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REPATRIATION: Managing the Critical Factor for ROI for International Assignments

By Dean Foster, President DFA Intercultural Global Solutions
The current economic emergency has suddenly forced a spotlight on the previously often unacknowledged, yet formidable, challenge of managing the repatriation process for international assignees.

Until recently, companies recognizing the need for cross-cultural training for outbound assignees might not have been taking seriously the importance of cross-cultural training for assignees returning "home" from abroad. 


Today however, in response to the economic challenges facing most organizations, significant numbers of assignees abroad are being recalled back "home", some sooner than expected.


Just as organizations learned the importance of cross-cultural training in order to insure the success of the assignment abroad, organizations are now beginning to recognize that cross-cultural training is absolutely essential to insure the success of the surprisingly challenging "return" home.


It's understandable that organizations placed greater emphasis on the successful preparation of the assignee and family for outbound assignment, and less, historically, on the return. 


After all, it seems counter-intuitive that returning "home" should present any challenges at all that require training and preparation; after all, the family is coming back to a culture and environment they are intimately familiar with, right? 


Well, they might remember a place like that, but the truth is quite the opposite: in study after study, "return" shock is typically more difficult an adjustment for both the assignee and the family than outbound shock, and the degree to which assignees and their families are able to adjust to returning to their original "home" country dramatically affects the bottom line, or ROI, of the organization.  There are a number of reasons for this phenomenon, and they are, for the most part, hidden and unexpected.  


Nevertheless, unless these repatriation challenges are managed, a failed repatriation can undermine the significant investment that has been made in the success of the international relocation.  There are a number of reasons for the repatriation challenge, and they fall into two areas, the personal and the professional. 


Personal Repatriation Challenges:  Personally, assignees and family members alike tend to idealize "home" while they are abroad, and now that they are going back, they tend to remember home as it was, not as it is, even though they have made home trips periodically while on assignment abroad; when it comes time to return home "for good", idealization tends to kick in strong, and with it, severe disappointment with the inevitable reality that home is not the "white picket fence" (it never was), or the perfect nurturing environment the repatriating family may imagine it to be. 


And assignees may not understand the changes that have occurred "back home" while the assignee was abroad; nevertheless, now they have to make sense out of them.  In effect, they have to learn what "home" is now all about, all over again. 


There is also an expectation that friends and family will be there (they often are not, having moved away, or died), and breathlessly waiting to hear all about the adventures the assignee and their family experienced while on assignment abroad. 


The disappointment can be profound when assignees learn that there is, in fact, very little interest in learning about what happened to them while away, but rather, friends and family are far more interested in telling the assignee about all the things that happened to them while the assignee was gone. 


Kids come back with accents; some may have been born abroad, and they speak their parent's home country language as a second language, if at all.  Kids may feel disoriented at not being able to find groups with whom they feel comfortable: the school system may be very different (usually less challenging), the local home country kid culture may be mystifying and uninteresting (going to the mall is usually very boring for repat kids), and often they express a real desire to return to the country of their expatriation. 


Most importantly, there is a general failure on the part of the assignee and the family to recognize the fact that they have individually changed, substantially and significantly, in subtle and profound ways, while on assignment abroad, but often in ways that they only recognize once they return to their home country.  The shock can often be overwhelming.


Professional Repatriation Challenges:  These professional challenges, perhaps, have the greatest impact on the success of the repatriation.  The partner, who initially may have had to forsake their own career in order to accompany their assignee partner on their assignment abroad, now is more eager than ever, to return to their career, and re-enter the workforce. 


However, having been out of it for several years, the partner often struggles to find a way to pick up the thread of their career, and the frustration, after expecting to be able to do so, can be difficult. 


Most importantly, the assignee returns with the expectation to find a position in the company that values the new skills they have gained while on assignment abroad.  Working abroad, most expatriates must wear lots of different hats, and they are often big fish in small ponds, wielding much authority; back home, often at headquarters, they find themselves as small fish in a big pond, often with their authority far more circumscribed and dependent on the decisions of others. 


While abroad, the assignee may lose touch with what is really happening at the home office, and the home office may not be able to assess the degree to which, and the areas in which, the assignee has developed new and important skills that can be applied when brought back to work at the home office. 


In short, there is often a severe disconnect between the kind of position and work that the repatriate expects to do, and the position and responsibilities that the company actually has for them to do. 


This is probably even more the case in an economically challenging time, where organizations are rapidly downsizing, and where repatriation may itself be occurring because their is now significantly less work to do, or certain projects are put on hold or eliminated, or the organization that the repatriate is returning to is simply smaller, leaner and meaner than the one they left. 


Nevertheless, the repatriate has the global knowledge, skills and savvy to advance the globalization of the organization in ways that simply do not exist elsewhere in the organization, and to not provide the repatriate with a position that makes the most of these new global skills wastes the dollars that the company has already spent on the expatriation and the repatriation. 


Inevitably, unless this disconnect between the professional expectations of the repatriate and the resource needs of the organization are resolved, the company risks losing the repatriate.  Statistics show that on average almost 48% of all repatriates leave their company within two years of returning home. 


And they often take a new position with an organization that does value their skills and global knowledge, an organization that is often the competition. 

If an organization does not retain its global talent, it will have a very hard time succeeding in the global market, especially when it is its competition that is benefiting from the investment that was made in their global managers.


In short, successful repatriation is the insurance policy that the "million dollar investment" that is being made with each and every assignee and family is maximized.  "Bring ‘em back alive" is no longer a viable measure of the success of an international assignment, and the failure to retain global talent after they return home significantly impacts the overall success of the assignment. 


Statistics also show that when REPATRIATON TRAINING programs are administered, repatriation attrition, one measure of a failed repatriation, dramatically drops from 48% to less than 10%.  This translates into retained global talent, maximizing the return on the investment in the global assignment. 


The cost of repatriation training, therefore, is not an expense: it represents, rather, a savings: saving the organization (and its people) the dire and very real expense of a failed assignment back home, and the risks associated with an organization losing its most valuable global talent. 


DFA REPATRIATION training programs are available in all major world metro areas, and are delivered to the repatriate and the entire family, in pre- and post-return mode. 

If your organization is bringing assignees "back home", or planning to do so, contact us for further information about how we can help make your repatriations a success for both the repatriates, and your organization. Your global future depends on it.


Written by Dean Foster, President DFA Intercultural Global Solutions

Intercultural Global Solutions