When expats come home

Sumathi V Selvaretnam 23 Jun 2011

When Sam moved back to his local office after a three-year stint at his company’s South American operations, he was in for a shock. He felt no connection with the once familiar environment. There were many new faces, numerous policies and regulations had changed and he missed his old social network.

While most companies go out of their way to ensure that their employees are properly acclimatised to a foreign setting, repatriation or the process of returning to a person’s place of origin is often overlooked. Most people assume that heading back to a familiar environment and lifestyle is a lot easier.

However, this is often not the case. Employees coming home from a long-term overseas assignment can feel lost and disoriented. Many of them expect their home to be the way it was when they left, only to discover that things have changed, says Craig Storti, the author of The Art of Coming Home, a book on successful repatriation. He refers to this process of reentry as “reverse culture shock.” According to Storti, the process of expats returning home can be a lot more difficult than moving to a foreign country.

Adjustment issues, limited opportunities for advancement as well a general lack of support may cause returning employees to exit the organisation. According to a 2010 Global Mobility and Effectiveness survey by Ernst & Young, some 12% of employees resign from their company in the 24 months after repatriation. Despite this, two-thirds of companies have no formal repatriation strategy linked to career development and retention, according to another survey by global relocation company Cartus.


Job fulfillment

No employee coming home from an overseas assignment would want to feel that they are returning to their ‘old job’. Storti advises organisations to plan for an employee’s return at least one year out and keep in mind a suitable position that they could fill upon their return.

Employees want to know that they are returning to a job with new prospects and opportunities for growth. Expatriates at VISANOW, a global immigration services company, are required to demonstrate their leadership skills in implementing business development plans at their home country upon repatriation. They are also often promoted within their department. “From a business investment standpoint, if the expatriates feel like they are returning to their old job, the company was not successful in investing the resources to develop or enhance their global competitive edge,” says Yen Le-Bavis, Global Mobility Manager, VISANOW.

Organisations can also encourage returning employees to attend counseling sessions where they can discuss the work that they have done overseas and how they can apply the skills that they have picked up to their new role. Some organisations also assign a mentor to repatriates. The mentor keeps them in the loop about changes in the organisation as well as possible roles and responsibilities that they could undertake upon their return.

It also helps to keep employees connected with their home country even while they are away, says Le-Bavis. This can be done via periodical newsletters and updates or documentation that has been specially prepared for expatriates to keep up in a larger corporate setting.


Practical considerations

Repatriates need to address a few practical considerations before they are able to perform at their best. A well thought-out repatriation strategy is usually able to address these concerns.

The main concern of repatriates is finding suitable housing. This challenge increases with the duration of time the employee has lived overseas with their family, says Andrew Soon, Regional Director, Corporate Services, South East Asia and India, Crown Relocations Singapore. For example, housing norms in the home country might have changed during the period of the overseas assignment, Soon explains. A part of the services offered by his company include keeping clients up-to-date on changes in the housing market. Expatriates are also assigned a representative who helps them with their search for accommodation.

Finding suitable schools for their children is another pressing concern for expatriates, who might have been exposed to a different education system overseas. Relocation service providers can also help employees with their school search. For example, Crown is able to identify schooling requirements, coordinate school tours, explain testing and interview requirements and assist with application and enrolment.

Employees would also want to make sure that their spouses are able to find their feet as well. Cartus works with a global alliance partner to provide career counseling and labour market research for the relocating spouse, partner or family. Some of these services include career and skills assessment, résumé preparation, job market research and pointing out potential leads.


Tips for successful repatriation

+       Have a career discussion before sending employees on an overseas assignment so that they know what to expect upon their return

+       Pair employees heading for overseas assignments with local mentors so that they can keep abreast of the latest developments back home

+       Think about how repatriate’s newly acquired skills and knowledge can be fully utilised in the home country office

+       Come up with a repatriation contract detailing the employee’s new roles and responsibilities at the home country office so that everyone is on the same page

+       Be sure to look into the needs of the employee’s family members and factor these into the repatriation strategy. If family members have trouble adjusting, it could take a toll on the employee’s concentration and performance

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