Many expatriates returning to their home country find that re-integrating is more challenging than it was when they relocated abroad.
Organisations and expatriates alike tend to overlook the challenges that are associated with the individual returning from an international assignment and repatriation still remains the ignored phase of the cycle of an international assignment as usually the emphasis is placed on pre-departure and during the assignment.
The problem is caused by the disconnect between global mobility functions and talent management strategies.
Ernst & Young’s 2013 Global Mobility Effectiveness Survey found that 16% seek alternative employment within the first two years after the end of the international assignment, up from 11% in 2012. It seems that organisations are unable to retain the expats resulting in a waste of time and money.
The challenges of repatriation
The average duration of a long term international assignment is two or more years. A lot can change in two years, both with the assignee and back in their home country. Living in a new country and being exposed to different cultures changes a person. The individual becomes more confident, with expanded skills, a repertoire of behaviours, and a broadened cultural horizon that also incorporates the culture and values of their host country. Expats seldom realise how much the foreign experience has changed them till they return back to their host country and discover that they no longer fit with the culture, colleagues or even their friends.
Expatriates use their experience of living abroad as a reference point in assessing everything in their home country including their working environment, and their personal relationships.
Upon their return, many repatriates feel disconnected from the day to day operations of the company in addition to their former life. Organisations that have their overall talent strategy focus on investing in their internal talent will feel a loss if their high potential employees leave after the completion of their international assignment.
Why does repatriation go wrong?
According to the Forum for Expatriate Management there are several reasons for repatriation failure:
After the long-term international assignment has been completed, repatriation can result in a reverse culture shock as the expat has to re-adjust to their home country. Sometimes, this issue is not considered since the home country is familiar to the employee. HR can tackle this matter by offering re-orientation to expats on how to prepare their return to home.
The employee will usually have different job responsibilities once their international assignment is over and they return to their home country. On return from the international assignment, an employee is sometimes given increased responsibility and authority in their new role, but not the same qualities and job satisfaction as the role they had while on the international assignment. This can lead to retention problems and the assignee might exit the organisation.
Expectations not met
International assignments are complex and as such expats may expect a higher level of attention and care as repatriation begins. If their expectations are not met, they will become demotivated and the repatriation will fail. HR can prevent any issues by planning the repatriation well ahead to ensure the return is handled with extra care.
Not complying with the laws of the host country
In certain countries, there may be local employment laws that need to be followed when an assignment is over. It can include notice periods, the cause of termination, or even severance and it can take a long time to complete. If the organisation does not comply and follow the employment laws, it could result in delaying the expat from leaving the country.
How to ensure a successful repatriation?
Allowing the repatriate to reconnect with their people, culture and places is integral for a successful repatriation. Employers should create a formal repatriation strategy, and link it to talent management and retention.
The most significant step in managing repatriation is proactive involvement.
Mercer recommends the following:
During the assignment
During the assignment, it is important that you check in with the expatriate on a regular basis. A regular dialogue can be in the form of phone calls, video calls, or face to face meetings if it’s feasible. It will remind the expat that they are still part of a global organisation, not just the location where they spend their assignment.
In addition to maintaining contact with the assignee themselves, it is also significant that there is constant communication with the assignee’s host country manager to monitor their progress and the assignment’s success. The assignee must also be provided with the opportunity to discuss and plan their next career step once the international assignment is over.
Proper assignment management is also crucial; particularly monitoring economic developments such as the cost of living and housing. And finally, in case of an emergency, there should be immediate communication with the expat and their dependents.
Before repatriation commences
Communicate to the assignee and their family about the repatriation plan and what the company expects from them. Furthermore, it is crucial that as an employer, you understand their expectations and ensures the assignee maintains a line of communication with a manager from their home country office. In addition, keep the assignee in the loop by constantly informing them about developments in their home country office.
Once the assignment is over and it’s time to return
At this stage, there must be transparent communication between HR and the assignee to discuss the assignee’s new role, and a reintroduction to the company’s culture and colleagues at their home country.
Helena Wennberg, a global mobility research associate at King’s College states that “ Repatriate retention will only result from repatriation support programmes and career management activities (at both the organisational and individual level) that are aligned with the strategic talent management strategies of the organisation.” Helena strongly recommends that global mobility programs be linked to the overall talent strategy.
Proactivity is key for an operative repatriation. HR must ensure that all repatriating assignees can experience a successful closure in their host country, effectively reintegrate in their home country and have a clear understanding of their future. Assignees should be able to apply the skills, knowledge and experience they’ve gained on their international assignment upon their return to their new role in order to get most out of the investment and reduce turnover.