By Kevan Hawley
Kevan Hawley spent many years as a production executive with South African Breweries – did his masters research on the ‘key success factors for expatriate management in Africa’ and has had many years of management experience both in South Africa and as an expatriate in Africa.

A new Human Resources Manager was born on the 27 April 1994 when the international arena opened its doors to the New South Africa. The problem is that no one was aware of it. Managing international Human Resources is an art in its own right and is being dealt with very much the same way a new parent handles parenting – by trial and error.

Possibly one of the greatest challenges facing the IHRMs is the fact that they are now dealing with not an individual employee but a whole family and their needs as a family in the relocation process. Some IHRMs find it more difficult than others to adjust to the added dimension of having to deal with the spouse and family on a more intimate level than before. After all, they are now relocating them halfway around the world and away from their support structures. They have to be prepared to get a lot more involved in the family as a whole and not just think they have to communicate with the employee only as is often the case when dealing with an employee here at home base.

The issues are complex and range from international schooling issues, look see decide visits, securing acceptable accommodation, understanding the often medically less sophisticated environment, evacuation procedures, dealing with the culture shock of the individual and the family, to new remuneration and taxation policies, expatriate career pathing, staying in touch with expatriate communities and trying to, from a distance, understand the dynamics of the expatriates situation and nurture its health.

We have seen that the IHRMs are a new breed of HRMs and they require new skills to go with the job. They, above all, need to be prepared to get more intimately involved in the lives of the expatriate and family than was required whilst managing the employee at home.


The successful expatriate contract starts with selection. All too often the company has the habit of selecting the employee based on perhaps his technical competence and maybe a recommendation from some line manager or senior executive that he/she is the right person for the job. Two mistakes here.

The first mistake is that the selection of the expatriate is not solely about technical competence or what someone who has never been an expatriate recommends but has to be about ensuring that the expatriate has the desired traits/profile required to handle a tough assignment.

Some of these traits (as described by Robert Kohls) are:

  • Tolerance for ambiguity
  • Open-mindedness
  • Abstract thinker
  • Non-judgemental
  • Empathy
  • Communicativeness
  • Flexibility
  • Adaptability
  • Sense of Humor
  • Self-reliance
  • Strong sense of self
  • Tolerance for differences
  • Perceptiveness
  • Ability to fail
  • Non-ethnocentric

These traits need to be tested for and serious consideration needs to be taken should the candidate be lacking in many of them. The author would like to stress that whilst it is sometimes only possible to send the technically competent person, profile testing aids our new age IHRM to be able to manage and develop the weak areas of the expatriate in an attempt to secure the success of the contract. When you take into account that the average cost of relocating an employee and his family overseas can cost in the region of R 500 000 then is it not worth it to pay attention to the proverb “less haste more speed”?

The second mistake is that the IHRM has no or very little contact with the spouse and the spouse has not been assessed for his/her fit for the new venture.

When you look at statistics surrounding failed contracts (failure meaning either the expatriate returns home or hangs in there at a very reduced productivity level), one sees that 80% of the failures can be attributed to reasons relating to the spouse. With statistics like these one has to be crazy to ignore the profile of the spouse in the selection process. It is strongly advised that the spouse be sent through a profiling and interview to assess risk. It has been proven that the spouse is more immersed in the culture of the new location and needs to be more resilient (we will discuss the spouse in future articles). By leaving the spouse out of the selection process the IHRM also fails to notice that one of the children has a learning problem and this is going to blow up halfway through the contract once the honeymoon period is over.

We suggest that the selection process start with an interview with the employee and spouse where all the issues can be put on the table so that the decision is an informed one on both sides.

The selection process is one that needs to be taken seriously and dealt with proactively. Manage the situation don’t let it manage you. Remember your expatriate is an ambassador to your country, your company and him/herself – don’t leave it to fate.

Gone are the days of reactive international human resources management and the time has dawned for us to practice proactive international human resources management. Proactiveness can only come about through an understanding of the issues involved. It is the intention of future articles to foster proactive International Human Resources Management.