Supporting repatriated employees

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Support for employees returning from international assignments is often thin on the ground, leading to retention problems and high costs for employers

“International assignments are like sandwiches,” says Joanne Danehl, intercultural and language training expert at Crown World Mobility. “Everyone is worried about the filling – the actual assignment – but people forget you need solid bread to hold that filling together.”

Solid support for returning assignees in particular is astonishingly poor. David Enser, head of cross-border employment and reward innovation at Adidas and co-founder of the RES Forum, goes as far as to say it’s an “appalling waste” in the vast majority of cases because “time and time again there’s a lack of forethought”.

“You make a conscious investment to send them on international assignment, grow your talent, pay over the odds for that talent versus local talent, then there’s no planning about what employees will do when they come home,” he says.

The attrition numbers speak for themselves. EY’s research puts post-assignment attrition at 40% within two years of returning and PwC’s figure is even higher at 44%. And yet, according to research from Benjamin Bader, professor of strategic management and organisation at Leuphana University of Lüneberg, only half of all multinational corporations have implemented processes to capture repatriates’ experiences.

“There’s a huge amount of value left on the table in terms of poorly-executed general mobility programmes,” concurs David Collings, professor of HR management and associate dean for research at Dublin City University Business School. “Clearly something is not working here and, from a strategic point of view, this is something that should very much be on the HR radar.”

But what can HR do to provide more support and curb attrition rates?

1) Plan the employee’s return

According to Bader the main reason repatriates become disenfranchised is because “they don’t know what position they’re going to be working in when they come back”.

His advice is always communication and “solid expectation management”. In a study he’s running on the psychological contract associated with repatriation, Bader is finding that many on assignment feel the employer has breached this.

But often it comes down to “mismatched expectations” with, for example, the individual believing they’re on the fast track to the executive suite and then feeling undervalued when they realise they’re coming back at the same level or into a sideways move.

Danehl advises planning for repatriation before the assignment even starts. “This way you can also manage their expectations and make them responsible for learning the skills they will need for their future role,” she says.

Similarly, The Expat Academy encourages members to download its assignment authorisation form that covers why an individual is going on assignment, what success looks like, and the plan for the end of the placement. This helps both the company and individual assume accountability.

For Adidas it’s about ensuring there’s a strong business case before talent goes off on assignment; otherwise it isn’t given the go-ahead. Importantly both home and host HR are involved in this process.

“Major organisations continue to operate in silos,” says Enser. “It’s ‘out of sight, out of mind’. What we’re seeking to do at Adidas is make sure that doesn’t happen by ensuring there’s a clear psychological contract upfront.”

Adidas also insists on regular check-ins, and that prior to the assignment’s end succession planning begins.

Danone is also focusing on managing career planning for international assignees. “We’ve put in place talent teams in each country, region and at corporate level, who work closely with the HR and learning teams on specific groups of employees, both functional and by level,” says Dorothy Ewing, Danone international mobility director. “The objective is to better anticipate the next step and the longer term.”

However, Enser warns that “you can’t just put in place processes that insist HR in the home country and host country talk”. He explains: “You need to breed a global culture of shared values first.”

2) Listen to their experiences

A common complaint from returning assignees is that colleagues in the home country don’t care about their international experience.

Crown runs repatriation integration training that teaches employees and their families how to articulate their new global skills so, says Danehl, they can have “meaningful conversations”. However, she estimates less than 5% of clients buy this training.

James Holder, director of The Expat Academy, proposes employees do a ‘lunch and learn’ presentation to their function or floor about their time abroad. “This helps others understand them and gives them an opportunity to talk about their experience,” he says, adding that buddying up is also effective regardless of how long the assignee has been employed at the company.

3) Minimise discrepancies between life on assignment and life at home

One of the trickiest challenges to overcome is that returning assignees miss the money, high-profile status, autonomy, home help and lifestyle that they had overseas, to the extent that returning to their ‘old life’ feels unsatisfactory. Holder was recently talking to a member about this who put the success of his repatriation programme down to the fact “we don’t pay them ridiculous amounts of money when they’re away”. “Packages should be reasonable; enough to live off. If you inflate packages then when they come back they’ll feel the lack,” Holder adds.

4) Integrate global mobility and HR functions

Typically the global mobility (GM) function looks after the smooth running of the assignment, focusing primarily on practical concerns like visas and taxes. Then GM hands over to the home country’s HR on return. But this often means HR has been out of the loop for the assignment’s duration.

“GM is still seen as a cost,” says Collings. “This is understandable given assignments often cost at least two to three times the home country salary. However, more progressive organisations are looking at how they can integrate the GM and talent functions better.”

Danone, for example, has created systems to automate reporting, and connections are increasingly being established between talent and mobility teams.

5) Don’t underestimate reverse culture shock

There’s an assumption that, particularly if the individual has worked at a company for a long time, they will simply ‘slot back in’. However, reverse culture shock can be as severe as, and go through the same stages as, culture shock abroad.

As Holder says, cultural training when going on assignment is widely accepted but is far less common for repatriates, despite the benefits. “Usually the attitude is ‘you’ll be fine, just crack on’ and the individual may not acknowledge training would help. Sometimes these policies need to be mandatory because they’re useful, and if they’re not people won’t do them,” he explains.

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