Repatriation and how to extend the legacy of a global assignment

16 January 2018

The challenges of expat repatriation are well known: a worryingly large number leave the company that sent them abroad within a year of returning home.

A softer landing?

Many commentaries focus on countering reverse culture-shock by softening the landing.

They suggest, for example, that expats keep in touch with folks back home while they are abroad. A lot can happen in a short time and regular contact with friends and colleagues will help assignees stay in touch with what’s going on.

The same experts tell assignees to discuss with their managers the professional role they will take up post assignment. If this is not planned and agreed, assignees can feel confused and undervalued, especially after being a minor celebrity with sought-after skills in their host country. 

While this is sensible advice, we have to ask whether it is the whole story. When expats come home, they return to a country that is largely as they left it. But think about it – they are no longer the person who left.

Looking at the bright side

To reduce the impact of returning home is almost to ignore the enormous benefits of an assignee’s time abroad. They’ve changed, grown and developed far more than they would have just staying in their original office.

The effect of living and working abroad can have a huge effect on people – socially, professionally, psychologically. They will have absorbed a lot of cultural and intellectual information in a very short space of time.

Trying to squeeze them gently back into the life that they had a couple of years ago is pointless. They’re simply not going to fit.

Acknowledge the change

Increasingly, mobility professionals are approaching the repatriation problem with a different mindset. First they acknowledge the assignee’s development in order to use it to the fullest.

From a professional standpoint, an assignee will be more skilled, confident, respected, experienced. Talent management experts will want to nurture these qualities and put them to use. But equally, the assignees themselves need to understand that their world view has shifted.

Nurture the new you

A less obvious point, however, is the need for an assignee to stay in touch with the host country, since it is part of them and their life experience.

The life that expats forge in their new host country is arguably even more genuine than the one they had at home. No preconceptions, no community, no social circle – especially not one that has been gradually built up since childhood. They dive into a new life as both responsible adult and ingénu. The result is rapid growth, change, learning, development.

The BBC interviewed a number of expats on the topic. One US expat, following two assignments to Israel, explained how she needed to reach out to Israeli residents in her own city in order to maintain links with the culture she had grown so comfortable with.

Another described how important it was to her to continue to use the Spanish she had learned during her time abroad. These experiences show that the ‘repatriate’ has different skills and different needs to the outgoing expat of a few years earlier.

There is a professional dimension, too. Craig Storti, author of The Art of Coming Home, notes that there are professional benefits to maintaining personal contacts with the host country. It is likely that there will be a future need for collaboration between the two countries, and personal knowledge and contacts are always useful.

What does it mean to HR departments?

This approach should be hugely beneficial to companies struggling with talent retention. The advice to “soften the landing” is not unhelpful (indeed, we have offered it ourselves) but it should be given in the context of the expat’s own personal development.

Part of repatriation should be to encourage expats to retain that connection with the host country – just as it should be to encourage the returning expat to continue to be their new, improved selves.

Picture by Efe Kurnaz, Blaise Vonlanthen and Daniel Funes Fuentes

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