Many organizations believe that returning from an international assignment will be a breeze compared to setting out on one. Prior to departure assignees are offered intercultural training and assistance however what happens when it is time for repatriation, or in simple terms, when it’s time to go ‘back home’? Often so much emphasis is put on culturally acclimatizing the assignee for their stay abroad and next to none on repatriation training and support to help them reintegrate. It is just assumed that the assignee will settle back in immediately. After all, they are back ‘home’.

Repatriation training and support

Contrary to popular belief, ‘coming home’ is not always easy for assignees, especially after a long overseas assignment.

A lack of a proper repatriation process can result in many problems for the assignee and inevitably incur a huge cost to the company.

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  • Reverse culture shock

Many expats find it difficult to readjust to life after a long-term assignment, simply because they have become so accustomed to the culture of the host country. The assignee may actually feel alienated in their own culture as reference points are no longer the same.

Readjustment to the old way of life can be tough on not just the assignee, but the entire family.

  • No career progression or lack of a suitable role

Once they return home, many international assignees are unable to apply the new skills they have learnt or they may find that there is no suitable position to match their skill set, leading to frustration and stress. If they can’t find a way to use their new skills in your business, your competitor’s will.

According to research conducted by the Harvard Business Review, one-third of expats were still in temporary positions three months after returning, and more than three-quarters regarded their new position as a demotion from their overseas assignment.

Unsurprisingly, average attrition rates for returning assignees was found to be as high as 25%.

Therefore, unless the assignee is successfully repatriated and provided with adequate training and support on their return, they are likely to leave the organization, resulting in the attrition being a costly affair for the company. This is especially true when you bear in mind the cost of sending the assignee abroad.

According to an article in Personnel Today, an average expat assignment can cost the company on average $311,000 per year. Worse, they might stay and spread disillusionment, resentment, and disharmony. 

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  • Change of package and perks

Returning home means that the assignee is no longer on the same salary, benefits and package which were part of their international assignment deal. In many cases, the assignee must now get used to covering their own cost of living and children’s schooling.

  • Changes in relationships

The returning assignee not only has to get used to new organizational changes in terms of new management and work colleagues, they may find a huge change in their personal life.

Old friendships they left behind may have now shifted to different dynamics and things may no longer seem the same. 

Quite quickly, the “when I was in…” stories are not appreciated.

So what can companies do to make life easier for assignees when they home?

Firstly it is important for companies to put a formal repatriation policy in place. This has to be communicated to assignees before they start an assignment so that they understand what ‘returning’ will entail.

Repatriation training should involve these aspects 

  • Culture shock training 

Repatriation training is hugely important for assignees to get over expat culture shock. The training helps prepare them for changes in their professional and personal lives. These sessions help assignees to examine and understand the root cause of their frustrations and worries, which helps them reflect on how they can best be tackled.

  • Counseling and support

In addition to intercultural training, many organizations provide on-going counseling and support services to help assignees readjust to the ‘new’ environment. The training and support are usually extended to the entire family to help them reintegrate as quickly as possible.

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  • Repatriation support

Companies which are effective in repatriation are proactive and plan well in advance for the assignee’s return including reviewing possible job openings within the organization based on their new skillset.

These companies start to prepare the assignee at least 3-6 months in advance, which not only makes it easier for them and the family but also for the organization.

In order for the assignee not to experience a work-culture shock on their return, it is important to keep them abreast about organizational changes and policies whilst they are away so that they are prepared. 

Companies which are effective in the repatriation of their employees offer debriefings to their returning employees as well as their families, helping them to reintegrate.

The programs focus on difficulties of repatriation, how best to overcome these difficulties and provide effective ways to assimilate back ‘home’. The debrief is also a good opportunity for the organization to learn: the assignee has had a different perspective on the company and this needs to be recorded.

Companies provide tax return support and tax briefings to their assignees. In order to make repatriation easier, many also offer financial support or an allowance on repatriation either as a percentage of salary or fixed amount.

Relocation services hired by the company to help with temporary accommodation support. Many also provide help in house-hunting if required. These companies also assist in shipping/removals of the assignee’s belongings which if done speedily, can enable the family to settle in swiftly as possible and start feeling at ‘home.’

Assignee Selection: Why the Current Model Is Failing

According to the HBR report, organizations which are successful in managing international assignments from beginning to end, focus on the following:

  • They work on building knowledge and global leadership skills.
  • They ensure that assignees possess cross-cultural know-how which matches their technical skills.
  • They focus on repatriation and prepare them well to make the move back home as seamlessly as possible.

Repatriation training: Improving but still a long way to go 

Fortunately, things are not all doom and gloom for the returning assignee. According to a recent Business Insider report, 87% of companies now have some sort of repatriation process in place; a jump from 82% in 2015.

However, from these, only 9% of companies provide Repatriation Integration Briefings and the provision of other assignment support.

Going forward, Global Mobility managers must ensure that adequate repatriation support is provided for assignees so they can get back up to speed as quickly as possible and settle back into the organization.

If this is not provided the employee may leave the organization or spread resentment through the business making the international assignment a very costly affair.