Any organization with international assignees seems to suffer from collective amnesia. A rising star with noted talent is given a fantastic opportunity for professional development in an international office. There is a send-off party with drinks and light refreshments where everyone gently teases the lucky assignee about avoiding sun burn and party burnout. But by 09.00 the next morning, everyone has moved on, and the whole organization has forgotten about the assignee’s existence. Why are expats forgotten about and what should be done? 

Repatriation Myths

There is a lot of myth, rumor and fog around attrition rates of returning assignees, so it’s hard to be specific about what happens to repatriating workers when they come home – the accepted number of 25% leaving within 12 months seems high, and equally unsupported by hard data. However, anecdotally, talent managers frequently report that they could do more to retain talent who have had international experience.

The Cost of Corporate Amnesia

Organizations are right to be concerned. A three-year assignment can cost up to $1.5 million, and a significant proportion of this is invested in the assignee themselves. The assignee has acquired invaluable skills and knowledge, which are of huge benefit to the organization. Too many repatriating assignees end up taking that investment to the competition.

The assignee has acquired invaluable skills and knowledge, which are of huge benefit to the organization. Too many repatriating assignees end up taking that investment to the competition.

This true story is typical:

“Everything went wrong on my first day back after two years in Paris. No one had updated my security pass, so I could not get past the reception desk without an escort. I went up to the Finance Office on the fourth floor. When I got there, I discovered it had moved the previous year to the sixth floor. On the sixth floor, there was a desk for me, but no chair, phone, network connection or stationary.

“I made several calls on my cell phone to IT and building services and by lunchtime, I had somewhere to sit. No one in the office knew who I was, or seemed to be expecting me. When I eventually found my line manager to discuss the role, she said that she wasn’t sure what I would be doing. She had only reluctantly accepted me into the department as she didn’t really need an extra member of the team. As soon as I got home that evening, I looked up the number for a headhunter. I was in a new job within six weeks.”

Why Global Mobility Needs to Help Shape an Organization's Talent

So, what causes this collective amnesia around international assignees? There are three key reasons:

  • Role
  • Attitude
  • Preparation

Role

An organization with 25 assignees sent a senior Finance manager to head up their new venture in Singapore for three years. She expanded the role so that she was nearly running the business, and was very successful. At the end of the assignment, any other role would be a step-down. There just weren’t any suitable positions available for her. Her previous position had already been filled, so going back was not an option.

Quite often, there is an unspoken agreement to address the problem “later”, and not worry about it now. HR and leadership consciously put off deciding, and so nothing gets done. Unless the assignee is aware that there is no role for them from the start of the assignment, this situation creates stress, frustration. This confusion undoubtedly impacts on the assignee’s performance throughout the assignment.

The key here is transparency. Make it clear that the promotion is temporary and that the end of the assignment may well mean the end of employment.

If the situation is not as clear-cut, ensure that there is an ongoing dialogue with the assignee, and be honest if it looks like there is no suitable position. The conversations may not be easy, but transparency gives both sides options and time to prepare.

The key here is transparency. Make it clear that the promotion is temporary and that the end of the assignment may well mean the end of employment.

Attitude

An international assignment is a great opportunity for the assignee. But for those remaining in the home office, it can seem like a company-funded three-year holiday. And the photographs the assignee posts of Facebook reinforce that image. Colleagues, family, and friends do not always recognize the benefits to the organization of the assignment. They certainly do not realize the additional stress and pressure caused by a more intensive workload and culture shock.

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This means that the organization considers the assignee to be on holiday. There is an implicit understanding that they will just fit straight back in when they return. When the assignee does return, their international experiences are dismissed, and the assignment is viewed as a perk. The repatriated assignee cannot describe any achievements or successes without starting the sentence, “When I was in…,” and as a result, they are not taken seriously.

Encouraging more active links between assignees and co-workers in other offices is key

This culture change is hard to bring about. It needs a concerted effort to show that the organization values international experience and understands the sacrifices assignees make. Oil and Gas companies sending workers to Trinidad know that Port of Spain is not a holiday resort, but a tough location for their employees; this is a perspective that they need to share company-wide.

Encouraging more active links between assignees and co-workers in other offices is key. One of the most effective methods to retain assignees is to have a buddy program – both in the host country and in the home country.

Preparation

There are a lot of pithy sayings about preparation: proper preparation prevents poor performance; fail to prepare is preparing to fail. Organizational amnesia causes us to fail to prepare for repatriation.

Preparation for the return needs to start before the initial departure. There needs to be a fixed talent plan in place from the beginning, and it needs to be flexible enough to adapt to changing situations. The repatriation plan needs to include at least the following points:

  • “What next” scenarios
  • Home country keeping in touch strategy
  • Maximizing the development investment
  • Succession planning
  • Assignment measures of success

Preparation will not prevent assignees from leaving the organization. However, being prepared will at least ensure that the assignee feels valued and wanted after repatriation.

90% of organisations want their leaders to have international experience. Ensuring that you do everything you can to remember your assignees means that you are retaining your future leaders, rather than preparing leaders for your competitor.