Going home: the hardest move

Repatriation is known to be a source of concern to expatriates and their families. Dr Sue Shortland explains how employers can help to reduce repatriation distress and improve organisational outcomes.

Back view of husband and his wife holding hands and walking with their little girl and suitcase at the airport.
Fears about work opportunities and career prospects on return home often feature as a source of stress for international assignees.Concerns over finding new employment and settling back into schools are issues that repatriated spouses and children can worry about. All can affect performance and wellbeing while on assignment.
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Responding positively to the challenges of repatriation

On return to their home country, assignees can find their work roles to be less satisfying than they had anticipated. Partners may experience difficulty re-entering the employment market, especially if they were not working while abroad, and children may experience difficulty in adjusting to state schools and making friends when they previously were benefiting from an international education. All these issues contribute to repatriation distress.Preparation for repatriation is as necessary a form of support for assignees and their families as preparation for expatriation. However, repatriation training is less frequently provided by organisations. Recognising repatriation issues and addressing them through employer action prior to the return home can help to reduce repatriate turnover and raise productivity.International assignments are often associated with career growth. So, it is not an unreasonable expectation for assignees to envisage career development through their international responsibilities. Returning assignees frequently measure the success of their assignment through their career growth and the extent to which their widened networks lead to interesting and challenging future work opportunities.The transfer of expertise to meet organisational objectives is also crucial to repatriation success.With respect to organisational outcomes, employers are looking for returnees to stay with their firm and perform well, transferring knowledge and cultural capabilities to the home location through successful relationship building. Employers typically also look for repatriates to maintain links with overseas operations and be capable of forging new relationships with other international subsidiaries due to their experience in building global networks.

How employers can help

Turning to the repatriation of assignees and how this can be best supported, it is important that appropriate employment is provided on return that makes best use of the skills and capabilities developed while on assignment. Repatriation success is associated with job satisfaction. Assignees typically expect to secure promotion on return and while this is not always feasible for employers, a work role that recognises their skills development in the international context goes some way towards supporting work readjustment.Returning home usually results in the removal of the additional reward that flowed from the assignment policy – especially if the employee was sent abroad on a home-based package. The loss of financial benefits can act as a major disincentive to returning assignees and while employers are clearly not expected to continue to provide expatriate benefits on return, a salary increase associated with a bigger job role can go some way towards meeting repatriates’ expectations. A post-assignment mobility payment (successful completion bonus) can also prove to be motivational.Organisations need to take steps to encourage returning assignees to share their knowledge and use this for organisational as well as individual career benefits. In order to increase job motivation, performance and readjustment, support may be required to foster knowledge transfer before career dissatisfaction sets in. It is therefore important to invest in timely action upon return so that skills, capabilities and networking benefits are not lost. Using repatriates to train new assignees and setting up repatriate/assignee networks within the organisation can help to address these issues.

Cultural and social readjustment

One of the key repatriation problems concerns cultural and social readjustment on return. Assignees and their families may well be looking forward to coming home, but often find that their expectations are unmet. Repatriation research indicates that employees and their families undertake a cultural shift while living abroad and may find cultural readjustment to their home country difficult. This is especially the case if they have not engaged with home leave opportunities while away and have drifted apart culturally from their home country culture. Cultural preparation can prove to be helpful ahead of the return.Research also looks at repatriate identity change and how global roles affect assignees’ ways of thinking and behaving. Individuals can become more globally-oriented or more closely culturally attuned to their host nation than their sending country and so find it difficult to readjust to their home-country culture. This can be a cause of stress and potentially lead to turnover intentions. Cultural preparation can prove valuable in such cases.One of the key issues that expatriates can face is the out-of-sight, out-of-mind syndrome. While working abroad, employees and their families may have had significantly reduced contact with employees and other home country colleagues and friends. In the past, social readjustment has proved to be a significant source of stress upon repatriation. This is because when assignees and families try to rebuild these collegial and friendship networks they can find that their previous contacts are not particularly interested in their experiences.

The role of social media

Today, though, with the widespread use of social media, it is not yet clear as to whether the out-of-sight, out-of-mind syndrome still exists. Individuals are able to keep in touch far more easily than they could in the past, by engaging in meetings online, such as by using Zoom. Research is needed to find out whether this can act as a good substitute for face-to-face contact and whether relationships with colleagues and friends are maintained efficiently using this method, thereby reducing this potential form of repatriation distress.While many repatriation concerns (such as work and cultural readjustment, work dissatisfaction and turnover), have remained problematic over the decades, the issue of the impact of social media and online contact on social readjustment has yet to be studied. Understanding this could help to establish whether these media have the potential to reduce some of the social difficulties faced by repatriating assignees and their families. Further research in this area could therefore potentially prove very useful not only by helping to understand how the role of social media and online communication can support repatriates’ social readjustment but also how organisations might use these media to improve repatriation outcomes.

Read more in the Winter 2022-23 issue

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