Why is carefully managing 'repats' harder than you think?

David Sapsted looks at the challenges facing employers when dealing with staff returning from foreign deployments. He suggests ways that this transition can be best managed to successfully reintegrate the employee and their family back home, while also managing their expectations about their changing role.

Two men shaking hands illustrates an article about repats and talent management
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– the must read for HR, global managers and relocation professionals.Coming home is a "funny thing", F. Scott Fitzgerald once observed. "Nothing changes. Everything looks the same, feels the same, even smells the same. You realise what’s changed is you.”According to extensive academic research, such sentiments resonate not only with employees returning from deployments abroad, but also with students coming home after studying in foreign lands. It has been branded 'reverse culture shock' and its effects are not only felt by the individuals involved, but also by the institutions they work for or at which they are studying.The research shows that 'repats' can experience more intense culture shock on returning home than the trepidation they initially felt when being dispatched abroad. In one poll, 80 per cent of returning Japanese expats, 71 per cent of Finnish, 64 per cent of Dutch and 60 per cent of Americans said they found it harder readjusting to their home country than to their host country abroad.

Reverse culture shock

FIDI, a Brussels-based global alliance of international moving and relocation companies, describes repatriation as a troubling time, not just for the returning expat, but also for his or her 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.“The need to start the global assignment was almost certainly driven by a strategic imperative... [but] there is little strategic need for the returning expat. They come home because their task is complete, not because they are necessarily needed.“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?”FIDI goes on to say, "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."

Not always a passport to promotion

According to a survey by global talent company Brookfield Global Relocation Services (BGRS), just 23 per cent of companies talk to returning overseas assignees from day one about the roles that might be open to them in the future. And recent research from the Canadian Employee Relocation Council found that only 30 per cent of organisations currently provide repatriation support.In the absence of discussion with repats, misunderstandings abound, says Benjamin Bader, a professor at Leuphana University of Lunebürg. Bader is also a co-author with the University of Hamburg of a study on repatriation conducted with the RES Forum, an independent community for international HR and mobility professionals.While the employee sees an overseas assignment as a passport to promotion, the employer simply wants someone to get the job done and is not making any promises – or plans – for the employee's future prospects back at home.David Enser, head of international mobility at Adidas and co-founder of the RES Forum, says this is short-sighted on the employer's part. Many multinational employers, including his own, have lost “expensively-developed talent through lack of forward planning.” He believes that returning home can be as big an upheaval as moving away, but is rarely as well supported. Additionally, Enser says that allowing people to uproot on the false belief that a promotion will follow when they return home almost always ends badly.

Homecoming challenges

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the BGRS survey found that repatriated staff were 14 per cent more likely to leave their company within two years of returning, compared to other employees.Cultural Awareness International, a Dallas-based global mobility company, says that reverse culture shock is one of the major challenges an expatriate and his/her family face. It explains, “Culture shock is precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing all of our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse.” The firm says that common problems include academic issues (for students), cultural identity conflict, social withdrawal, depression, anxiety, interpersonal difficulties, alienation, disorientation, stress, value confusion, anger, hostility, compulsive fears, helplessness and disenchantment.Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Andy Molinsky, professor of organisational behaviour at the Brandeis International Business School, US and author of the book Global Dexterity, says that returning home is not only challenging from a personal point of view, but can be damaging professionally because individuals often bring back business values and attitudes that do not translate well in his or her indigenous environment.“Someone from, say China or India, moves to the US and struggles at first, but eventually learns to act in a more assertive, outwardly self-confident and perhaps even self-promotional style. But they then experience a massive shock upon returning home where these very behaviours aren’t valued – and, in some cases, are even penalised,” he says.“Or you can imagine the reverse: an American goes to China, learns to act in a face-saving way that is group- and status-conscious, and then returns home only to discover that colleagues mistakenly judge these behaviours and communication styles as unprofessional or incompetent.”Prof Molinsky believes that to overcome such problems, repats should, first and foremost, anticipate and prepare for the return home in a similar way that they prepared for their overseas assignment. “Second,” he says, “start thinking about how you want to incorporate the new cultural styles you’ve learned and come to appreciate, into your repertoire back home.”

Friends and family connections

When it comes to children, Nan Sussman, a professor of psychology at the College of Staten Island (part of the City University of New York) who has studied repatriation, says maintaining some sort of connection with the foreign country they have recently left, might be especially important. For many of these 'third-culture kids', she says, it is important to remember that the time spent abroad might account for significant and formative portions of their lives and identity.The situation can be equally complicated for 'trailing spouses', who often struggle to find a job upon return and might well confront a sense of displacement. And there can be financial worries, too: research by Hoxton Capital, UAE-based financial consultant, found that as many as two-thirds of expats working in the region returned home less wealthy than when they arrived.“Many expats find themselves in an awkward position after a number of years abroad where they have essentially outspent what they have earned. This could be down to inadvisable investments or leading a more extravagant lifestyle than they would at home. Individuals who find themselves in this position might be forced to repatriate and, in most cases, such an upheaval isn't desirable,” reports Hoxton.

Reflective experiences

And even students returning from studying abroad for just one term can experience reverse culture shock, according to a report in February by Lasell College in Massachusetts. Sarah Driscoll, the college's director of international services, says that between 20-25 per cent of each class at Lasell studies abroad and that students often experience emotions of euphoria, shock and adjustment when they return.Driscoll believes that it is important for these students to reflect on their experiences abroad through writing, talking about it and joining a group of like-minded people. “You might have experiences that your friends that didn’t study abroad can’t relate to and maybe don’t want to hear your stories as often,” she says. “I think when you have had such a transformative experience, being able to talk about it and reflect on it is so important.”Too often, such an approach is simply not adopted by companies when it comes to repatriating staff after foreign assignments, according to Craig Storti, director of Communicating Across Cultures and author of The Art of Coming Home. Invariably, Storti says managers do not appreciate the value of a repat's experience abroad, let alone take advantage of his or her new skills. Additionally, he says: “When you’re an expat, you generally have much more independence and responsibility than when you get back home and there’s a whole floor of people that you have to report to. The position they go back to can feel diminished and lead to a lot of frustration. At the same time, other companies might love to hire someone with that experience.”It seems F. Scott Fitzgerald was right: coming home can, indeed, be a “funny thing”. It is just that, for many, it is no laughing matter.Subscribe to Relocate Extra, our monthly newsletter, to get all the latest international assignments and global mobility news.Relocate’s new Global Mobility Toolkit provides free information, practical advice and support for HR, global mobility managers and global teams operating overseas.Global Mobility Toolkit download factsheets resource centreAccess hundreds of global services and suppliers in our Online DirectoryClick to get to the Relocate Global Online Directory