Jorge worked in South America as a top executive in one of the branches of an international organization. When his company decided to downsize personnel, Jorge was offered a transfer to the company's headquarters in the United States. Jorge and his family headed to North America with high hopes.

Two years later, Jorge was fired after the board of directors determined he had not fulfilled the company's expectations. Taken aback by this turn of events, Jorge approached Jim, his friend of 20 years and boss for the last two. Jim told him off the record that Jorge's attitude, since his arrival, had been erratic and his annual professional evaluations had rendered unfavorable results. Jorge had never been fired before and, in fact, had been recognized for his outstanding achievements as general manager in South America. Now Jorge's efficiency was being called into question.

What went wrong?

Jorge's friend and former boss asked him what he thought had caused his poor performance after the transfer. Jorge confided that since his arrival he had encountered many family problems, mostly with his wife. They had been married for 35 years and had three children and six grandchildren living in South America. In fact, Jorge explained, he and his wife were very close to getting a divorce. It had nothing to do with not loving one another or not getting along. When the transfer was offered they decided together to take the step, but Jorge's wife had not been able to adapt to a new way of life.

Jorge's long work hours kept him away from home for 12 hours a day. This routine included many Saturdays. On weekends, Jorge was tired, so he and his wife rarely went out. Jorge's wife felt isolated. She did not speak English, and the couple had only a few Latin American friends. The circumstances proved to be too much for Jorge's wife. She decided to return to South America.

Jorge's wife had told him she was tired of staying home, cleaning, doing the laundry, and cooking, day after day. This was not the life she had envisioned for herself in her senior years. Back home, she had enjoyed family life with their children, grandchildren, relatives, and friends. She enjoyed a comfortable life with domestic help and a chauffer. But in the United States, Jorge's wife told him, she felt imprisoned at home.

Supporting an employee's transition

It's no surprise that personal problems affect an employee's performance. In Jorge's situation, his wife's cultural and personal assimilation to a new country under unfavorable personal and social conditions played a large role in Jorge's own transition after being transferred.

When planning for an international transfer, corporations and employees generally take into account basic factors, such as income, health benefits, children's education, housing allowances, and transportation. Very little consideration, however, is given to changes in interpersonal relationships within and outside of the family group. Obviously, the employee being transferred faces expected challenges at work. But personal challenges also arise for those who accept international assignments, as well as for their families.

Cultural adaptation of expatriate workers and their family members is crucial for a successful assignment. Corporations invest a significant amount of money when transferring employees to other countries. It makes good financial and business sense for these companies to help future expatriates face the challenges and cultural shock they might face both before and after the transfer. Adjusting to a new life away from home would be made easier, for instance, if the employee received counseling by professionals.

Jorge's experience could be a lesson for corporations. When Jorge was hired, the company found in him an employee with expertise and experience. He clearly struggled after being transferred, but his bosses and the board (not to mention his friend!) waited two years before approaching him about this, and by then the solution was simply to let him go.

Replacing Jorge meant not only economic losses, but also the loss of a long-term employee with considerable corporate knowledge. Had his company planned for Jorge's cultural transition, perhaps his story would have had a different ending.