“Living in this country will change you so profoundly; you will never see your world in the same way.”
Such were the words of an expatriate colleague upon my arrival in Saudi Arabia to teach at a local university. I knew what she was talking about. Having spent my childhood in developing countries following my father’s job, and subsequently living and working in a number of countries not my own, I was familiar with the transformational aspects of the expat life. Living in another country can irrevocably alter your values, attitudes, behaviors, ideas, and perceptions in ways not fully appreciated until you return home.
Most international companies today are diligent about preparing employees for overseas postings. What they do less well is welcome these employees back when the assignment is over. Even when they do, they often assume they are welcoming back the same employees, spouses, and children they dispatched to another country. By not paying sufficient attention to their returning employees, they are doing the employees and their companies a great disservice in an era when competent globally minded employees are needed more than ever.
Why should HR be concerned about expats coming home? It has been estimated that 15-25% of returning expats leave their jobs within a year and up to 40% after 2 years. Companies are losing valuable assets in which they have made considerable investments. Departing employees are taking their international knowledge and expertise to other companies or are starting their own.
One of the major reasons returning employees do not stay is because of the changes they have undergone while working overseas. Back in their home countries, they often find their new skills, international savvy, and multicultural flexibility are unacknowledged and underutilized. They are bored by work days characterized by efficiency and predictability. They miss the challenge and thrill of the new and novel. They frequently mourn their “specialness” as foreigners. The world is no longer their oyster.
How can HR help? Here are seven tips for welcoming your expats home while keeping them in the company and capitalizing on their global acumen.
- Publicize costs. Many line managers have little idea about the costs of overseas assignments. It is not a surprise therefore that they do not value those returning from such an experience.
- Keep them in the loop. Establish a global leadership development team comprised of talent development HR professionals and senior line managers to review who is where, who should go where, and how these global employees fit into the evolving strategy of the company. Facilitate a succession plan that includes all managers regardless of location.
- Start early. Begin the process of repatriation as soon as employees leave for their foreign assignments. Assign a mentor whose job it is to keep the expat employee informed of important company developments at home. If you have a number of employees overseas, devise a way they can all be in touch with and support each other. Put active expats in touch with those who have returned, especially as repatriation nears.
- Develop careers. Maintain an active process of career development while the employee is away. Yearly performance and development reviews should give expat employees opportunities to develop and possibly change the direction of their careers as they undergo transformational international experiences.
- Get them together. Create occasions for returned and returning expats and their families to gather and interact professionally and socially, virtually and actually. Spouses can also have a difficult time readjusting to the home country for many of the same reasons as their working partners, a process that can be ameliorated through contact with others who have been there. Children, while also benefitting from contact with others, seem to adjust more readily. Social media allows them to keep in touch with their friends around the world while transitioning into new milieus.
- Listen. Find out how returning expats feel about their time overseas and their moves back to their home countries. Encourage line managers to do the same. The military has long recognized the value of the “debrief.” Ask returning expats what they learned and how the company can benefit from their experiences and insights.
- Wait. Allow employees a short period of readjustment and reassessment before assigning them new jobs. For the first few weeks back, employees are still psychologically and professionally processing their experiences. Use this time for debriefs and meetings with senior line managers. Ensure the employee’s input is integral to the design of his or her new job.
As I have been repeatedly transformed, your employees will likewise change profoundly as a result of their overseas experiences. These changes, however, inevitably increase their value to their companies. No company today can afford to lose the expertise of these global employees. It is critical, therefore, HR take the lead in ensuring they are appreciated, retained, and developed.
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