REPATRIATION-HOW COMPANIES CAN PROTECT THEIR ROI
By Galen Tinder
For want of simple, cost effective programs, many international companies that
regularly send employees on global assignments are squandering millions of dollars a
year. For the largest companies that figure could be in the hundreds of millions.
The villain is workforce attrition caused by the mismanagement, or non-management,
of repatriates returning to their home country after several years on a global
This represents an odd misappropriation of attention. We have been hearing for two
decades about the corporate imperative to support its expatriates and their families.
We have heard far less about what befalls these expatriates when they return home to
pick up where they left off. Not only do we hear less about repatriation but find, upon
investigation, that the companies are doing less to help those caught in its grip.
Every person who studies the phenomenon of repatriation believes this inattention to
be a costly oversight. They are supported by the numbers. According to the 2005
Global Relocation Trends Survey, issued by GMAC Global Relocation Services and
the National Foreign Trade Council, 23% of repatriating employees leave their
company in the first year. After three years the total is at least 40%, though some
people place it closer to 50%.
These figures represent not only widespread disruption in the lives of employees and
their families but a staggering loss of corporate investment. A company that sends a
manager abroad for a three-year assignment spends in excess of 1 million dollars, not
including, as Russell Salton points out “the added cost of potentially losing a valuable
resource and all of the knowledge base and years of investment in training, learning
and development.” (gmacglobalrelocation.com) In an era when companies pay close
attention to controlling costs and retaining talent this post-repatriation hemorrhaging of
mobile personnel is a surprising instance of corporate self-neglect.
To stem these losses requires, says Jan Nelson writing for Employee Benefit News
(BenefitNews.com, November, 2005), “A formal repatriation program . . . to prepare
employees and their families to reintegrate into their professional and personal lives,
as well as to ensure the investment that was made to send the employee overseas
does not walk away to the competition upon the expatriate’s return . . . “ An article on
the Cartus Website echoes this call to corporate action, pointing out that during a
global war for talent companies need to ensure that their policies “are focused on not
only recruiting but also retention strategies to maximize experience of those, for
instance, who are coming back from global assignments.”
According to the 2006 Worldwide ERC Global Benchmarking Survey, Vol. 1, 59% of
the 51 responding companies have a formal repatriation program. Interestingly, more
companies from Asia sponsored programs (87%) than did those of from the US (45%).
This 45% compares with 31% in 1989. According to Cartus’ Emerging Trends in Policy
& Practices, 80% of the companies that have programs acknowledge that they leave
room for improvement.
While the challenges of expatriation have gotten the lion’s share of attention over the
last couple decades, the need for corporate repatriation practices has not been
entirely neglected, at least by scholars who have wanted to understand both the high
one-to-three-year attrition rate and the lack of corporate response in the form of well-
designed and executed programs. As early as 1982 M.C. Harvey wrote worriedly
about the paucity of attention paid to repatriation compared to expatriation (Harvey,
M.C., (1982). “The Other Side of Foreign Assignments: Dealing with the Repatriation
Dilemma”. Columbia Journal of World Business. Vol. 17, No.1.).
After 1982 repatriation issues received occasional theoretical interest. The early 1990s
saw an outbreak of concern aroused by the continuing high rate of repatriate “failures.”
In 1992 J.S. Black and his Dartmouth colleague H.B. Gregersen transcended the
realm of theory to conduct the first studies involving actual repatriates. As they sought
information that would explain the hefty post-return dropout rate they discovered what
would prove to be the critical piece of information. When it came to both general
acclimation to home turf and job adjustment, there was mismatch between expectation
and reality. It was out of this mismatch that repatriate discontent grew. In 2003
Johanna Elenius, Lars Garyik and Fredrik Nilsson noted that, in reality, the majority of
expatriates find repatriation to be tumultuous, both personally and
professionally.” (Masters Thesis, Goteborg University, 2003).
If companies want to stem the loss of human resources they needed to close the
chasm between expectation and reality experienced by most returning employees. In
the 14 years since the Black-Gregersen study, others have conducted more
sophisticated and comprehensive studies of both corporations and individual
repatriates. Their findings have elaborated on the 1992 study and these elaborations
have prompted considerable speculation about the problem and its solution. But
nobody has successfully challenged the basic Black-Gregersen explanatory model.
Now, 14 years later, nobody tries.
This passage of 14 years makes it all the more astonishing that the attrition problem
has persevered with scant improvement and that companies have not mounted
successful efforts to stem the flow of deserting personnel. The loss of revenue has
been duly assessed and its chief cause identified. The necessary counter-measures
are neither complicated nor costly. What, then, stands in the way of progress on this
front? Could it be so simple as the ascendancy of intuition (even when mistaken) over
fact? Is it simply, as Elenius, Garvik and Nilsson noted in 2003 (Masters Thesis,
Goteborg University) that “Human resource personnel often find it inconceivable that
returning expatriates need to readjust to anything when coming home?” To evaluate
this curious possibility requires a closer look.
Why Repats are Jumping Ship
“To their great surprise many returnees and their families soon discover that they are
returning neither to the home they remember nor to the homecoming they had
anticipated,” writes frequent repatriate Jan Nelson (Employee Benefit News,
November 2005). This is what she and others mean:
First, reverse culture shock- many people living in a host country for several years
experience what one repatriate called a “transformational” process. When immersed in
a culture different from their own they go undergo a broadening of mind and outlook.
It’s often more than the enrichment of living in a different culture. Some have
epiphanies—they finally “get it” that what they have always taken for granted as THE-
WORLD- AS-IT-IS constitutes only an infinitesimal slice of the human experience. For
Americans, as an example, one part of this epiphany is really taking in for the first time
that world history did not begin with the American Revolution. But how does one
communicate this newfound awareness of the enormity of the human enterprise to the
folks back home? Largely, one doesn’t; it is literally a “you had to be there”
phenomenon that for some repatriates creates an unbridgeable chasm between
themselves and people with whom they formerly shared a similar worldview.
Second, misleading memories- on another level, most expatriates do miss home. So
much so, in fact, that with the passage of time tricks of memory enhance its plain,
prosaic realities. Homesick expatriates develop “myths about the general environment
and culture of their home country” that no reality can match. (Bringing Them Home
Again by Aaron Andreason and Kevin Kinneer, Industrial Management, Dec.2004).
When they do return home the pleasant myths and heightened memories quickly
succumb to plain facts. The reality they encounter can’t equal the myths their mind has
woven.. When their idealities are vanquished by reality, expatriates can feel morose
Third, change happens- this disconnects between myth and reality takes place not
only in the mind of the repatriate but also in the fact that even the reality they left has
changed. It is not just a matter of the new supermarket where the old grammar school
was razed, the dualization of Route 1, the modernistic renovations to First Community
Church and the annoying traffic light interrupting the flow of main street traffic. It’s also
the people. Some of the old friends and acquaintances have departed and been
replaced by outsiders. Others have found new, time-consuming pursuits and aren’t
available much. With others it is just hard to reconnect. All in all, repats returning
home yearn for familiar comforts and the routine of continuity. Within several days they
say to themselves and each other, “This is not what I thought it would be like.” The
incongruity between expectation and reality has hit hard.
Fourth, unwelcome lifestyle changes- On a practical level, unpleasant adjustments in
lifestyle may prove necessary. While on foreign assignment the employee and family
are often able to live in a semi-luxury that can’t be sustained in the home country. After
returning to the US following seven years abroad, one woman, self-sufficient in many
ways, sheepishly admitted that one of the most jarring adjustment of her resettlement
in the US was the absence of domestic help. Ironically, along with the absence of
maids repatriates may miss rubbing shoulders with that slice of the intellectual and
cultural elite found in many expatriate communities but seemingly in short supply back
Fifth, people again- many repatriates could gladly dispense with the elites if only the
non-elites with whom they have reunited were more interested in their slide shows of
foreign fauna and stories of what at the time seemed like grand adventures. But they
are immersed in their own worlds and activities. They will stand tight for the punchy 30
second story, but lengthier accounts missing any pungent point elicit frozen smiles and
antsy feet. Repats are often astounded at the incuriousness of most people. They feel
discounted, and perhaps hurt and angry.
Finally, loneliness-To top it all off, what saved them, as novice expats when they last
felt as lousy as they do now is not available. When expats ask what they miss most
about their global experience many cite the closely-knit expatriate community. They
realize now that it was artificial in some ways, but it was also warm, vivid, embracing
and fun. Even if wild beasts had prowled the outer walls of the expatriate compound
and mandated convivial togetherness, they still felt cared for and safe. This community,
forged by the commonality of a tiny minority in a strange land, has no equivalent at
So what? For most repats the kicker is that they had no idea it would be like this. They
feel almost betrayed, perhaps by the company, certainly by their own naïve
expectations. That they have themselves, in part, to blame, does not stem the onrush
of jumbled emotions like sadness, embarrassment, anger and loneliness. To
paraphrase a variant of Tom Wolfe’s famous dictum: You can go home again, but it’s
no longer home.
At least the employee has a place he can go where he can feel affirmed in his global
accomplishment, flushed with subdued pride and the expectation of reward. But again,
reality disappoints. On his first day back at work he gets a jovial greeting from the
former coworkers who are still there and is then ushered into a manager’s office to be
told, in so many words, that the company is not sure what job they have available for
him at this moment. Further conversation dispels the employee’s hopes for the
immediate gratification of promotion and generous financial remuneration.
It may take a couple days of murmured exchanges around the corporate campus until
the repat is plumped down in a position that not only neglects the skills he left with but
makes no use of those he gained while away. And it is all rather vague, hard to get
hold of. Nobody really explains it to him straightforwardly and in this absence of
information and convincing reassurances unhappy thoughts take shape. This is the
sort of situation that led one recent repatriate to comment, “I can’t come up with
anything positive…I would say zero positive aspects from repatriating.
Professionally…no, absolutely zero positives professionally. Zero.” (Cited by Susan
MacDonald and Nancy Arthur, Employees Perceptions of Repatriation, Journal of
Career Development, 2003)
The 2006 ERC Global Benchmarking Survey found that two-thirds of the Human
Resources respondents believed international assignments essential to career
mobility in their companies. But immediately upon their return many repatriates are
alarmed to find that nobody knows what to do with them. They are stuck in lower level,
temporary jobs that nobody knows the precise duration of. The old position is gone,
either filled or absorbed by other functions and a job of equal challenge and authority
did not materialize in honor of his return. Before he can blink twice the repatriate
experiences “a reduced work status, downward career move and loss of
autonomy.” (Maaike Platenburg, Expatica, 2006) This is what often happens in the
majority of companies that the Cartus survey found bereft of ‘no-improvement-
necessary’ repatriation programs.
Within a week’s time the employee’s commitment to the company plummets. This
disillusionment, seasoned with pinches of reverse culture shock, persuades the
employee to evaluate his other options. From this point it is only a matter of time before
he becomes another attrition statistic.
Although not our primary focus, we should note that the partner is also struggling with
a combination of personal and vocational issues. According to the 11th Global
Relocation Trends Survey spouses and partners of expatriating employees
accompany them 81% of the time. Of these, 60% worked pre-departure but only 21%
worked after the relocation. The survey does not tell us what kind of work the 21%
performed, but anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that about half were employed in
their pre-departure profession. Thus, only 10% of working partners maintain a
continuity of employment from pre-departure through expatriate relocation. The
remaining 90% experience a career interruption likely to complicate their search for
employment once repatriated. So the partner’s predicament features her employment
struggles, trying to cope with her mate’s unexpected resentment, the logistics of getting
the family resettled and a general sense of displacement. Companies that want to
stem the flood of repatriate losses can’t afford to ignore the partner.
What Companies Can Do
Addressing painful issues of repatriation is not the responsibility of the company alone.
But if looking for a rationale for action, companies can review Michael Harvey’s 1989
study, in which he says, “The work-role transition that repatriation represents is of great
importance for the company because of the vast amount of financial resources
invested in the person during the foreign assignment. It is a huge investment, and due
to this, a “return on investment” in which the employee puts into practice his or her
newly acquired knowledge or experience is expected.” (Journal of International
Business Studies). In short, to preserve their ROI companies need to take decisive
steps to prevent widespread repatriate disaffection.
Fortunately, the causes of repatriate disaffection are straightforward and so are the
remedies. Companies need to close the gap between expectation and reality. In some
cases information and education can bring expectations into conformance with reality.
In others companies need to bring reality into closer proximity with expectation. With
intentionality and planning, both can be accomplished.
According to H.L. Sullivan, writing in 2002, a successful repatriation is “one in which,
upon return, the repatriate: gains access to a job which recognizes any newly acquired
international competences, experiences minimal cross-culture readjustment
difficulties; and reports low turnover intentions.” Companies can help produce such
happy outcomes with a modicum of planning.
When Worldwide ERC Global Benchmarking asked Human Resources professionals
which features of international assignments posed the greatest risk to their companies
they responded, in this order:
• family difficulties posed by assignments,
• selecting candidates that are either unsuitable or unwilling to accept assignments,
• not taking advantage of the skills and knowledge acquired by assignees,
• losing employees after repatriation,
• remaining competitive while trying to control costs and provide consistent policy
• security of assignees, and
• non-compliance to various laws and regulations by assignees (sometimes caused by
By instituting repatriation practices companies address three of the first four items of
Some observers suggest that repatriation planning should begin when the expatriate
has about six months remaining on his assignment. But Andreason and Kinneer have
it right in saying; “The time to begin planning for reentry is even before sending
employees on foreign assignment.” This sentiment is echoed by Lisa Johnson,
Director of consulting services for Cartus: “Set post-assignment expectations before
the assignment begins.”
Comprehensive and effective repatriation programming addresses itself to the three-
fold structure of the repatriation event.
Stage One: Pre-Expatriation
1. Pre-departure briefings and meetings are necessarily focused on the
upcoming expatriate experience but should include preliminary information on
expatriacy, especially on preparing the expats-to-be to develop realistic expectations
of their post assignment life back home. Expatriates to be must understand that these
sessions should be mandatory for employees and family members who are also
making the trip.
2. An in-depth review of the employee’s goals and responsibilities while globally
deployed should include establishing written processes by which employee
performance and progress are monitored. While care should be taken not to impede,
evaluative functions of the host office. But host offices don’t always have a person
suited to manage expatriates and on issues of job expectation and performance it is
important for the future repatriate to maintain ties with home country management. This
helps ensure the integration of the employee’s pre-expat, expat and repat career
objectives. On the whole, the more communication between the expatriate and the
home office, the easier reentry is likely to be. The more accountability between
expatriate and home office the more likely it is that the repatriate will secure a position
that leverages his global learnings gained in the host country. The nature and timing
of written and verbal reports should be stipulated along with the frequency and criteria
for formal evaluation. These tasks can be executed by line supervisors and/or
3. Mentoring, according to nearly everyone who has studied the vocational plight
of repats agrees that mentoring is critical. In her article on the subject (Expatica.com,
2005) Pauline Cowell suggests that mentoring relationships be kept informal in
deference to everyone’s time constraints. However, the mentoring function is too
critical to leave to the vagaries of informality. Mentor and mentee should meet before
the expatriate’s departure to build their relationship and agree on the nature and
frequency of their contacts over the coming several years. Ideally, the mentor should
be somebody positioned to speak knowledgably about company changes and to
serve as the employee’s advocate when necessary. Mentor and mentee can
communicate informally through email but should conduct scheduled phone calls
once a month. The sessions are opportunities for the expatriate to speak honestly
about any troublesome professional or personal issues and for him to hear about
home office changes and developments, especially when they may affect him.
4. The repat’s exact position upon return to the home country cannot yet be
determined. But it is not premature for the company and employee to have preliminary
conversation about the kind of position that will benefit both parties. It is unrealistic to
expect the company to guarantee a particular job three years hence. There is too
much likelihood of change, within both the company and employee. But they can
promise him a job and work with him to make it suitable to his background and recent
learnings. Again, one of the purposes of introducing this topic at such an early stage is
to help the employee to develop an accurate picture of how the global assignment fits
in with his larger career, an endeavor sometimes called career “pathing.” Some
employee advocates argue that a contract stipulating the guaranteed availability of a
specific position be signed. his position should be signed by both parties. But so much
can change over the next two or three years that this rigid an arrangement favors
neither party. At this stage the discussions will be general but honest and lay the
groundwork for further talk down the road.
Stage Two-While on Global Assignment
1. Assuming that a solid foundation was laid pre-departure, the time on
assignment will involve largely carrying out the established plans.
2. Since the more contact the better, it is a good idea for the employee to visit
home base twice a year and to host return visits from home office personnel as often
as possible. The key to healthy repatriation is frequent and open communication, with
a vigilant eye kept on the relationship between expectation and reality.
3. Discussion of concrete job prospects About six months prior to repatriation
the employee and the home office should discuss concrete job opportunities. At three
months the employee should know the position he will assume. At the two-month mark
the employee and family should attend several hours of reentry orientation training
during which they learn about and discuss the issues raised in this exploration. It will
be helpful if some of these sessions can be attended by several repats in training and
led by a person who has experienced repatriation.
4. At three to six months partners who plan to work once back on home turf
should begin working with a career and relocation consultant. Among other things, the
consultant can help the partner prepare for a changed job market. Although space has
not permitted a full examination of the partner’s needs along these and other lines, his
or her concerns are as worthy of company attention as are the employee’s.
Repatriation and Return
1. If the two previous stages have been handled properly, there should now be no
unpleasant surprises. Casual friends may not badger them for slide shows or for
detailed characterizations of host country foliage but the returnees will know that this
has nothing to do with them, but is simple how things are. The key is no unpleasant
2. Within one to two weeks of repatriation the employee and family are invited (or
mandated, as in the case of the employee) to attend a day of activities that includes an
informal debriefing on the expatriate experience, open conversation on what
repatriation has been like so far, training on reverse culture shock from somebody who
has experienced it and, if at all possible, informal conversation with other employees
and family members about the jolts of repatriation, jolts that should now be relatively
minor because in some cases expectations have been adjusted to the reality and in
others the reality brought into conformance with legitimate expectations. Ideally, these
events should be led by a consultant to encourage honest conversation and protect
3. The early reentry phase of repatriation is not known to promote a high level of
intimate partner-to-partner sharing. Both parties are under strain and understandably
preoccupied with their own agendas. Though solid figures are hard to come by, the
coming months can be maritally vulnerable. She partner should be invited to as many
of debriefings and meetings as possible and should at this point be interacting
regularly with her career and relocation consultant.
4. One of the most common repatriate complaints is that the talent and expertise
gained while on global assignment is not put to use upon return. Even if the
employee’s first job does not draw on global learnings, attentive company officials can
provide repatriates with speaking opportunities by sponsoring seminars, luncheon
Q&A sessions and other informal events. This will go a long way toward helping
repatriates feel valued.
5. Lastly, we spoke earlier of the vital role played by the close-knit expatriate
community. It is impossible to duplicate this on the home front but this does not negate
the possibility of forming groups of repatriates to meet periodically in order to provide
support and share coping strategies.
CODCIL- We end with a genuine question—why doesn’t corporate awareness
produce ameliorative actions—and a pointed query—why don’t repats themselves
fight for what they need.
The perplexity caused by the question is widespread. The problems of repats is
commonly noted and discussed, as is the ongoing inaction of the keepers of the
corporate tills. Since repatriate desertions come under the human resources retention
under the human resource retention umbrella, it properly falls to human resources to
tackle the gap between understanding and corrective action.
One problem may be that those with the most to gain by human resource initiatives are
already headed for the door, thereby depriving the cause of its most motivated
constituency. If this is the case, then human resources needs to bring the cause more
vigorously to current expatriates and their managers. In doing so they are bound to
encounter the classic counter-intuitive nature of the difficulty. Fortunately, the studies
and surveys have been performed and a plethora of articles and white papers written.
Where the facts drive a coherent narrative that stresses the financial hit companies are
taking, intuition will need to excuse itself from the conversation.
The mention of current expatriates as a natural constituency to advocate for change
brings us to our query: why don’t expatriates press repatriation issues more
vigorously? The simplest answer is that their dispersion around the globe makes
concerted action difficult to organize. And perhaps they too are displaying the common
human trait of assuming that for them it will be different. So, the reform of our
repatriation processes still awaits its champion.
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