Scant screening for overseas staff hurts US firms' image, profits

US companies doing business abroad continue to waste millions of dollars and perpetuate the ''ugly American'' image, too - all because they don't screen the people they send overseas carefully enough.

So charges Barry Kozloff of Selection Research International, a St. Louis firm consulting in what he calls ''international human-resource management.'' Through intensive personal interviews and reference checks, he and his associates help major companies screen out people whose personal or family problems could prevent them from completing an overseas assignment successfully.

''I don't try to dig up dirt, but I do try to get objective information on people,'' says Mr. Kozloff, who is a trained counselor and cultural anthropologist. ''I try to provide an objective assessment that will be a reliable predictor of someone's success in an overseas assignment.''

If an employee has to bail out of an overseas assignment, it can cost the company big bucks - even for someone well down the corporate ladder. One aerospace company calculates that if a $20,000-a-year technician working on a fighter plane project fails to complete a two-year job assignment, it costs the company $100,000. A major chemical company finds it costs three to five times the employee's annual salary to maintain him overseas.

Although cost-plus contracting lets US companies working for foreign governments pass along extra expenses like the cost of replacing an employee, these personnel mistakes obviously work against the firms' ability to maintain good long-term relations in the foreign countries where they operate.

Asked how US companies screen their overseas employees, an official at one aerospace company, who asked not to be further identified because of current contracts, responds, ''Poorly.'' He adds, ''There's too much 'body shopping.' '' Corporate officials ''just want to fill the job,'' usually under pressure of time.

Bruce Adair, a marketing expert in St. Louis and adviser to the University College program at Washington University, concurs: ''I suspect most companies aren't doing well'' at screening employees for foreign assignments.

Particularly in third-world countries, where Americans have to cope with language and cultural barriers and what Mr. Adair calls ''noncosmopolitan locals ,'' the problem of attrition leading to inefficient job performance ''is bigger than anyone is willing to concede,'' he says.

The aerospace official says his own company's attrition rate has been very low, but adds that the problem of job failure is ''extremely serious, and it's very expensive if it occurs.'' His company wants to send people overseas who are ''strong, flexible, without personal problems - people who have managed their lives well,'' as he puts it.

That would seem a pretty basic set of qualifications, but Mr. Kozloff has a trunkful of horror stories of poorly qualified people sent abroad with disastrous results.

One major defense contractor, he recounts, went outside the company to hire a man to head its Tehran operation toward the end of the Shah's rule. A huge villa was rented for him and his wife; the understanding was that they would do considerable official entertaining there. ''But the wife kept backing out of hostess duty, making excuses about not having the right kind of crystal centerpiece or something.'' The company ended up holding its receptions in the cramped apartments of contract administrators who lacked prestige but at least were experienced dealing with Iranians day to day.

''Both the man and his wife turned out to be alcoholics, and they had other problems, too. And besides, the husband simply didn't fit into the company's 'corporate culture.' He was hired for his technical expertise, but was more an authoritarian than a team player, as the others in the company were.''

The company finally had to replace the man in Tehran, at a cost of ''hundreds of thousands of dollars,'' says Kozloff, and was unable to find him a new position within the company.

''A good company will allow people to back out gracefully. These decisions (to accept an overseas assignment) must be family decisions. The stresses are real.'' On the other hand, he notes, ''working abroad affords great opportunities for personal growth, for more money, and for foreign travel.''

What if employees find such a screening process an invasion of privacy? ''It's true that there is that element of risk that you could turn people off by a line of questioning,'' the aerospace official notes. ''But nobody should want to get into Saudi Arabia (for example) if they're not fitted for the job.'' His company stresses to candidates for overseas posts that it's to their advantage as well as the company's to speak up if there are problems.

''I can understand why you have to probe,'' says Mr. Adair, adding that ''the basic response, the willingness or unwillingness to submit to a test,'' says something in itself about the employee.

One employee at another major defense contractor, which has engaged the services of Selection Research International, says her company finds SRI ''can make a very real difference in the cost of a project.'' One part of SRI's services is training the client company's own personnel staff. The employee notes that ''in learning how to interview, they learn how to pick up discordant notes without probing or being intrusive.''

Mr. Kozloff argues that the differences between educational or health-care services in the United States and those abroad justify a level of screening that might otherwise be deemed intrusive. ''In some of these places, the solution to a health-care crisis is to put someone onto a Lear jet and send him to (a US hospital in) Athens.''

His research has put lack of technical competence at the bottom of the list of things likely to contribute to failure in an overseas assignment, although it is one of the easier problems to screen for.

''What is more likely to contribute to failure overseas is lack of flexibility, adaptability, and patience,'' Kozloff says. Marital stress is another critical negative, and one hard to screen for.

''American companies screen employees beautifully for technical expertise, but only secondarily for management skills'' and sensitivity to other cultures, says Clifford Clarke of the Intercultural Relations Institute in Palo Alto, Calif.

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