Retaining Repatriates

Pre-assignment planning, ongoing communication and mentoring help retain valuable repatriates.

By Kathryn Tyler Mar 1, 2006
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HR Magazine, March 2006In 1999, TJ Tyler rushed back to his Detroit-based automotive employer from a two-year engineering project management assignment in Mexico. The reason for his hasty return? He wanted to be sure he had a job to come back to.

When you go [abroad], somebody back home has to be an anchor for you, he explains. I came home because my executive sponsor my anchor was retiring. I freaked out. Without help from his sponsor, he feared he would be left out in the cold. You need to have someone at a high level carving out a spot for you, he says.

With the help of his mentor, Tyler secured a lateral position after repatriation, but started to resent the fact that the company didn’t appear to have his best interest at heart. You feel slighted, he says. And he started asking himself: Why am I breaking my back for these guys? I don’t have to stay.

So he left. Within two years of his return from Mexico, Tyler left the company because of a lack of promotional opportunities and the inability to capitalize on his international experience.

Tyler’s story is all too common. In fact, 25 percent of repatriates resign within 12 months of returning from an overseas assignment, according to a 2005 study, Understanding and Avoiding the Barriers to International Mobility, by Geodesy, a partnership between PricewaterhouseCoopers and Cranfield University School of Management.

In the last 20 years, we’ve gotten savvier about preparing families for overseas assignments. But, not [many] firms do repatriation well, says David A. Harrison, a professor at the Smeal College of Business at Pennsylvania State University who is collecting data on repatriation.

Lisa Johnson, GPHR, director of consulting services for Cendant Mobility, agrees. Most companies are failing at repatriation. Repatriation is one of the most chronic, least developed areas of expatriate programs, and one that has the most long-term impact, she says. A 2004 survey by Cendant Mobility, Emerging Trends in Global Mobility: Policy and Practices Survey, bears this out: Only 49 percent of companies have repatriation programs.

The problem lies in false expectations from both HR and the expatriate. HR may not be thinking of promoting the expatriate when he returns, while the expatriate believes he is due a promotion for sacrificing his normal career progression as well as his or her family’s comfort to take the assignment. The expatriate may also believe that he has a lot to offer the company based on experience gained from the exposure abroad, whereas HR may not know how that experience fits into the company’s objectives.

With a little work from human resources and the employee, the two sides can meet and communicate expectations before, during and after the assignment, and develop a more successful repatriation plan.

The Disconnect

Companies send employees overseas for a variety of reasons: transferring skills to local employees, maintaining corporate control and starting a new operation. Leadership development is a distant fourth on the list, according to the Cendant Mobility survey.

In contrast, virtually all expatriates believe international assignments are developmental, and they accept such assignments primarily to build global leadership skills. Expatriates assume they have made a major sacrifice and will be repaid when they come back, says Harrison.

Most repatriates expect a promotion upon return, but few receive one. According to the Geodesy survey, 33 percent of repatriates are promoted, 58 percent of repatriates stay at the same level, and 9 percent are demoted after returning. In fact, only 27 percent of expatriates are even guaranteed a position after returning from assignment; the vast majority are left to find their own path home and secure a domestic position within or outside the company.

In short, employers abandon these people when they come back, says Revel Miller, president of Revel Miller Consulting, an expatriate counseling consultancy in Santa Barbara, Calif. They don’t give them promotions or help them to re-assimilate into the business or culture. They don’t even give them recognition or support.

It’s no wonder that many repatriates leverage their international experience to secure positions elsewhere.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. HR professionals can take a number of steps to ensure that expatriates enjoy a smooth return home, and that the company can maximize their valuable international experiences.

Before They Go

A smooth repatriation experience begins before the employee leaves home.

  • Set clear, realistic expectations about post-assignment career advancement and compensation. HR can help retain expatriates by managing expectations and keeping the lines of communication open. The key is being clear on how international mobility fits into the overall global strategy, says Alan Freeman, principal of LOF International Human Resources Solutions, a consulting firm in Los Angeles.

The first mission of the HR professional, then, is to determine the purpose of the company’s overseas assignments. For many companies, it’s twofold: Some assignments are developmental; others are task-oriented. Thus, the HR professional’s role is to ensure that each expatriate understands what type of assignment he is undertaking and what career opportunities to expect when he comes home.

Not all companies can guarantee a promotion upon return, says Johnson. HR professionals need to explain to expatriates they won’t receive a promotion after the assignment and will need to work to secure a satisfying domestic position.

  • Establish a formal selection process. Key Equipment Finance, an equipment leasing company based in Superior, Colo., recently revised its selection process to better meet organizational goals. The company once selected the best players in general, but also those who had designs on long-term career opportunities that weren’t a part of the assignments goals. So, to remedy that problem, Key Equipment Finance began selecting people with individual skill sets.

We used to send a high-potential U.S. manager to run a region, but what do you do with that person when he comes home? We didn’t have a place to put him, says HR program manager Robin Smithtro. Now were sending more individual contributors. When they come back, they have more growth room within the domestic workforce.

  • Conduct post-assignment career planning before the individual leaves. Although it’s difficult to plan three years in advance, it’s important to establish an outline, even if it changes. Only 16 percent of companies engage repatriates in discussions about repatriation more than six months before their departure, according to the Geodesy study, which is far too late.

In addition, by the company providing a potential career path upon the employees return, the employee will have a better idea of what skills to develop while on assignment, says Shannon O’Donnell, international projects director for Chestnut Global Partners LLC (CGP), a nonprofit international employee assistance services company headquartered in Bloomington, Ill.

  • Facilitate mentor relationships among senior executives and expatriates. One of the main differences between employees who repatriate well and those who do not is their network, specifically who they know in the higher ranks. HR professionals must facilitate mentorships and establish systems to reward mentors.

Assign a home-country mentor and an overseas mentor to expatriates, recommends Freeman. The host-country mentor is a cultural interpreter. The home mentor is someone the assignee can call to stay tuned-in. Your best ally is someone who has been an assignee in the past, he says.

That was certainly the case with Carl, whose name has been changed to protect his anonymity. Carl is an engineering supervisor who spent three years in Germany before returning to the United States. I developed a mentorship with my American director in Germany. He recommended I keep up with people of influence here and gave me some names. On my third home trip, I made appointments to meet with directors about opportunities for coming back.

Through his mentor’s contacts, Carl secured an interview and eventually a position within the same company. I don’t know where Id is without [my mentor], Carl says. Some of the expats I worked with had terrible times coming back; there was nothing available to them. I was the only one who came back to a promotion.

While They Are Gone

HR professionals need to remember how much expatriates rely on them and what an impact their personal touch has on those out of the loop. Their efforts can mean the difference between capturing repatriates international experience and giving it to the competition.

  • Maintain strong, regular communication. HR should create a formal reporting program to establish communications guidelines, which require that the expat communicate at certain times. Staying connected to the corporate office is critical so that when you come back you are a credible member of the team, says Susan Howington, senior vice president/managing director at Lee Hecht Harrison, a consultancy in San Clemente, Calif.

Johnson recommends, Update the individuals [career plan and] resume frequently, six months into the assignment and then annually, so that, upon repatriation, those new skills and range of responsibilities are articulated.

  • Require home visits, and encourage expatriates to use them to network.One mistake expats make is not taking advantage of the home leave, instead using it to go trekking in Nepal with their family, says Miller. That is their opportunity to network in their organization and stay connected with their own culture.

If an expatriate doesn’t remain in contact with the home office, he is not a visible asset to the team and, therefore, might not be considered for a promotion, says David Sharar, managing director of CGP.

  • Keep expatriates in the forefront of succession planning.Identify which positions would benefit most from international experience and raise expatriates names often during succession planning. Make sure [expatriates] are being considered and the position is held open until they return, says Harrison.

Also, don’t be too rigid about return dates, warns Freeman. If [an expatriate is] supposed to come home February 2007 and an ideal opportunity becomes available in July 2006, [everyone needs] to be nimble in altering the timing.

Often, the best place for a repatriate is on the team of a former expatriate executive. Senior leaders with expatriate experience value it and relate well to repatriates, Johnson says.

Budd Buschmann, a former international HR manager for 24 years at a major oil company, witnessed this scenario often. If the employee returned to a domestic group, his international experience meant little to his new colleagues. The returning employee felt underutilized, says Buschmann, who is now president of Expatriate Service Providers, a consultancy headquartered in Savannah, Ga. On the other hand, employees repatriating to an international headquarters group were recognized for their talents and contributions overseas. These employees were fast-tracked.

Upon Return

The most important thing an HR professional can do to retain repatriates is to recognize and applaud their international experiences.

  • Provide repatriation assistance to build loyalty. Many employees returning to the point of origin after three to five years overseas can experience reverse culture shock. A significant number report the adjustment coming home was more difficult than when they went abroad, says Freeman. Why? Expatriates don’t realize that coming home will require as much assimilation as going abroad. Moreover, they often receive much less assistance readjusting.

When you go overseas, you get help with buying a house and enrolling your kids in school. When somebody comes back, the company is not as supportive. It’s not treated as an international relocation, but it is. You have a new house, new schools, and you have to re-establish connections with colleagues, says Harrison.

Most companies provide financial repatriation assistance, such as home loans. However, repatriates seek more practical help, such as information on which school districts rank highest. HR professionals should arrange for this type of help through their employee assistance program and encourage repatriates to use it.

  • Establish a repatriate tracking system, and track repatriates for two years. To determine if repatriation turnover is a problem, you need to document the path of repatriates. Only 17 percent of companies have post-assignment career tracking, according to the Cendant Mobility study.

  • Provide forums for repatriates to share their experiences. Even when employers are unable to promote repatriates, it’s important to appreciate their experiences.

Use them creatively. Rotate repatriates into different functional areas, Harrison recommends. Assign them to be part of cross-functional teams, managerial teams, things that leverage their expanded knowledge, such as designing products for an international market.

HR can also tap repatriates to serve as trainers for future expatriates, adds Harrison. They are a wealth of knowledge for new candidates and their spouses going overseas, says Miller.

Another idea: Ask repatriates to complete a questionnaire about their assigned country and give advice for future expatriates. Record that knowledge in a database so it is retrievable, suggests Miller.

Lastly, recognize them, recommends Miller. Do write-ups on them in newsletters. Give brown-bag speeches bringing the news of things going on overseas. Have them be a star for a while. Appreciating their experiences will help retain their loyalty. It also will help others see what new talents and experience repatriates could contribute to special projects. And it will encourage others to take expatriate assignments.

We are seeing rapid globalization, and it’s going to become a real problem to find people who are willing and qualified to go overseas if everyone hears about people who were not satisfied after repatriation, says Johnson.

Kathryn Tyler, M.A., is a freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer in Wixom, Mich.

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