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The Right Way to Bring Expats Home

July 27, 2002
Related Topics: Expatriate Management, Featured Article, HR & Business Administration

Employers often dole out as much as $1 million for each employee they send on an overseas assignment. So when an employee returns home and jumps ship, it’s a huge investment loss.

Almost a third of repatriates end up quitting within two years of returning from abroad, research shows. Why do they leave? Often there’s no career path in place for them, they’re not using skills they gained overseas, or they’ve grown accustomed to more autonomy abroad and don’t feel challenged.

But there are steps that employers can take to retain repatriates. Consultants say the key is having a full-circle repatriation program, one that supports employees and their families before they leave, during their stay, and—perhaps most important—after they return.

The high cost of not having a process
“Sometimes the repatriation process is an afterthought for many companies,” says Laura Herring, CEO of The Impact Group, a relocation consulting firm in Minneapolis. “The number one reason for having a repatriation program is to protect your $1 million investment.”An increasing number of companies today do have repatriation programs, but many still can’t retain people because the organization doesn’t guarantee jobs when the assignment ends, says John Wada, business development consultant at Runzheimer International, a relocation firm in Rochester, Wisconsin. Two-thirds of companies offer no job guarantee, according to the Global Relocation Trends 2001 Survey Report, a study on relocation data and trends sponsored by GMAC Global Relocation Services, National Foreign Trade Council, and SHRM Global Forum. And many repatriation programs don’t counsel employees when they come home—when repats are at the highest risk of quitting.

That re-entry counseling is not only the most critical aspect of keeping the employee, it’s also the cheapest, says Margery Marshall, president of Prudential Financial’s Relocation Services in Irvine, California. “And that’s what companies are ignoring the most.”

An effective repatriation program costs between $3,500 and $10,000 per family, Herring says. To retain a repatriate, smart companies plan a program that spells out career goals, prepares the family for cultural differences and adjustments, keeps the person connected to the home office, and allows the employee to use his international skills when he returns.

Return planning begins before they leave
A strong repatriation program begins well before an employee moves to a foreign post. Unfortunately, Wada says, HR professionals tend to get bogged down in the logistics of the assignment when they should be focusing on setting career expectations. They should define assignment goals and specify how they fit into the employee’s long-term career plan.

The Global Relocation Trends report, which surveyed 150 human resource professionals, shows that more than a third of companies are unsure of how international assignments affect expats’ careers. At the New York-based accounting firm Deloitte & Touche, managers discuss which job each of the company’s 200 expats will take after returning—before the person goes abroad, says John McNamara, national director of international assurance. That is when they sign a written commitment letter, which includes a “return ticket”—a job guarantee at the end of the assignment.

“If they come back and you don’t take advantage of what they’ve learned ... they can easily get disillusioned,” McNamara says.

Karen Schwindt, a Deloitte & Touche repatriate who returned from Melbourne, Australia, in April 2000, speaks from experience when she says, “If you have a vision of what you want to bring back, you can build those skills while you’re there.”

It’s not easy to place every repat in a job that uses international experience, so don’t define goals too narrowly, Wada says. If the expat is going to London, for example, the goal might be learning how best to interact with the British and how to negotiate with a diverse group of people.

Leveraging overseas experience
Employees will view working abroad as valuable if a company’s high-level executives have international experience, Wada adds. At FedEx, many former repats fill leadership positions, including FedEx Express president and CEO David Bronczek and international executive vice president Michael Ducker.

“As we become more and more global, it shows that experience overseas is leveraged back home,” says Tom Mullady, manager of international compensation planning and administration at FedEx. The global mail and transportation company understands the need for expats to be secure about their employment future.

While the employee is overseas, one of the factors critical to retention is keeping the person in the loop with her company and coworkers at home.

Before an assignment begins, employers should counsel employees and their families on what to expect culturally and logistically in their new host country. Research shows that the most common reason assignments fail is that the family is unhappy. Honeywell, a global technology and manufacturing company based in Morristown, New Jersey, offers employees and their families a two-day cultural orientation on the region where they will be living, says Sharon Byrnes, manager of international compensation. As early as one year before the employee leaves, the company conducts an assessment to identify certain skills the employee might need to be successful, such as learning a foreign language. The assessment assists the company in identifying successful expatriate candidates, and helps the potential expat decide whether to accept the assignment.

Staying connected
While the employee is overseas, one of the factors critical to retention is keeping the person in the loop with her company and coworkers at home. One effective way of accomplishing this is for the employer to assign the employee a mentor, ideally a former repat, says Tara Brabazon, director of intercultural services at GMAC Global Relocation Services in Warren, New Jersey. These sponsors keep expatriates abreast of job openings and organizational changes at home so they can more easily feel comfortable and fit in when they return.

At the medical technology company Medtronic, based in Minneapolis, mentors are usually at the vice-presidential level, says Martha Hippe, manager of global assignments. The mentor helps to set career goals and to place the repat in a job when she comes home. The two stay in close communication through phone calls, e-mail, and visits.

Employers also can keep in touch with expats by giving them access to the company’s intranet and monthly newsletters. Many companies require mentors to make at least one face-to-face visit with the expat each year. In an effort to ensure that relationships in the home office are nurtured, FedEx encourages its expats to “have one foot in each country” while they’re abroad, Mullady says. In order to stay connected and ease the transition, discussions about returning home should begin six to eight months before an assignment ends, Wada says. “Most companies wait until the last minute.”

For Schwindt, keeping on top of her next career move was especially important, because she had decided while she was away that upon her return home, she’d move from the audit department to mergers and acquisitions. Her mentor put her in touch with other employees in the new department.

“I never felt really forgotten,” she says.

“Repatriation is many, many times more difficult than relocation. To fix the situation, [repats] look to change something. It’s often the job.”

The homecoming challenge
Most employers don’t realize that coming home from an overseas assignment is often harder than leaving. Repats face a myriad of changes, often referred to as “reverse culture shock.” When they return, there’s a tendency to expect that life will be just the way it was when they left, but it rarely is. There are professional changes that may require adapting to a different corporate culture, and personal adjustments. A spouse who didn’t work abroad, for example, has to learn how to re-enter the workforce, and the children are now older and have different needs, Herring says. The family’s friends may have moved, and they may find that coworkers and others get tired of hearing stories about life abroad. At the office, they often are placed in temporary jobs and feel as though they’re being put on hold.

“Repatriation is many, many times more difficult than relocation,” Brabazon says. “To fix the situation, [repats] look to change something. It’s often the job.”

Many managers perceive the repat as difficult. They don’t understand how hard a homecoming can be, she says. Gaye Reynolds-Gooch, a consultant for Window on the World, a relocation consulting firm headquartered in Minneapolis, says it’s vital to offer employees and their families counseling. Counselors should help repats step back and consider how they might want to live their lives differently. Some, for example, might have changed their priorities and want more work-life balance, she says. It could take a repat nine months to a year to settle into a job and learn how to leverage his international experience.

At Honeywell, employees and their families go through a repatriation program within six months of returning home. Counselors discuss issues such as the challenges of adjusting, and also help employees understand how to apply what they’ve learned abroad. The one-day program includes a roundtable discussion with members of another former repat family.

Employers also must make sure that repats are able to use their international experience. Researchers at American University found that expatriates are eager to use the skills they developed overseas, but that only 39 percent actually ever do, according to a paper by David Martin, a professor of management and human resource management at American University’s Kogod School of Business.

At Deloitte & Touche, managers try to place repats in positions that allow them to conduct business with clients from the country where they lived. Sometimes they are placed in offices in big cities that are more involved in international business so that the employee can associate with other people who have worked abroad. Former repats also can participate in an orientation program for future expats.

Reynolds-Gooch also suggests sponsoring brown-bag lunches for discussions about life overseas, and encouraging repats to join international associations tied to the country where they lived, such as a local Australian, French, or Chinese-American community association.

“You don’t want to lose your best and brightest talent. And if a repat leaves the company, it could discourage other employees from wanting to go abroad and hurt the success of the program.”

Workforce, July 2002, pp. 40-44 -- Subscribe Now!

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