Expatriate assignments are notoriously difficult. They require major professional and cultural adjustments, both coming and going, and those transitions are as tough on families as they are on employees. When people go home after working abroad, they often experience decreased job satisfaction, sometimes even depression. As a result, repatriate turnover is alarmingly high — up to 38% in the year following return.
Given all the challenges, it’s not surprising that expats are more likely to succeed — that is, to adjust to living and working overseas and to be engaged at work — if they are given the flexibility to accept or decline the assignment in the first place. But what happens when people actually say no?
Turning down an international posting can have negative consequences, especially early in one’s career, when family considerations are assumed to be less of an issue. Many companies expect their aspiring leaders to work abroad. It’s how their executives develop the skills to lead across cultures and learn the inner workings of a global business; it’s how rising leaders advance into the senior ranks. Those who decline may be perceived to lack ambition and drive, and they may pay a price for that. While we are just beginning to collect hard data on career outcomes, research shows that employees often feel pressured into saying yes. They worry that refusing to be sent overseas will prevent them from getting ahead, or at least slow their careers considerably.
Even if you feel able to decline an expatriate assignment at the moment, doing so can derail your career down the line. Suppose you are a brand manager working at company headquarters in France, and you decline the opportunity to oversee the expansion of your product line to China. Although your manager may understand your decision to stay in Paris, when you pursue a promotion two years later and you’re competing with a colleague who just got back from a challenging stint in South Africa, you may be viewed as less dedicated than someone who was willing to uproot his life on behalf of the company. That’s the reality.
You and Your Team Series
- Andy Molinsky
- Jane Heifetz
- Dorie Clark
In a recent theoretical article, we examined the reasons employees turn down expatriate assignments. We suggested that the career consequences depend on the employee’s psychological contract with the organization, the implied, unwritten agreement about what is expected of each party. During recruitment and hiring, job seekers may never be told explicitly that working abroad is required for advancement. Nonetheless, in companies with operations that span the globe, it’s often assumed that the corporate ladder includes one or more rungs in international locations. It’s part of the psychological contract. And when employers feel that someone has breached that contract, they may respond by decreasing the personal support and mentoring given to the employee and by providing fewer career development opportunities. The personal exchange relationship between the supervisor and the employee is likely to suffer as well. However, we argue that the way an organization responds to expatriate refusal often hinges on why the contract has been broken. It depends on whether employees are unwilling to go, are unclear about the terms of the psychological contract, or are unable to relocate because of personal circumstances. Here’s how the implications differ.
Unwillingness. As you might expect, an organization’s response is likely to be the most negative when employees simply refuse to work abroad. For example, if a young, single manager working in Dallas turns down an assignment at a branch in London solely because he does not want to live outside the U.S. — if no other factors are getting in the way, and the manager seems to understand that expat stints are generally expected of aspiring leaders in the company — his decision to say no will probably be viewed as a lack of commitment and a breach of the psychological contract. There are exceptions to this rule, of course. Employees who have demonstrated their dedication and “paid their dues” in other ways (by saying yes to relocating in the past, for instance, or by volunteering for an especially challenging assignment at home) may be able to say no without penalty. In general, though, it’s best to avoid saying that you just don’t want to relocate.
Miscommunication. In an earlier study we found that supervisors and subordinates frequently fail to see eye to eye regarding the terms of the psychological contract or the reasons a breach occurred. For instance, during recruitment and hiring, applicants who are told about international assignments may see them as an opportunity rather than a requirement. However, when the firm has extensive global operations, and most members of the executive team have worked as expatriates themselves, hiring managers may assume that the necessity of international experience for career advancement is clear — even if that requirement is never explicitly discussed. Likewise, employers may not be understanding when an employee who is uniquely qualified for an expatriate position turns it down. If a Toronto-based engineer was hired because of her specialized knowledge of a proprietary piece of equipment, and that machine is being installed in a new plant in Sydney, she may be seen as failing to live up to her obligations if she refuses to move to Australia to help transfer her knowledge. Though hiring managers ideally should spell out their expectations regarding international assignments while they are interviewing candidates, the fact that they often don’t puts the onus of clarification on the applicant: If you are potentially unwilling or unable to move abroad, it is best to make this clear before taking a job at a global company.
Inability. Sometimes, employees’ personal circumstances make it difficult to take on an international assignment. In those situations, employers are less likely to punish people for breaching the psychological contract. While that idea has not been explicitly examined by researchers, it is consistent with what has been found in the reverse: Employees respond less negatively to situations in which they believe that conditions beyond the organization’s control led to the psychological contract being breached. According to the 2016 Global Mobility Trends survey, family concerns are the top reason for expat assignment refusal, followed by concerns about the trailing partner’s career. Those reasons are often deemed justified. The same holds true for having elder care responsibilities or having children who require specialized medical care.
So, you stand the best chance of not being penalized for saying no if you realistically can’t relocate. But be open with your employer about what your constraints are, and look for other opportunities to demonstrate your commitment to the organization in your home office.