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Making the Right Selection: The Optimal Expatriate Personality Profile

CompassTAX - June 2005

By Diana Matwichuk, CompassGUIDES Tax Specialist

A lot is at stake with the selection of expatriates for international assignments. Assignment cost containment, corporate reputation and future business relations in that country top the list, not to mention the avoidance of personal stress for the employee. A myriad of factors unique to international assignments complicate the selection process if the objective is to find truly suitable candidates.

What do seasoned international workforce planners look for when sourcing assignments? And how do they achieve this?

Assignment Interview Approach

Lynda Costello of Calgary-based Estrega International Inc. is a former expatriate herself. She uses an internationally-based behavioural descriptive interview approach when sourcing international assignments for Canadian companies.

Using behavioural questions, Lynda seeks out candidates who match an optimal set of personality traits:

  1. Patience
  2. Flexibility and an easy-going nature
  3. Empathy
  4. Respect
  5. Interest in local culture and in other people
  6. Open-mindedness
  7. Sociability
  8. Confidence in their own abilities
  9. Strong communication skills, including being a good listener
  10. Tolerance of other religions
  11. Resilience and adaptability
  12. Tenacity
  13. Ethical core

Potential for Success

While this may seem an exhaustive list and a tall order to fill, Lynda has in her experience found that a high percentage of Canadians are suitable for international assignments. “We live in a country which is very multi-cultural, and has afforded many Canadians a general tolerance of other cultures and religions. Our social and legal structure has also bred a Canadian population that is largely ethical and respectful of human rights.”

These are important factors for conducting business in foreign countries. Worker deviances from these ideals could tarnish the company’s reputation in the host country and hamper future business relations.

Demographic Factors

It is important to keep in mind that there is no stereotypical expatriate. Singles are equally desirable as candidates with families, and in some cases maybe even more so because of the lower relocation costs involved.

Some cultures have a higher level of respect for older individuals, but as far as age is concerned, Lynda observes that a high level of enthusiasm is necessary across the age spectrum. This is an important consideration when starting business in a foreign country, as it often takes many years to establish a business presence, and continued enthusiasm will carry the assignment through the precarious years.

Women are also very adaptable overseas workers, particularly due to their collaborative and relationship-based approach to work. However, they should be made aware of any attitudes toward women that might be different in the host country from what they are accustomed to in Canada. Enlightened and pro-active companies will offer programs and assistance to women relocating to countries with non-equal attitudes toward women.

Cautions and the Straight Goods

Of course it would be folly to paint an overly rosy picture of assignments to expatriate candidates. International assignments have definite downsides, and providing the straight goods can help to ensure assignee retention.

For instance, Lynda questions candidates regarding their feelings toward airline travel, a significant aspect of the assignment lifestyle. During the interviews, she also discusses evacuation programs, emergency programs and personal risks such as health hazards encountered in various countries. Surprisingly, many candidates are not fully aware of the risks involved.

Spouses of selected expatriates, and often the entire family, should attend pre-departure counseling. At this point they will learn more about the inevitable cultural stresses, and can make a decision as to their family commitment to the assignment. It is common for spouses to also attend meetings in the interview process so that they can receive assignment information first hand and be in a position to make personal decisions about the career and/or volunteer options that will be available to them in the host country.

In Summary

Effort devoted to the selection of truly suitable expatriate candidates can pay for itself in the long run. Companies who have made a decision to invest in the development of business in a foreign country with a very different culture do so with the understanding that success may not be immediate. A carefully selected assignment workforce can contribute to making it happen.

Contact Information

Lynda Costello has extensive experience in international workforce planning and executive search. She can be reached at (403) 616-8730, or

At CompassTAX, we develop cost-effective assignment tax programs for Canadian companies sending employees around the world and bringing international consultant expertise to their Canadian projects. These Assignment Tax Programs provide detailed advanced tax planning, including policies, procedures and employment contracts, which serve to minimize costs and mitigate any risk of litigation.

CompassTAX™ also offers clients with international assignees pre-departure and re-entry tax planning with a view to minimizing tax and providing experienced tax representation with the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA). CompassTAX™ specializes in all areas of cross-border taxation for consultants coming to Canada temporarily, Canadians moving back to Canada, and individuals living outside Canada with Canadian business ties.

The author wishes to thank Lynda Costello of Estrega International Inc. for her contribution to this article.