Sending an employee on an international assignment allows them to deploy new skills quickly and effectively. Before returning home assignees are expected to carry out key tasks, reach major milestones and achieve assignment objectives. But knowledge transfer is a two-way street – repatriated employees have not only imparted knowledge but also learned invaluable new skills. An assignee who has completed a successful assignment returns home enriched with knowledge and experience. Why then, do so many organizations fail to harness the new skill set of repatriated employees?

Attrition rates are much higher among recently returned assignees than any other segment of an organization. This is down to a number of factors including an inability to adapt, career concerns and bad choices in the original assignee selection process

Hurdles faced by repatriated employees

In theory, it should be relatively simple to transfer the knowledge repatriated employees have gained back into the organization. But in reality, this requires a number of factors that are not always in place.

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The Wall Street Journal published research showing that successful expats bring back much more than new knowledge.

They also return with a better understanding of cultural differences and a more varied way of making decisions. This equips them with good global leadership skills that can benefit their home office in a number of ways. 

So if the case for investing in returning expatriates is proven – why is it that almost 25% of returning expatriates leave their employer within two years of returning home?

Out of sight, out of mind

Many assignees are invariably forgotten about once they relocate abroad. HR and Global Mobility must do more to encourage assignees to stay in touch with home-country management through regular meetings.  

Modern-day technology and corporate social networks mean the assignee can easily meet the organization halfway and stay in touch with colleagues, peers and managers – thus ensuring they are aware of the latest developments back home.

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Fitting back in

Once the expat returns home, adjustments must be made, both by the repatriated employee and the organization. The returning assignee brings back a suitcase of valuable knowledge and experience that can benefit the organization.

But, inevitably, both the assignee and the organization have experienced changes during the expat’s absence.

Finding a way to fit back in is sometimes at least as difficult as it was to adapt to a new and foreign culture. Many international assignees experience reverse culture shock. The dangers to the expat and their families are plentiful.

Culture shock training must be put in place to equip expats for the changes in their personal and professional life. 

An enthusiastic expat keen to share their experience can come across as arrogant or overly critical of the status quo. They can quickly lose their audience and their effectiveness if colleagues are not prepared  to listen to them.

Global Mobility professionals must help to show that they value the expat’s experience and make it clear to other employees that the information and knowledge transfer is something to take seriously and to learn from.

Finding an interested audience

All too often, knowledge transfer from the returning assignee is driven by the employee’s altruism and selflessness. They have a genuine understanding of the value of their new knowledge and have proven that this knowledge is effective while abroad.

But if the repatriated employee tries to impose their knowledge on their colleagues at an inopportune time, it may be ignored, rejected or worse.

The knowledge must also be relevant to their colleagues, and not simply an edited version of what the expat wishes to portray.

In other words, it must be timely and relevant to the repatriated employee’s audience.

Organizational support

The repatriated employees need to do more than simply fit back into the home office. They also need to regain the trust of their colleagues and rebuild relationships. 

Organizations can help the returning assignee transfer knowledge by building a formal platform with the structure needed to make it valuable and relevant.

Employees are more likely to be receptive to information that is acknowledged as important to the home office.

They can also coach the assignee so they can determine when, what and how to provide the required information to their colleagues so that it is well received.

It is important that both parties recognize that the assignee’s newly gained knowledge will probably only be truly appreciated when it is endorsed by the organization.

Time

It is important for Global Mobility professionals to recognize that repatriation is an ongoing process. When an expat feels that their experience is appreciated, they also feel valued by their employer. 

Those expats who don’t feel valued are very likely to find another organization that does appreciate their experience and knowledge. Don’t be the organization that funds the knowledge transfer of a newly returned assignee to your competition. Organizations that ignore their repatriated employees do so at their peril. Ensure that a proper repatriation process and adequate training are in place and your business will reap the benefits.