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Could turning down an international assignment be damaging to your career?


Many organizations need employees who are willing to accept international assignments in order to manage or expand the organization’s global operations. These assignments also help to develop global competences among future organizational leaders. Indeed, prior research indicates that organizational leaders with international experience manage multinational corporations (MNCs) better than those without such experience. However, some employees are either unwilling or unable to accept international assignments, thus disrupting their company’s plans and possibly damaging their own career progression.

In order to gain a better understanding of the implications that declining an international assignment may have for individuals and organizations, Kansas State University Professor of Management Bill Turnley and his colleagues Mark Bolino and Anthony Klotz, used psychological contracts (PC) theory to identify what can happen when an employee turns down an international assignment. Their research was published in The International Journal of Human Resource Management.

Psychological contracts are the unwritten agreements between individuals and their organizations that specify the various responsibilities of each party in the employment relationship. When psychological contracts are breached, there are usually negative outcomes for both the employee and the organization. Turnley and colleagues developed a theoretical model that addresses how perceptions of PC breach influence how organizations and employees respond when individuals unexpectedly turn down or refuse an international assignment.

Depending upon the specific reasons that led the employee to refuse the international assignment, both parties may take actions to try to restore the balance in the employment relationship. For example, Turnley and colleagues suggest that employees will seek to make up for breaching the psychological contract by increasing their organizational citizenship behaviors at work, while organizations may reduce the extent of future investment that they are willing to make in the employee.

Furthermore, Turnley and colleagues argue that employees who reject international assignments are likely to experience lower levels of both objective and subjective career success. This occurs both because the employee misses out on a valuable developmental experience, and because employees tend to penalize employees who turn down these requests. When an employee refuses an international assignment, the company may provide less in the way of training, mentoring and supervisory support, all of which are associated with long-term career success. As employees realize that their career has been slowed or derailed, they are likely to experience lower levels of job satisfaction and commitment and some may begin to regret the opportunities they lost by refusing the assignment. To the extent that the costs of refusing an international assignment are made salient to other employees, this is likely to have an influence on organizational culture and refusal rates among other employees.

Finally, the reasons why an employee refused an international assignment are likely to play a major role in how the organization responds. Organizational reactions are likely to be the most severe in cases where an employee who has been provided significant developmental opportunities simply refuses to accept an international assignment. In contrast, when employees refuse an international assignment due to the hardships that it would create for members of their immediate family, organizational responses are likely to be far less severe.

What employees and organizations can do to improve the conditions surrounding international assignments

  1. Employees working in MNCs should evaluate how important international assignments are to their career success within their specific organization. They can do this by looking at the percentage of top managers who have international experience. They should also pay attention to how often international assignments are refused and what happened to employees who turned them down. 

  2. Employees should also identify the career stage at which international assignments most frequently occur, so that they can better prepare themselves and their families for the likelihood that such an opportunity will present itself. Doing so can decrease the odds that international opportunities will be offered at undesirable times and can also help employees and their families make plans to reduce the obstacles likely to be involved (e.g., spousal career at a stage where moving internationally is not an option, issues associated with children’s schooling, and so on).

  3. There needs to be clearer communication between organizations and prospective employees during recruitment. Organizations need to make it clear if the willingness to relocate internationally is a key aspect of a particular job. Likewise, employees need to clearly indicate their willingness to relocate internationally. In addition, both parties need to communicate clearly when the situation changes and expectations need to be recalibrated.

  4. Organizations need to evaluate whether international assignments are working as intended. For example, organizations should examine how many international assignments are refused, how many are completed successfully, and how such experiences influence objective indicators or career success. Likewise, organizations should examine the influence that accepting international assignments have on retention and employee development.

  5. Organizations should also investigate alternative assignments that can help employees gain international experience, especially for valuable employees with family or other constraints that make international moves impossible. Short-term assignments, international business travel, and even domestic assignments with international reporting responsibilities represent alternatives to traditional expatriate assignments. In some cases, these opportunities can be less costly to the organization and just as valuable to the employee as traditional long-term international assignments.


Read More: Bolino, M.C., Klotz, A.C., and Turnley, W.H. 2017. The implications of turning down an international assignment: A psychological contracts perspective. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 28(13): 1816-1841.