Returning expats: how to ensure a soft landing

Returning expats: how to ensure a soft landing

Repatriation can be a troubling time both for expats and employers. While the expat is likely to find it harder than expected to get back into the swing of things, the employer faces a more business-like problem: a high proportion of returning expats leave their jobs. Expats are typically highly valued employees – which is why they were chosen for the expat assignment in the first place – and expat retention is therefore a key part of every large organization’s talent strategy.

Why does this happen?

Why do “repats” suffer on their return to the point where they look to change jobs? A few factors combine to create this situation:

  • Repatriation is not strategic

Whilst the need to start the global assignment was almost certainly driven by a strategic imperative (to transfer skills, start up an overseas division, deal with a specific one-off project) there is little strategic need for the returning expat. They come home because their task is complete, not because they are necessarily needed.

  • Repatriation is not easy

It is understandable that people see the outgoing journey as more complex, and therefore more worthy of the HR or global mobility department’s time and attention. The return journey involves no house search, no schooling problems, no language barrier – surely just a glorious homecoming? The truth is that the ‘reverse culture shock’ can be every bit as difficult, since many expats expect life to be as it was, but the world has often moved on without them – leaving them feeling out of place. The disillusionment that follows is often the catalyst for changing jobs.

  • No demand for new skills

Expats gain and refine skills when they are overseas. But since there is rarely a strategic need for their skills (even though they are arguably more employable now) it can be hard to find an appropriate role on their return.

  • Raised expectations

Expats can live a privileged life during their time abroad. This happens at home and in the workplace where they are often seen as being unusually skilled and often something of an exotic celebrity. Even the most balanced people will have raised expectations after such an experience.

Expat repatriation

How do I promote expat retention?

When you look into the factors, it’s easy to see why returning expats struggle. But what can HR departments do about it? After all, they’re the ones who will shoulder the blame for poor retention statistics.

The solution to the problem can be broadly divided into steps taken during the assignment, and what can be done after repatriation. A little thought in both areas will help HR managers to help returning expats – and ease the expat retention problem.

  • Pre-repatriation. It is wise to remember that repatriation is not just a simple movement of people and possessions from the host country to the home country. It is the process of changing from living and working in one place to a similar situation in another. That change is gradual: it therefore starts long before they actually board the flight to return home. In fact, if you want to really prepare assignees for repatriation, you start the moment they fly out…
  • Post-repatriation. Even the best-prepared expats will face challenges as they struggle to re-assimilate themselves with their former workplace and social lives. But there is a lot that the employer can do to make sure that the homecoming is a happy one.
Returning home - expat repatriation

Stay in touch…

One of the most important ways to avoid the repatriation blues – and the talent drain associated with it – is to ensure communications channels remain open with the expat during their time abroad. It is up to the company to ensure expats stay aware of business activities and priorities back at the “home office”. A regular dialogue with expats will remind the expat that their assignment is a temporary state of affairs and they are still very much part of the global organization, and not just the location where they spend their assignment.

Plan the next role

Many employers are guilty of failing to prepare for repatriation. The returning expat will be armed with new skills and greater confidence yet research shows that only 23% of companies talk to people from day one about the roles that might be open to them when they return. This should be a key part of the ongoing dialogue.

Help them integrate

A softer side of the HR department’s job is to offer encouragement and help returning expats to get involved. The sooner they are back into a routine – both professionally and socially – the more likely they are to thrive once more. Look to include them whenever possible, and to ensure managers and co-workers are not only aware they are coming back, but that they may bring skills and qualities that are much in demand. 

It boils down to planning and patience – on both sides. HR departments have a responsibility to support expats – both on their return and throughout the time overseas. For their part, expats also need to prepare themselves for repatriation. Arguably, the HR department’s biggest challenge may be to make it clear just how important this can be.


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