How to make the most of your returning expat workers

11 January 2017

Sending and maintaining employees abroad is increasingly important for ambitious businesses in today’s global economy, whether to test a new market, support an important client or for countless other reasons. Unfortunately, expat assignments are extremely expensive, typically costing two to three times the expat’s home-country compensation. It goes without saying that businesses that decide to send employees abroad want to get the most out of their investments.

Naturally, the HR and financial managers of these companies tend to focus first almost exclusively on the complicated logistics of relocating employees, from fulfilling immigration requirements to procuring housing to fulfilling local benefits and tax obligations to developing tax-equalization policies. Once the employee is settled, leaders will then spend their time and resources supporting the expat employee to ensure that the goals of the assignment are achieved.

The value of repatriated expats

What is often overlooked amid these considerations is the value a returning expat brings to the organization when the assignment ends. Depending on the length and nature of the assignment, the repatriated expat often comes home with significantly enhanced skills and insights. The experience abroad can give the employee a fresh perspective on customer needs, market nuances and business processes. Furthermore, he or she will have learned a great deal about adapting to new cultures, which is often accompanied by an increased willingness to be flexible in meeting business needs. Finally, expats will return with an expanded network of diverse contacts, and may be better equipped to forge strong interoffice relationships that strengthen your internal culture.

Smart organizations recognize the importance of these new skills and experiences to build additional value and maximize the employer’s return on investment. This is particularly important, since numerous studies have found alarmingly high attrition rates among returning expats. The Economist, for example, cited a Spanish study that “estimates that anything between 10% and 60% of ‘repats’ quit the company within a couple of years of returning home,” which is “notably higher than for those not sent abroad.”

Repatriating expats effectively

How can companies avoid seeing their significant investments walk out the door? The key is for organizational leaders to realize that returning expats have very high workplace expectations when they come home. When those expectations are not met, they may become frustrated and start looking for other employment, often at a direct competitor.

Here are three common expectations from returning expats that we’ve seen in our experience working with them and their employers. Let’s explore each expectation, and the sometimes different realities expats face when they do reenter the home-country workplace. We’ll also recommend some strategies employers can use to promote retention of returning expats.

Returning expat expectation 1 of 3: “My return home will be easy.”

Many expats assume that the only significant challenges related to an assignment will involve assimilation into the foreign culture. They often don’t even consider that returning home might be difficult, and are often blindsided by the challenges of repatriation. Some of those challenges — such as finding a new place to live, finding new schools for any children or finding a new job for a spouse — can be anticipated, but may be no less stressful for that.

Other challenges are more difficult to predict, and to prepare for. Many returning expats experience unexpected feelings of homesickness for the once-foreign country they’ve just left, and may even feel profoundly alienated from their own home country. This is commonly referred to as “reverse culture shock,” and the emotional effects shouldn’t be underestimated by employers or employees.

Changes to leadership, roles, processes, business initiatives or policies that may have taken place within the home organization over the course of the assignment can add to the returning expat’s sense of displacement.

Related Organizational Strategies

  • Before the end of the assignment (preferably three to six months), provide guidance and training to the employee about the challenges of returning home. It’s also good practice to emphasize the challenges of repatriation in trainings prior to the assignment.
  • Where applicable, provide relocation assistance, spousal career counseling and guidance on re-admitting children into home-country schools.
  • Provide tax assistance to ensure compliance in home and host countries, as multiple-country taxation can be complex.
  • Continuously apprise expat of key home-country organizational changes related to roles, key projects, company structure, policies and processes.
Returning expat expectation 2 of 3: “I will be promoted when I return.”

Many expats expect they will return to a more significant role within the home organization. In many cases, they have assumed a year or more of significant international responsibility. They have also perhaps justified the assignment to family members by indicating they will be promoted upon return.

The reality is that many organizations simply place returning expats back into the same roles they had before they left. A substantial number of organizations fail to even provide the same job or equivalent upon return. One study found that one third of expats were still filling temporary assignments three months after return. Furthermore, 75 percent of returning expats felt that their position upon returning home was a demotion from their posting abroad. It is critical to understand that your own expats may harbor these expectations, and to manage them appropriately. Recent mobility trends research indicates the primary reason returning expats resign is because expectations for their role upon returning were not met.

Related Organizational Strategies

  • Understand the common expat expectation that an assignment will entail a promotion, and be careful to set realistic expectations with the expat early in the assignment process. These realistic expectations should be based on your organization’s current fiscal realities and projections. Be careful not to promise a role you can’t actually provide when the assignment ends.
  • Work with expats even before they leave on assignment and discuss what kind of career options may be available upon their return. Emphasize that you’ll do your best to provide the best possible position based on the results of the assignment, the state of the organization at the end of the assignment and other factors such as the home-country and global economies.
Returning expat expectation 3 of 3: “I will be able to use my new skills and experiences in my job when I return.”

It can be easy for an organization to underutilize the significant insight and international skills a returning expat has to offer. Even if the organization does recognize the value of these new skills and experiences, leaders may find it difficult to prioritize how to best incorporate them into the returning expat’s job.

This is a mistake given the large investment involved, and it’s not an uncommon one. The perception that no one recognizes or really cares about a returning expat’s new skills can be frustrating for the employee. According to one study, 61 percent of returning expats felt they were not given opportunities to put their foreign experience to work. And we all know that failure to engage valued and marketable employees in today’s economy leads to attrition.

Related Organizational Strategies

  • Identify special projects, focus groups, task forces and assignments that can take advantage of the expat’s global experience and contribute to the business.
  • Schedule “lunch and learn” sessions, senior management presentations and/or other presentations so returning expats can share their insights with coworkers.
  • Develop a mentoring program so that returned expats can provide information and support for current and prospective expat employees.
  • Incorporate returned expats into your organization’s expat-policy development process and expat-training process to ensure that policies, procedures and trainings are optimized based on real-life situations as well as on regulations.

Managing the above concerns is critical to retaining returning expats and getting the most out of your investment. Above all else, be prepared to effectively educate your expats and potential expats about the challenges of repatriation. Start communicating early and continue in a structured way, addressing each of the areas outlined above. All departmental leaders should understand the importance of repatriating expats, including those from finance, HR and legal.

Don’t lose sight of the fact that returning expats are a tremendous source of insight, experience and knowledge. In many cases they are prime candidates to move on to senior leadership positions and drive company performance. You want to make sure they thrive with your organization and not with the competition.