Prevent the Reasons that Lead to Expatriate Failure

Often Cases of Expat Assignment Failure are Easy to Avoid

We will list the reasons for expat failure in this article, but first, let’s define what that means.

What do expatriate failure and expatriate success refer to?

Expatriate failure can be defined as a group of factors that impede an expatriate’s success, such as early return, underperformance at work, or adjustment concerns.

An expatriate failure is the failure of an expatriate to fulfill his objectives in a foreign country. Many expatriates (there are 6 types of expats and you can discover yours here) fail, but few do so in the sense that they return before their contract period ends. The majority just never get what they wanted from their posting and eventually give up trying.

Check also: The Most Helpful Books to Read About Living Abroad.

Reasons for expatriate failure

Several variables contribute to expatriate failure, including:

  • Have unreasonable expectations for the new country.
  • Failure to comprehend organizational culture at work.
  • Unwillingness to adapt to a new environment and way of life.
  • Uncertainty on how to seek assistance in an emergency.
  • Failure to comprehend local laws and customs.
  • Lack of Vitamin D (Keep reading to understand how).
Image for section about The Cost of Expatriate Failure

What are the expatriate failure rates?

The failure rates of expatriates vary greatly by sector and location. According to INSEAD research, failure rates might range from 10% to 50%, with the destination playing a significant effect. Expatriates assigned to developing economies are more likely to fail than those sent to industrialized nations.

Before jumping into the detail of the subject and advice against expatriate failure, a small personal anecdote. It will be useful to understand the reason for this post.

The Cost of Expatriate Failure

1. Direct Financial Costs: When an international relocation fails, the financial burden primarily falls on the employer. The costs include transportation (flights), accommodation, long-term housing rentals, household goods shipments, school fees, and miscellaneous charges. For a family of four with two school-aged children, the total hard costs can amount to months of salaries.

2. Non-Financial Costs: Apart from the direct financial aspect, companies also face non-financial costs such as lack of productivity, and the mental and emotional toll on the employee. A study claimed that up to 20 workdays are lost for some international relocations. Disenchanted employees may also suffer from low self-esteem, lack of motivation, and even depression, leading to far lower productivity.

The Causes of Expatriate Failure (And a Personal Story)

Stressed man at work. There are reasons for expatriate failure beyond work problems and stress.
There are reasons for expatriate failure beyond work problems and stress.

Almost everyone has a few family practices perpetuated from infancy to adulthood, which are eventually called house traditions. Mine was the family barbecue. One or two times per month my father turned on the churrasqueira (an intimidating word basically meaning “grill”) around noon, my mom prepared vinagrete, and one or two hours later all of us served ourselves from thin stripes of picanha, alcatra and all sorts of typical Brazilian cuts, together with bread rolls filled with vinagrete. Just by writing this paragraph, I feel the craving for it, something difficult for anyone foreign to my region to understand. 

​            Outside my country is nearly impossible to find the same kind of cuisine, except in places where you have a big Brazilian community or a public for different types of meat. Qatar was in the second case. Two restaurants served those cuts there for rich sheiks willing to taste it. I was not a frequent client of those since I was not willing to pay multiple times more than what I was used to. Thus, there was me, in the middle of the desert, deeply craving the meat and the moments I had during my whole life. That is when I realized I lived with two Argentinians. They knew some restaurants where the price tag was not high, and the best: we had company discounts!

​            Although Argentinian cuts differ greatly from the Brazilians, the environment and the taste were still fine. Albeit there was no vinagrete, there was another remarkably tasty sauce: chimichurri. Then I saw it was possible to satiate my appetite without emptying my pockets. I also found in supermarket cuts similar to alcatra and prepared it at home. To complete my weekend replicas of childhood rituals, I used to call my parents during those times and have long talks where we updated each other about our lives.

​            Though I didn’t have my parents present there (as well our typical bread rolls called pão francês, which were impossible to find), the weekends with churrasco-imitation were enough to catapult my mood and make me filled with satisfaction, happiness, and protein.

​I told you this story because, if you are already living abroad, probably you met other foreigners constantly complaining about how much they miss what they had back home. Maybe you even are one of them (no offense intended).

Food and culinary ingredients are the most common reason for ranting. Looking for an expat products store is valuable when adapting to life in a new country. Usually, those stores will have the most famous food items from selected countries, like condiments, beverages, sweets, or ingredients. It is especially convenient for anyone with kids going through adaptation.

​            Besides food, the reasons for expatriate failure n can build up from many other items that are inaccessible abroad. Things like hobbies, sports, climate, your favorite place, drinks, and routines. The affliction takes many forms. For example, an article by Worklife described the case of Joe Watson. He relocated to Hong Kong from Atlanta for six years and not being able to watch his sports teams on TV made him yearn for life back home. The consultancy firm Expatica exemplified this problem, and the opportunities derived from it:

​            When you’re not in your hometown, you need to adapt to what’s available in your new environment. For instance, you may have only ordered coffee from a particular company, but you may have to adjust to whatever type of coffee you can get in your locality. Weird smells? You must just get used to it.

Constantly complaining about how you can’t find the same brands as in your country or that you prefer the public transportation network back home doesn’t build a healthy relationship with your new place of residence. It is a path for expatriate failure. Try to focus on the positives and venture outside your comfort zone. Maybe you’ll find an even better brand of coffee in the process.

​   The ANS Syndrome and expat homesickness.

Image to illustrate section about expat homesickness.

     The paragraph above describes a pattern I saw among many expats all over the world. A common behavior which I will call here the analogous to nothing syndrome (ANS). It happens when, longing for something they had before and now it inaccessible in a foreign country, the person completely loses the capacity to substitute his previous desire for something similar. As if that dish, hobby, or Wednesday night event was analogous to nothing, an exclusivity only his beloved country had and there is nothing in the universe to substitute it.

​            Sometimes the analogous to nothing syndrome comes from the pride of what we judge as typical, traditional, or just very cool in our country. Like a Chilean expatriate in France misses drinking Piscolas because of the impossibility to find Pisco (a Chilean-Peruvian national drink) and doesn’t realize he can instead use Grappa with a similar result. Or a Californian casual-surfer living in Austria, frustrated with the lack of waves (and sea at all) but not realizing how satisfying could be to snowboard in the challenging slopes of Tyrol.

​          On other occasions, the ANS results from a lack of creativity or knowledge. To exemplify it, I ask your permission to tell another personal story, which will sum up in our final advice against expatriate failure.

How does lack of vitamin d cause depression (making expats fail in cold climates)

During my first winter in Europe, more or less around January, I was feeling tired and demotivated, since it was dark almost all the time. I was also getting sick frequently, and then I realized this was a message from my body. It was almost shouting to me “Hey, there is something wrong! I need sunlight!”. My skin color changed from the usual olive tone to a pale shade. I went to the doctor, and he asked for some exams. When the results came, we understood everything:

​            Severe lack of vitamin D.

​            There’s a good reason vitamin D is also known as “the sunshine vitamin”. The nutritionist Ryan Raman explained that When your skin is exposed to sunlight, it makes vitamin D from cholesterol. The sun’s ultraviolet B (UVB) rays hit cholesterol in the skin cells, providing the energy for vitamin D synthesis to occur. Since my genetics provided me with a darker color, ideal for places with strong sunshine like Brazil, it was over-filtering the scarce sunlight of the central European winter.

​            Here we had a problem. I couldn’t bring the Brazilian sunshine to here, and at this point, holidays were out of the question. So I needed a bit of creativity and some technology to solve the issue. The solution after all is to take vitamin tablets every morning, and an artificial light imitating the sun. The physiological problems faded and my humor, mood, and productivity had a boost.

​            What this proved is that even tropical sunshine is not analogous to nothing and can be substituted by something similar if you need it. Eventually, the search for a similar thing can even unveil other opportunities. Mark Callaghan, a British that moved to the USA and was badly craving for his typical “Sunday lunch swimming with gravy”, had his story told by Worklife:

“He did something most homesick expatriates don’t do — he turned his longing for home into a successful livelihood, later launching British Corner Shop, an online supermarket delivering British groceries worldwide, primarily to expats wanting a taste of home.”

It is likely that by freeing yourself from the inertia and frustration caused by not finding the same you had before, you will find something similar. If you are a Russian in the USA, maybe you miss celebrating Orthodox Easter. In the case your city doesn’t have many of your countrymen, use your creativity and you might find Serbians, Romanians, and many other nationalities that share traditions and prepare a delicious kulich.

​            The same is valid for routines. I remember that during my time in the Middle East, there was a group of jogging expats. A lot of them were Australians, North Americans, and Europeans. People from places where jogging is a good way to exercise outdoors and socialize. But outdoor exercising in Doha, where summer temperatures could reach 50 degrees Celsius, could be a health risk to those daring to do physical activity outside.

​            So how those people were jogging?

​            I read more about this group and realized that they were not jogging indoors, but rather in shopping malls, multi-purpose centers, and other acclimatized environments. The association became so popular that the hotel Hyatt Plaza sponsored a similar initiative in the city.

​            Jogging in a shopping mall. This is what I call creativity! It is certainly not the same as what they had in their countries, but it is similar and as the success of the group showed, it was also fun.

How to prevent expatriate failure?

Short answer: Don’t look for the same things, Stick to what is similar

This similar you will find may become your new standard, who knows? I would never expect that one day I would be more interested in watching winter sports than a carnival parade. As those examples prove, the sunshine of the tropics, the mild weather of the Mediterranean, the exotic cuisines, the pacific waves or the biggest party on the planet are not unreplaceable by something analogous. So why would you think the thing you are missing is analogous to nothing?

Here is the advice for expatriates reading this post: just look, in your new country, for something comparable to what you had before and embrace it. Instead of looking for the same, stick to what is similar, and enjoy it. 

(However, I still cannot adapt myself to the non-sensical idea of Breakdance in the Olympic Games, but that is a subject for another article).

If you live far from your home, check this article I prepared for you about homesickness.

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Key Takeaways: Expat Failure vs Successful Assignments During Mobility Programmes

One of the main reasons for expat assignments fail is the lack of local support and the inability to adapt to the new work environment and culture. Language barriers can exacerbate this issue, making it essential to include language training in the preparation. Ongoing support from the home country ‘in the loop’ through regular calls or emails can help expatriates adapt.

Insufficient support can lead to an overload of responsibility and personal disconnection, increasing the risk of expatriate failure. A personal mentor in the host country and a well-structured training programme should include elements to help navigate these challenges. Preparing for repatriation is equally vital, as returning to the home country may impact the employee’s performance.

HR or global mobility teams must choose the right person to send on an international assignment and provide ongoing support to prevent failure prematurely. The wellbeing of the assignee and their spouse or child must be considered, and domestic difficulties due to insufficient support must be addressed.

In conclusion, the ability to adapt to a new culture, language training, a strong support system, and preparation for repatriation are key factors in ensuring a successful expat experience. The failure becomes far more likely without these elements, emphasizing the importance of a well-thought-out strategy by human resource teams for international roles.

This article about expatriate failure is part of the book below.

Moving Out, Working Abroad and Keeping Your Sanity Cover
Moving Out, Working Abroad and Keeping Your Sanity

Levi Borba is the founder of The Expatriate Consultancy, creator of the channel The Expat, and best-selling author. Some of the links in this article may be affiliate links, meaning that the author will have a commission for any transaction.

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