To acknowledge that an international assignment or global mobility program will change its participants is to identify the mission of such a program. Whether the sponsoring firm needs to augment staff, exchange skills with an offshore office or embed professionals for a specific project, the expatriates—or expats, as they are commonly known—are expected to advance professionally by participating in the program. By providing these career-development opportunities, the returning expats are assumed to have enhanced their business perspectives and skills as a result of exposure to new business cultures.
But successfully repatriating an expat professional is not guaranteed. Expats can become disillusioned if their responsibilities upon return to the home country do not live up to their expectations or reflect their experience. Without comprehensive, upfront repatriation planning, companies run the risk of losing returning employees, often to their competition. In addition, if the company does not appear to acknowledge the investments that both the expat and the company have made, it can have an impact on future participation in the program.
Elements of a successful repatriation program
A successful repatriation not only secures the continued employment of the expat, but results in an advocate who thrives and becomes a positive promoter of the program. This requires planning before the expat goes on assignment as well as a mutual understanding of what his or her return will look like and the commitments the company is willing to make upon the expat’s return.
While nearly three-quarters of companies with expat programs have formal repatriation policies, only one in five have repatriation discussions with their expats before their assignments begin, according to a survey by Brookfield Global Relocation Services. While it is difficult to prove a correlation between formal career management and expat attrition, the survey notes that two-thirds of companies with high expat attrition rates had no formal strategy linked to career management.
Showing participants at the beginning of their assignments that the company is committed to their professional development will help ensure that expat prospects are comfortable in accepting the assignment. Following are six primary areas that should be considered when planning repatriation:
- Educate and engage others
It sounds simple, but a personal thank you and meeting with senior leadership at the company can go a long way to making the expat feel valued and welcomed back home. Further, companies should encourage and help the expat provide colleagues and prospective expats with a realistic picture of what they achieved, how they developed professionally, what they had to give up or put on hold to participate, and the cultural experience of the assignment location. Involve family members where possible and appropriate to fill in the picture.
By ensuring at the start of the assignment that all of the assignment-related compensation is broken out, it will be easier to avoid compensation issues upon return to the home location and helpful in avoiding discontent from the expat. That said, a short-term repatriation allowance can help ease the transition as well. In addition, management should consider offering a retention bonus for staying with the company for an additional two years after the assignment. Continuing tax support is essential for trailing tax liabilities in the host and home countries. Through this benefit, management may also find opportunities to bring cash back to the company and reduce some of the tax costs of the assignment.
- Career development
According to the Brookfield survey, the best method for retaining expats after they return to their home locations is to offer opportunities to use their international experience. A good repatriation program will ensure the expat comes back to an available position that is considered an advancement from pre-assignment; offering a greater choice of positions is effective as well. In any event, career discussions should start in earnest six to 12 months before return to the home location.
- Ongoing support
Regular business trips back to the home country throughout the assignment can ensure the expat does not return to an unfamiliar and isolating environment. If the return is not to the original location of departure, continued logistical support can help ease this transition. For example, connecting expats with mentors who are based in the home (or eventual) location can help keep expats in the loop and in the minds of their home-country colleagues throughout their assignments. Transition counseling can help counter the negative culture shock that a return home can often have on expats and their families.
It can be difficult to overstate the impact of the expat’s family members’ opinions of the repatriation on the returning expat. After all, family members living with the expat (and, to some extent, those who stay behind in the home country) made a commitment to the sponsoring firm as well. Immediate family members may be asked to put their own careers on hold or raise families in a foreign location. Extended family members may not see their loved ones for months or years at a time. The impact that families have on the expat’s future can be significant, and the importance of seeing the return home as positive experience should not be underestimated.
- Continuous improvement
Candidly ask the expat for feedback on the assignment and how it can be improved, then engage the expat in helping to implement those changes. Involve the expat (and, where appropriate, the expat’s family) in shaping and supporting the next group of expats.
While on the assignment, expats are generally not shy about sharing their assignment packages with those from other companies. If an expat can brag that repatriation has already been covered and a future has already been secured, it will set the company apart.
Without enough repatriation planning, companies run the risk of losing returning employees. The return is a crucial part of the assignment and sets the stage for global success—for the expats and the companies that employ them.