Repatriation: managing career paths in uncertain times

Sue Shortland explores the myths and realities of repatriation support and its outcomes, and reviews the potential for career-path planning to enhance repatriation success.

International assignees are an expensive and valuable resource. It is widely assumed that repatriation concerns are a major cause of assignment failure, and that poorly managed repatriation is a driving force behind high levels of repatriate turnover. Sue Shortland explores the myths and realities of repatriation support and its outcomes, and reviews the potential for career-path planning to enhance repatriation success.The financial and moral arguments calling for organisations to manage repatriation effectively have been a feature of the expatriate literature for several decades. While practitioners and academics lament the shortcomings of organisational policy to address repatriation, acknowledging the practicalities that, in today’s fast-paced and ever-changing world, no employer can promise a job on return, the potential link between the provision of employer support and repatriate turnover reduction remains speculative at best.While returning home to ‘nothing’, or to ‘warehousing’, is clearly demoralising, demotivating and disengaging, even with employer-provided repatriation support and a suitable job role, it must be acknowledged that repatriates (and their families) are changed by an expatriate experience. Their lives move on, their competencies are honed, and their horizons are broadened through successfully mastering the challenges of international mobility.Taking this viewpoint forward, perhaps it might be argued (somewhat controversially) that repatriation support serves little purpose?Assignment failure and turnoverResearch in the latter part of the 20th century did suggest that worrying over repatriation was a cause of assignment failure (defined as ‘returning early’). It is, perhaps, a sign of the economic times (or one that reflects that jobs are not viewed as lifetime employment these days) that repatriation no longer appears to feature in lists of reasons given for failed assignments.For example, Brookfield’s Global Relocation Trends 2012 Survey Report notes that 6 per cent of assignments fail. The top reason for this – given by 19 per cent of survey participants – is the employee leaving for another firm. In second place is spouse/partner dissatisfaction (cited by 17 per cent), with family concerns reported by 11 per cent. It is notable that repatriation concerns do not feature as a reason for assignment failure today.Turning to repatriate turnover statistics, again, these are widely considered to be higher than those of the noninternationally mobile workforce. Recent data appears to negate this assumption as well. For instance, although the Cartus 2012 Trends in Global Relocation Survey notes, “Companies continue to indicate that they are losing trained assignees and their skills at a higher rate than their overall turnover numbers”, its statistical data indicates that exactly half of its survey participants make this claim; the remaining 50 per cent do not – indeed, 17 per cent report repatriate turnover as lower than overall turnover numbers, while the remainder report it as the same.The Brookfield report records average annual turnover for all employees in its respondent organisations at 13 per cent; for international assignees, the average figure is 12 per cent.Are employers managing repatriation effectively?These data potentially could suggest that employers are doing a really good job in terms of managing repatriation (if we assume that repatriation support is critical to assignment success and turnover reduction on return). Yet equally, they might indicate that repatriation support makes little or no difference to assignment completion and reintegration on return. To explore this conundrum, the Cartus and Brookfield survey data are illuminating.For instance, Cartus notes that more than half (55 per cent) of its survey respondents handled repatriation well; 48 per cent believed that their company managed the transition from an international assignment to a new position after repatriation ‘somewhat effectively’, while 7 per cent believed that it was managed ‘very effectively’.A total of 45 per cent admitted less-than-optimal support being given – 41 per cent said that this process was not very effectively managed, while 4 per cent reported it was handled ‘ineffectively’. With respect to how effectively repatriates were retained and their experience used, employer performance was better – 60 per cent reported this was handled ‘somewhat effectively’, and 14 per cent said ‘very effectively’; just 25 per cent reported not handling this very effectively, and only 1 per cent said ‘ineffectively’.In essence, these data suggest that employers believe that repatriation is managed reasonably well.Actions takenTurning to the actions organisations actually take to provide repatriation support, a less positive picture emerges. Cartus finds that, although over half of those surveyed (54 per cent) provide advance career planning (up from 48 per cent in 2010), just 37 per cent give post-assignment debriefing (no change on 2010), only 30 per cent provide post-assignment career tracking (but this is up from 21 per cent in 2010), 19 per cent provide cultural re-entry support (no change), while just 16 per cent support spouse/partner career reentry (down 1 per cent on 2010).In general, repatriation support begins just six months prior to return. Even though employers appear to have been increasing their repatriation support, repatriation and career management top the list of aspects of the globalmobility programme that employers are most interested in improving (58 per cent reported this).The Brookfield data also paints a mixed picture. While 71 per cent of the organisations surveyed had a formal repatriation policy and 94 per cent had repatriation discussions with their employees (down 1 per cent from 2011), almost half (48 per cent) held these discussions less than six months before the assignment’s end. Only 20 per cent discussed repatriation before the assignment began.If organisations wish to alleviate repatriation concerns during an assignment (and thus potentially reduce turnover or failure during this period), it would be expected that repatriation would be discussed up front. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Brookfield data in relation to assignee turnover records that, of those who leave, 22 per cent do so while on assignment. These data suggest that earlier intervention in respect of repatriation discussions might be beneficial in reducing turnover and/or failure on assignment.Brookfield also notes that 94 per cent of firms assist employees in locating a job upon repatriation. While this sounds positive, the survey reveals that this assistance tends to be informal. The most common assistance given (by 30 per cent) related to informal networking; 27 per cent asked the employee’s transferring department to identify a job for the assignee; only 19 per cent relied upon formal job postings to help the returning assignee locate a job on return; and 19 per cent used other means to assist employees.While Brookfield’s survey respondents reported a range of actions to reduce repatriate turnover, it is notable that relatively few employers undertook them: just 29 per cent reported providing assignees with opportunities to use their international experience on return; 17 per cent reported offering greater choice of positions on return; while only 13 per cent reported providing greater recognition during and after the assignment. Of those assignees who did leave, 24 per cent did so within one year of return, 26 per cent within one to two years of return, and 28 per cent more than two years after return.Career management and repatriation interventionsOnly 16 per cent of employers reported having a formal repatriation strategy linked to career management and retention with their companies (although this was up from 14 per cent last year). Interestingly, Brookfield reports no clear link between the provision of a career management process and the attrition of assignees. Yet its research finds evidence of a connection between turnover and formal repatriation strategies when linked with career management systems.It seems that the two policy areas need to be combined for maximum impact: of those firms in Brookfield’s survey which reported an increase in turnover, 91 per cent had no formal repatriation strategies linked to career management and retention.There is no straightforward answer as to why repatriation and career management interventions together appear to improve repatriation outcomes (while separately their impact appears more limited). However, potentially any career-path management system requires forward planning, continual communication, involvement and recognition, buy-in across the organisation, and, if linked to repatriation interventions, would ensure debriefing and cultural understanding, so that employees are well prepared to enter, on return, positions that make the best use of their international competencies. In addition, for any career management and repatriation support process to work effectively, it must be underpinned by support from top management.The data presents a complex and intriguing picture. Failed assignments and repatriate turnover, on the surface, do not appear to be linked closely to organisational repatriation interventions, a finding that contradicts expectations. Potentially, the state of the economy is reducing the scale and timing of repatriate turnover, thus masking the effects of repatriation strategy, policy and practice.Employers, in the main, seem to believe that they manage repatriation relatively well. Yet, in reality, their actions appear rather last-minute and informal. Relatively little attention is paid to formal systems of career-path management, and the recognition and use of repatriate competencies also appears limited. Career management by itself does not appear to reduce repatriate turnover, yet when it is combined with a strategic approach to repatriation, repatriate attrition is reduced.Survey data suggests that there is a discrepancy between the perceived effectiveness of repatriation and career support (from the employers’ perspective) and its delivery and content in practice. While not openly admitting to poor repatriation management, this area, quite sensibly, tops employers’ policy improvement ‘to do’ list.Repatriate attrition has always been a thorny issue, and it appears that it will remain so for a while to come. However, with an understanding of the potential to improve the repatriation experience by integrating career-path management systems with repatriation support, managed at a strategic level, the potential for returning international assignees to enhance their careers and contribute most effectively to their sending organisations looks more positive.
© 2013. This article first appeared in the Summer 2013 edition of Re:locate magazine, published by Profile Locations, Spray Hill, Hastings Road, Lamberhurst, Kent TN3 8JB. All rights reserved. This publication (or any part thereof) may not be reproduced in any form without the prior written permission of Profile Locations. Profile Locations accepts no liability for the accuracy of the contents or any opinions expressed herein.Back issues of Re:locate magazine can be viewed here.

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