocations involved employees of relatively large and established companies. The remaining failures were at startups.

Company loses money

It is not just the employee and his or her family that suffers. The average cost to a company from a failed employee relocation is estimated at between $30,000-50,000, which comes primarily from the worker's one-time expenses for a foreign posting and for acclimating to his temporary home. The average cost to the employee can be substantial, too, ranging between NIS 20,000 and NIS 50,000 from lost earnings, the costs of returning to Israel and reintegrating at home.

Another finding of the survey was that the primary reason (33%) for people returning early to Israel was the family's difficulty adjusting to life in a new country. Other reasons included the company's failure to manage the relocation well (21%), health problems (18%), culture clash and unmet expectations (13%), the dangerous security or political situation (8%), and the inability of a spouse to get a work permit (7%).

Hana Ornoy, an international management expert and author of the book "Masa Harelocation" (The Relocation Journey), says international studies have found that the rate of relocation failure is between 16% and 45%, but she guesses that the real failure rate is likely to be much higher.

An employee who moves to a different company after returning to Israel can also be considered a failure because he is giving the information he accumulated abroad to competitors, Ornoy says. There are cases where an employee returned to Israel and only then it is discovered that he caused serious damage to the company's reputation. Failure is also registered in cases where employees returned after a sustained period but feel themselves that they failed, and their self-image was harmed and they find it difficult to function like they did in the past.

Guez says these failures stem mainly from poor assignment procedures, the employee's failure to involve his or her family in the process, or the employee's disregard of the information provided him.

'Know what to expect'

It's important to know what exactly to expect when planning a relocation, says Guez. The company has to act transparently with the employee during the process. It has to tell him precisely the reality of things in the country he is going to without omitting any details and without assuming that they will cross that bridge when they get to it. The employee must know in advance every kind of difficulty to expect, starting from the weather or pollution, communal life and school for the children up to the country's cuisine.

Guez provides the example of China, where she says people in major cities don't ever open windows at home because of the smog, which can cause people to develop asthma. She says that supermarkets in China do not sell regular milk, only ultra-high temperature processed milk, the kind that can be stored for months without going bad.

Alex Levac
Nir Keidar