Protect Your Expat Investment with Effective Repatriation

By Amy Gulati Oct 23, 2014
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Employee attrition after an international assignment is a known problem in the global mobility field, and there’s general consensus about why employees leave: Culture shock at re-entry often leads to dissatisfaction and morale problems.

In addition, many employers fail to understand or use the new skills and global perspective employees gained while they lived and worked overseas. KPMG’s 2013 Global Policies and Practices survey reveals that 34 percent of repatriated employees cite a lack of an appropriate job in their home country as the reason they left their organization. Given the enormous investment that companies make when sending employees abroad, many are starting to understand the importance of having effective repatriation programs in place to protect this investment.

KPMG’s study shows that over half of all participating companies have some kind of repatriation program in place. However, survey respondents were ambivalent about the efficacy of their programs, with 35 percent saying that repatriation is not well-managed within their organization.If we think of repatriation programs as an insurance policy on the investment made in global mobility, it follows that some policies are better designed than others.

How to Smoothly Assimilate Returning Employees

Ed Hannibal, global leader for Mercer’s Mobility practice, explains that while “planning for an individual’s return may sound simple […], the company needs to take the long view.” According to Hannibal, companies with well-structured repatriation programs often start discussions about reintegration with an employee as many as 12 months in advance of when the employee plans to return home. These conversations should focus on how the global assignment fits into the individual’s overall career progression.

Brookfield’s Global Relocation Trends 2012 Survey Report supports Hannibal’s recommendation with hard data. Only a handful of companies surveyed by Brookfield experienced expatriate attrition in excess of 30 percent. Of those companies with higher-than-average turnover, 67 percent had no formal career management process in place. Furthermore, of the companies indicating that expat attrition has increased year over year, 91 percent lacked a repatriation program linked to career management and retention.

“In the past, repatriation has been an afterthought for many organizations, but over the last few years the mindset has been changing,” said Bud Morrissette, president of Interstate Moving, Relocations and Logistics. Interstate surveyed its clients several years ago and discovered that 50 percent didn’t have a repatriation program. Instead, their repatriation was reactive. Morrissette explained that the increased emphasis on repatriation and career management might be driven by an improved labor market and overall economy. “Employees are becoming more savvy and are looking more long term, so their needs are creating the demand for [more integrated programs],” he said.

Both Morrissette and Hannibal underscored that the decision to send an employee overseas should be made holistically, taking into account a host of factors: career management, individual preparedness, cross-cultural disposition and family readiness. When employees return to the home country, the organization must have a way of continuing to flag them as a global assignee so that their data can be easily gathered and analyzed. This usually can be accomplished via technology like an HR information system. When organizations lose track of who has global experience or fail to track these individuals, they lose a huge opportunity for continuous improvement.

Despite the increased focus on repatriation, KPMG’s study showed that 27 percent of participating companies do not know how many repatriated assignees leave within 12 months; 31 percent do not know why they are leaving.

Hannibal said: “There needs to be a connection between the system of record for global assignees and tracking them as global assignees after they’ve repatriated.” While this may seem like a very tactical part of a repatriation program, he points out that it takes on strategic importance when repatriation is tied to career management.

It’s clear that companies are increasingly aware that an effective repatriation program, particularly one that integrates with career management, is one of the best ways to manage the investment organizations make in talent management and global mobility. Hannibal also said that employees share part of the responsibility, too, for “coming home on home leave, staying networked at [the home office], and taking advantage of home-country mentors.” Smart companies should do their part to facilitate these connections so their business can benefit from the global expat experience.

Amy Gulati, SPHR, GPHR, is an HR business partner at Helios HR, based in Reston, Va.

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