Repatriation is trickier than you think. But strategic planning can help.
By Gail Rabasca
As the talent war escalates with no end in sight, attracting and retaining key employees has become a top business priority. Companies have devised all sorts of strategies to coax the best and brightest on board, and to keep them happy and engaged, including an extensive array of perks.
Still among the most sought-after incentives—perhaps now more than ever—is the opportunity of an international assignment. According to the recent PwC survey Talent Mobility 2020 and Beyond, 71 percent of younger workers in Generation Y want and expect an international assignment at some point in their careers.
Such assignments can have unforeseen consequences, though, particularly when it comes to repatriation and retention. Companies often put considerable effort into deploying employees, but comparatively little in bringing them home. Employees are expected to learn skills that can be leveraged when they return, yet there’s typically little or no planning to ensure this.
As a result, many repatriating employees do not fare well. Upon return to the host location, they’re often slotted into an open position that is available, or are stuck in a holding pattern until something opens up. This leads to tremendous frustration and, all too often, an exit from the organization. In one recent study on repatriate career satisfaction from the Journal of World Business, 28 percent of repatriateswithin 118 companies surveyed left their companies within a year of returning home.
This doesn’t fare well for the company either. Costs for a typical three-year assignment can exceed $1 million. And it becomes even more expensive when there’s no return on investment.
Such scenarios can be avoided by strategic planning. Before sending an employee on assignment, a company must assess its anticipated return on investment, and determine how it will assimilate this individual back into the organization. A company policy should address the professional, financial, and personal impact of repatriation on the employee and family, as applicable. Companies that incorporate these measures into their overall talent management and human capital risk management strategies have a far better chance of achieving their business objectives.
Professional repatriation begins when the need for the assignment is established. It includes several factors:
Candidate assessment and selection. This first decision and often the most critical, selecting the appropriate candidate with the right skills at the right time can dictate the success of the assignment. This means not only considering the employee’s skills as they relate to the assignment, but also their personal/family circumstances, flexibility, motivation, values, etc.
A company can host a suite of assessments to forecast a candidate’s ability to work effectively in a host country and culture. Employers should do their due diligence by collecting background information, performing cognitive and personality testing, as well as self-assessment readiness exercises and face-to-face interviews. All can provide valuable insight, and if the employee has a spouse or partner, he or she should also participate.
For maximum effectiveness, organizations should also consider utilising the various online and in-person assessment tools now available. These highly effective tools are designed to identify issues that should be addressed before departure (e.g., skill gaps), to ensure a more prepared assignee.
Pre-assignment planning. More often than not, the pre- planning stage is limited to administrative tasks, including benefits, tax responsibilities, assignment budgeting, financial preparedness, letters of assignment, and visa and immigration requirements. While these are all essential to the assignment’s success, there is often zero planning for repatriation at its conclusion.
To lay the groundwork for a successful repatriation, organizations should consider several factors during the pre-assignment planning phase. Be sure to outline the expectations for returning to the home location, including career growth and succession planning. Have a detailed plan of how the employee will communicate with the home location and when scheduled visits will occur. Pre-established metrics for monitoring and measuring performance during the assignment to successfully transition to the next position upon repatriation are essential.
Executive coaching. Coaching and mentoring during an assignment are also paramount to its success, the ease of the repatriation, and the organization’s overall return on investment. There are various coaching models suitable to specific corporate cultures, and each provides the assignee with a way to discuss issues and receive the guidance needed to achieve the required outcome. Within a talent management framework, coaching can also help the employee optimise the assignment from a personal and professional development perspective and recognize areas that need additional focus.
Repatriation cultural training. Reverse culture shock is defined as that suffered by expatriates upon their return home from a long-term assignment. Its effects are often profound, both personally and professionally, and can be long lasting if not addressed quickly and correctly.
While most companies offer cultural training to prepare for an assignment, few offer training for its conclusion. However, this is a critically important component of repatriation that provides much-needed support and protects a company’s investment. Just a day or two of reentry training is well worth the time and expense.
In addition to benefitting from the training itself, the employee and family will also feel that the company is encouraging them in their reintegration and adjustment efforts.
Company reorientation. As part of your organization’s talent management program, do you offer repatriation orientation? If not, you’re a step closer to losing the employee each day. Repatriated employees have firsthand knowledge of a company’s position within the host country market space and can provide invaluable information. Yet this knowledge is rarely leveraged by the organization as part of the repatriation debrief, leading the employee to question why he or she accepted the assignment in the first place.
While many multinationals have reduced the number of traditional long-term assignments—replacing them with lesscostly assignment types—it still has its place to be utilized for specific company needs and high-potential employees. The compensation packages associated with long-term assignments are substantially greater than the usual home country compensation. These often include premiums, allowances, and standard pay increases over the course of the assignment. This enables the expatriate and family to enjoy a lifestyle in the host country that is equal if not better than that in the home country.
Upon repatriation however, these premiums and allowances disappear, and the employee and family return to their former life of bills, debt, and less discretionary income. This change in financial status, which is often quite challenging, has a strong psychological impact and is a major component of reverse culture shock.
In addition, it’s often the case that the employee’s spouse or partner left his or her job when the family went on assignment. As there’s generally little or no financial accommodation made for this, they must start a career all over again upon repatriation to supplement the family income. However, this can take time.
As part of pre-assignment planning, consideration should therefore be given to:
- Long- term financial and tax counseling
- Lower allowances for certain aspects of assignment; this allows the assignee to absorb some of the living costs so there is less impact upon repatriation
- Spouse/partner career management assistance
An argument could be made that the personal aspects of repatriation aren’t the company’s concern. However, they should be. Returning home from an assignment isn’t always what many expect. It’s naturally assumed that there will be few challenges and that reentry will be simple and expeditious. But it’s usually the opposite and as a result, the family begins to feel isolated and unfamiliar in what were once familiar surroundings. Reverse culture shock quickly sets in and, because it’s so unexpected, the impact is actually greater than the culture shock of assimilating to the host country.
For a spouse/partner, there’s also the employment issue and most companies don’t provide spouse/partner career assistance in the home country. Children also face challenges through changing schools and friend groups.
The bottom line is that the whole family can suffer after returning home and can greatly benefit from personal repatriation support. It’s well worth the investment, particularly when a valuable employee is at stake. The family’s well being enables the employee to focus more quickly on the job.
Consideration should be given to applicable support services and ideas. In addition to repatriation cultural training and spouse/partner career management assistance, organizations should consider:
Children’s transition counseling. There are therapists who specialize in children’s repatriation to help children understand how the process will affect them. This can save a great deal of emotional upset during the post- repatriation period, particularly for tweens and teens. Counseling should be at the parents’ and counselor’s discretion, but should begin within 60 days of the repatriation date. It should also continue for at least 60 days post-repatriation.
Education counseling. Education counseling should also be part of the benefits package offered to the employee. This ensures the appropriate guidance for the children’s continued education in the home country. At a minimum, a block of four hours of expert education counseling can provide the parents with a blueprint for navigating through the rigors of education transition.
Social networking. As part of an organization’s talent management program, establishing an ongoing networking group among expats and repats—and their families—will instill a higher level of comfort for those in global transition. It will also prevent the erosion of one’s social business network, which is critically important during the reintegration process. It creates a sense of support from the organization and helps ensure continued, strong relationships upon repatriation.
By taking this multifaceted approach to repatriation, companies are far more likely to retain their valued employees. Although it requires an investment in specific talent initiatives, it’s a small investment for a large return.
Gail Rabasca is vice president of global services for Mobility Services International. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.