Repatriation Up, Down or Out
They attended a repatriation training program in which they learned what they should expect upon re-entry. They were warned about the culture shock of returning home, about how colleagues and friends might be different, about how the office environment might have altered, about how much the expatriate experience had changed them and their three children.
Monsanto's program included an opportunity for the Cissells to showcase their new knowledge in a debriefing session. Cissell invited five people to a meeting and shared with them what it was like to have lived abroad—personally and professionally—and what it was like to return home. Nevertheless, he and his family admit there were times when they still felt as if they were in a timewarp. They returned to familiar surroundings in the United States, but they were quite changed.
Luckily, the Cissells were surrounded by people who took an interest and maintained it as the expats transitioned back into American life. Cissell was promoted to the position of director of finance for the Latin America World area. The vast majority of re-entering expatriates don't experience similar HR planning and repatriation programs to help them.
"Repatriation has been the classic step-child in international HR management," says Nancy Adler, professor of organizational behavior and cross-cultural management at McGill University, a noted researcher and author of articles and books, including most recently: Competitive Frontiers: Women Managers in a Global Economy (Blackwell Publishers, 1994) and Strategic Human Resource Management: A Global Perspective, (published in Human Resource Management in International Comparison, deGruyter, 1990).
If any aspect of globalization points out the complexities of international assignments as well as the systemic weakness and lack of planning within the international HR function, it's repatriation. Repatriation is usually overlooked instead of being seen as the final link in an integrated, circular process that connects good selection, cross-cultural preparation, global career management and completion of the international business objective. Indeed, instead of employees coming home to share their global knowledge with others and encourage additional high performers to go the same route, expatriates face an entirely different scenario.
Often when they return home after a stint abroad (during which time they have typically been autonomous, well-compensated and celebrated as a big fish in a little pond), they face an organization that doesn't know what they've done for the past several years, doesn't know how to use their new knowledge and, worse yet, doesn't care. In the worst cases, re-entering employees have to scrounge for jobs, or companies will create stand-by positions which don't use the expat's skills and capabilities and fail to maximize the business investment the company has made. The situation often is exacerbated by downsized and restructured organizations.
Furthermore, the expat has changed dramatically and wants to share his or her experiences. Usually few people are interested. Add to this unrealistic expectations by the expats, their having lost touch with the domestic office's technological and personnel changes, and the enormous family upheaval, and you begin to have an idea of the tremendous challenges awaiting individuals as they re-enter the United States after assignments abroad.
Statistics bring the situation into bold relief: According to the 1994 Global Relocation Trends Survey Report published in January 1995 by the National Foreign Trade Council and global relocation management specialists Windham International, while 75% of the companies surveyed address repatriation (up from 45%), "repatriation services" can range from simply shipping household goods (97%) to homefinding assistance (55%) to career development (33%). The 110 surveyed companies, which employ collectively more than 24,000 expats, said that given the massive 30% increase in the numbers of expatriates going on international assignment, lack of job guarantee is one of the most critical challenges they face.
In research J. Stewart Black and Mark E. Mendenhall cite in their book, Global Assignments: Successfully Expatriating and Repatriating International Managers (by Black, Hal B. Gregersen and Mendenhall, published by Jossey-Bass, 1992), 60% to 70% of repatriating employees didn't know what their positions would be before they returned home. Sixty percent said their organizations were vague about repatriation, about their new roles within the company and about their career progression. Moreover, they felt the firms disregarded their difficulties in adjusting back to life in the United States. When American expats found jobs within their companies, 46% had reduced autonomy and authority. And contrary to the reason that many Americans take international assignments—the idea of advancement—only 11% were promoted. Black and Mendenhall found that 77% of Americans actually took jobs at lower levels than their international assignments.
It's no wonder that 10% of expatriates leave their company within a year after returning home and 14% leave between two and three years, according to the Global Relocation Trends Survey Report. These figures aren't only unfortunate, they reveal poor HR planning and a dramatic loss of talent for the business that sent these individuals.
"I don't think people really understand yet that assignments are a process," says Carol Jones, Monsanto's human resources specialist in international assignments. "They pick it up in the middle. They don't think about why they're sending out the person, what will make that person successful, what they're expecting. They don't realize that successful assignments begin with repatriation planning at the time of expatriation.
In other words, rather than looking at the process in fragmented pieces, assignments have a higher chance at success when the practitioners link the elements together from start to finish. According to Adler, you should be able to see how any one part of the process links with others. The elements of the process include: assessment selection, company orientation, cross-cultural training, dual career support, relocation/move assistance, in-country orientation and support, development, re-entry planning and assistance, repatriation and reintegration.
Understanding international assignments as a process, and realizing that planning helps its success, is critical for human resources professionals. "Clearly the caliber of human resources planning that's done by a company really shows up in the international assignment area," says Eric Campbell, director of global human resources for Avon Products, Inc. "In a company that does excellent HR planning, these types of situations [poor repatriation] don't arise as much. Even though individuals may not be high potentials, if they're considered strong enough for international assignments, the groups that sent them in the first place will be held accountable for their repatriation."
On the other hand, he says, if you're a company that doesn't have an effective HR planning system, these people going on international assignment are essentially taking a leap of faith.
As organizations move into the international arena, human resources staffs will become more adept at recognizing their company's global expansion objectives and plan international assignments more thoroughly. Only then will HR be able to develop company structures and policies that truly support each aspect of an international assignment. Some firms—large and small—are already doing that.
HR planning is key.
Monsanto's repatriation program is a model of HR planning. It was created with the idea that all the pieces of the expatriate process work together. The $7.9 billion agricultural, chemical and pharmaceutical company has 30,000 employees with approximately 50 expatriates and 35 international employees working in the United States. International human resources managers get involved in predeparture assessment, cross-cultural counseling, performance management (see October 1994 issue for details) and other administrative aspects of the international assignment.
One of the strongest features of Monsanto's program is that employees and their sending and receiving managers develop an agreement about their understanding of the assignment and how it fits into the company's business objectives. The focus is on why they're sending the assignee to do the job. This not only assures they have the same understanding, but also ensures that they've done serious thinking about the global assignment.
John Amato and Carol Jones, responsible for international assignments, developed the company's repatriation program in the fall of 1992. "We did it because the attrition rate was high," says Jones. "People felt they went out and were expecting career advancement and utilization of their knowledge. When that didn't happen, they would feel dissatisfied."
Now, says Amato, manager of human resources for international assignments, the repatriation piece creates significant movement toward globalization.
"This isn't touchy-feely stuff," he says. "We spent a lot of money to send this person out. By saying, 'Let's tap into them, let's give them a chance to tell others what they've learned,' the organization learns, and they feel valued. They know we appreciate their value, and the company sees a return on investment."
Expatriates who have international experience know the company values their expertise. They meet with cross-cultural trainers during debriefings and showcase their experience with their American peers, subordinates and superiors. "Because folks here know there's a resource they can tap into, it creates opportunities for that person to infuse knowledge back into the domestic organization," says Amato. "That gets you back to the employee's expectations and results in retention. It results in a circle." For example, he says expectation management is to create a clear understanding on the part of the employee about the kind of job they're coming home to. Says Amato: "When you say to an employee, 'we value you and we expect the assignment to develop you. This is a career path move,' that means one thing." On the other hand, if supervisors are clear that the move is a project or technology transfer, expectations of the re-entry job is more likely to be in line with the company's future plans for these employees.
Monsanto's repatriation program focuses on more than just business—it attends to the family's re-entry. Sometimes the difficulty with repatriating has more to do with personal adjustment than with work-related matters. But, the personal matters affect the business.
Which is why Monsanto offers repatriating employees a way to work through personal difficulties. Approximately three months after their return, expats like David Cissell meet for about three hours at work with several colleagues of their choice. The debriefing segment is a conversation aided by a facilitator who has an outline to help the expatriate cover all the important aspects of the repatriation. Says Cissell, "It sounds silly, but it's such a hectic time in the family's life you don't have time to sit down and take stock of what's happening. You're going through the move, transitioning into a new job, a new house, the children may be going to a new school. This is a kind of oasis," he says, "a time to talk and to put your feelings on the table. The counselor (who is a consultant) leads you through and helps you understand what you're experiencing."
The debriefing segment serves several purposes: to allow the employee to share important experiences, to enlighten managers, colleagues and friends about his or her expertise and to share information so that others within the organization can use some of the global knowledge.
Cissell was moving into his current position. He invited his new boss (Monsanto's vice president of Latin America) as well as other colleagues and a friend. "It was pretty powerful," he says. Cissell talked about the business environment and how he saw European culture impacting that. "My boss had not lived internationally, and although he had an appreciation for cultural changes and things that go on as you move people around the world, he said that he had not really thought through some of it." That conversation really helped open up his eyes.
"We're trying to get the expatriates to be the shining stars out there to radiate their light," says Amato. The debriefing helps others who travel overseas and teaches them how to get more knowledge while they're out there. "In that way, repatriation builds on itself."
Returning assignees need to know the next step.
One of the most important questions that anyone can ask an expat is, "What is the next assignment going to be?"—the one after the international assignment, says Avon's Campbell. "The problem is that often the assigning manager doesn't pay attention to what the person is going to be doing next."
The issue becomes particularly important during these days of reengineering and downsizing because often the job this person left has been cut as part of cost-reduction maneuvers. Even though organizations have more difficulty planning far ahead, if companies carefully monitored their expats, they could better prepare for their return.
"Everybody blames this process [poor repatriation] on ineffective career pathing and career planning, which companies have a hard time doing because we're in such a changing environment," says Michael Schell, president of New York-based Windham International. "We can't even tell people who are in the U.S. that if they finish a particular assignment, they'll have a specific job, let alone people who are going on assignment and who will be out of sight."
It's too difficult to do. Therefore, what becomes very important is to watch the performance of the person while on assignment. Then, when there are openings they're qualified for, the employee can be moved into those positions. "That monitoring of career progress doesn't usually take place effectively when people are on expatriate assignment," says Schell. "Therefore, we don't know how well they succeed; how much they fall, or what they can do for us when they come home."
In this complex system, there's a strong relationship between a successful assignment, adequate performance management and good repatriation. Effective HR planning that includes accurate performance evaluation (by someone who understands the assignment and its specific limitations) is one of the underlying requirements for a successful assignment and reintegration into the organization. In addition, employees feel they're being considered and aren't being forgotten while out of the country.
And, companies don't have to be large to have successful expatriate programs. Coherent, Inc., a $200 million Santa Clara, California-based company that makes scientific and medical lasers, has an innovative approach to repatriation. The company has 1,500 employees overall and about 400 in the medical division, with sales and service offices in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Japan and Hong Kong. With only six expatriates and one third-country national (TCN) in the medical division, the department had been handling expatriates on a case-by-case basis until 1994, when they began formalizing their policies.
The company's inventive programs brings people back to the United States on a short-term project before they're repatriated. Employees who are ready to come back to the United States return for a couple of months to do projects that they're very qualified to do. Then, they go back to their host country to wrap things up and then come back full time.
"It allows them to get to know the area, to spend some real time back here instead of just a five-day house-hunting trip, and allows them to get reacquainted with people in the office, the lifestyle and the work style," she says. They're even doing it with a third-country national.
Coherent, Inc. factors in one other critical component—maintaining close contact with the expats. "It's not like they're gone and forgotten," says Chan. They come back on a regular basis a couple of times a year as well as for the annual sales meeting. In addition, during quarterly sales meetings, directors talk about these employees. Their work is visible and talked about.
There are two crucial parts underlying their repatriation policy, says Chan. First, "These people are super-duper employees. Their expertise is needed here, so they're an excellent resource for a project when they're asked to come back and work here." Secondly, when they spend time here, their faces become more familiar to the rest of the employees and it makes the transition into their new role easier when they return."
Chan believes that expatriate assignments are attractive to employees not only because the assignments themselves are good, but because expats know they will be repatriated well. Because excellent employees are sent on international assignment, typically there are jobs awaiting their return.
Coherent, like Monsanto, has strategies in place to make the repatriation process go more smoothly. Furthermore, they only send their best people.
Whether the company is large or small, this is a fundamental contribution to good repatriation. Says Richard P. Randazzo, Asea Brown Boveri, Inc. (ABB's) senior vice president of human resources of the America's region, "The first step to successful repatriation is don't send anybody anyplace that you're not willing to take back. Ninety-nine percent of the repatriation problem—if you have a problem—is caused by sending somebody someplace that you're looking to get rid of."
If they're good, says Randazzo, the sending organization generally starts to make noise about getting them back even before their global assignment is completed. Wherever that next assignment comes, the knowledge they've acquired on their expatriate job is valued. ABB, the $30 billion transnational giant with more than 220,000 employees around the world, designates the sponsoring manager with the responsibility of finding a new position for the international assignee (although it usually falls to the local HR manager). The process starts about six months prior to the conclusion of the expatriate project. First, as the succession-planning process occurs each year, they devote time to talking about expats—who is out, who is coming back and when. In some cases, the individual will send resumes to a select group of HR managers that may have an opportunity for a person with those skills. Or, Randazzo may know of opportunities.
"The rule is that good performers always will find opportunity within the company," says Randazzo. "If somebody is very good, invariably they'll come back in good shape."
Personal difficulties also affect business adjustments.
Even if employees do well in business, some of their trouble readjusting may come from family difficulties. Part of their difficulty in readjusting may be because they've been disconnected from domestic headquarters and left out-of-touch. Consequently, they don't know what to expect upon return.
Intel, the $8 billion-plus computer chip maker located in Santa Clara, California, with almost 30,000 employees, makes a strong effort to keep expats involved in the organization throughout the international assignment. Employees in the company's sites around the world keep in touch frequently via phone, E-mail and video conferencing. They do this as part of their ongoing work assignment, whether they're in California or in Europe. In an effort to keep employees and their families informed—and aware of Intel's business agenda, the company created several books detailing various aspects of the expatriation experience, including information about considering an assignment (for the family as well as employees) and a tool kit for managers regarding selection and preparation. One important component deals with repatriation.
The book details the cycle of re-entry shock and why re-entry may be difficult. It raises questions that people may not think of on their own, such as the letdown that occurs upon return and the life-style/benefits that will change when they go home. It prepares them for feeling alienated and distanced from their friends and colleagues, and addresses the family issues such as children who might have a difficult time fitting in when they go back to school.
"The repatriation piece is probably the most often overlooked part of the assignment," says Sharon Richards, intercultural training program manager, who created the expatriate books and is instrumental in the company's training programs. However thorough the repatriation booklets, Intel's re-entry process begins well before repatriation. "We believe in training because you need to set realistic expectations for the employee and the family. You're going to have a better shot at success." Intel had a large number of people on a project in Ireland. Before their return, the company conducted a road show. They gathered people and had a day-long training session about taxes, relocation, shipping goods. Half the day was spent talking about what it would be like to return home.
One key area that Richards believes is often overlooked is the culture shock expats experience during re-entry. To facilitate the adaptation process, it's critical for expats to know that repatriation is likely to be difficult. "They think, `My friends are there. It shouldn't be any problem at all.' In fact, they're likely to have the initial sense of euphoria they did when they went on assignment, and to enjoy all that they missed when they were gone, but then they will also make comparisons in reverse. They've grown and changed, and they go through an adjustment period similar to the one they experienced when they first went on assignment."
Another important component is putting the assignment into perspective. People are so full with what they want to tell others, that it's overwhelming. They don't anticipate that friends and co-workers may not be interested in their adventures, and may in fact be envious when they try to recap them. "We help expats identify two or three key important things they want to communicate with others," says Richards. "Then, we suggest that they be sensitive to other people. Before launching into a story, ask what has changed in their life and what occurred while the expatriate was gone."
In order to take advantage of the international experience—and to continue to acknowledge the expat's knowledge—Richards has repatriated employees participate in predeparture training and culture-specific training whenever possible. Not only do the expats enjoy it, but their words of wisdom help the prospective international assignee.
Job security brings expatriates full circle.
Beyond the crucial personal aspects of repatriation, Richards acknowledges that having a job upon return is probably one of the most important factors to a successful return. At Intel, she says, they're careful to move people only when they have a specific reason—such as training, a project or a special assignment. Although there are no job guarantees, they make efforts to use the experience of international assignees as much as possible. In addition, because HR planning works in tandem with the business objectives, expats are monitored and performance is managed and appraised.
Indeed, not all organizations today, however, are able to be as sure as they once were about having a job awaiting an employee's return. "There are so many double-edged swords," says Noel A. Kreicker, president and founder of International Orientation Resources. International HR is aware and committed to resolving and supporting the repatriation issues as well as creating supportive programs and clarifying policies. However, in many cases, HR's hands are tied because corporations are still so busy sorting themselves out. Usually, it's the people who are repatriating who have been forgotten. Not only does HR face the task of helping to prepare and maintain the individual on international assignment, it plays an important role in bringing the employee back to the United States and helping the company to capitalize on its investment. "It's one of the most difficult realities now," he says. But no matter how challenging, there are organizations, large and small, that are meeting it. In companies like Monsanto, Intel, Coherent and ABB, people who are selected well, monitored carefully and shown that the company recognizes and values them, feel rewarded, recognized and will continue to make contributions when they return.
Personnel Journal, January 1995, Vol. 74, No. 1, pp. 28-37.