Managing The Repatriate Blues

April 20, 2017

“Never let a stumble be the end of the journey” – Anon

Expats are largely pretty resilient folk. Whilst most of us acknowledge that moving house is a fairly significant move in and of itself, moving countries, cultures and lives takes it to a different level. And whilst many seasoned expats are experts at preparing for international moves, very few are adequately prepared for the final move ‘home’. Unfortunately though so too are the organisations that they work for.

With an ever-increasing demand for globally experienced leaders, the challenge of managing and supporting the repatriation process looks only set to increase unless we look to change the way we have supported it to date. Most of us are all too familiar with Einstein’s definition of insanity: ‘doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result’. Unfortunately this adage all too often rings true, with the issues surrounding repatriation being well documented over decades and little change to the approach taken to reduce the pain individuals and organisations continue to experience. A significant part of the problem is the debate over who owns what in the transition and as a result the potential to move forward is often stalled and thus compromised.

Whilst many individuals grossly underestimate the challenges involved or don’t believe they will apply to them, organisations know only too well the difficulty of this transition period with high turnover, disengagement and employee wellbeing all at consistently high and/or negative levels. Coupled with an emerging challenge where employees are now failing to take up international assignments within their current organisations after seeing how their peers’ careers have stalled upon their return, the issue is now extending to an attraction and retention issue. Employees who are keen for international assignments are proactively seeking out organisations that not only offer the initial opportunity but also demonstrate how they effectively leverage the experience and foster ongoing career growth post assignment.

With statistics suggesting that up to 30% suffer depression during repatriation many would argue that there is also a massive duty of care that is failing to be addressed. Part of the challenge lays in the fact that living and working overseas changes you fundamentally as a person and not just as an employee. For this reason repatriation support needs to ensure that it addresses individual needs as a whole and not just one or two parts. It requires raising awareness, pragmatic open conversations and a partnered approach to navigating the journey. With this in mind the debate of who owns what should be redundant as both individuals and organisations look to define what is needed and who does what in order to maximise opportunities.

So what does a true repatriation partnership look like? I would encourage you as business leaders or as individuals considering an expat opportunity to consider the following (and engage in the necessary planning and conversations!):

Place repatriation at the beginning of the expat lifecycle: Repatriation should be considered the ‘pre-nup’ in any assignment agreement. Engaging in frank, open conversations prior to commencement reduces the risk of confused expectations upon return, drives individual ownership and accountability and opens the door to ongoing conversations and check-in’s throughout the assignment.

Foster career ownership as part of the employee partnership: Ensure that there is absolute transparency around why individuals are being considered for an international assignment and where the organisation sees it offering mutual value in both the short and long term. Whilst no company can guarantee a future role for any employee – expat or otherwise – individuals who understand how they are regarded by the organisation and what the business needs are, are more likely to own their future potential and engage in meaningful conversations both during and at the end of the assignment.

Provide equal consideration to the 3 primary zones of repatriation: Too often the focus for repatriation is on the logistics of relocation rather than on the professional and wellbeing aspects. The number one frustration cited by repatriates is the lack of opportunity to leverage their knowledge, experience and networks that is all too often the result of insufficient planning and support frameworks.

Invest in the debriefing process: Formal debriefs can offer a win win for both individuals and organisations. Individuals have a chance to showcase their current knowledge, skills and ambitions, share challenges and explore the relevance of their experiences. Organisations are afforded the opportunity to understand how an employee regards their experience and key insights into any potential retention and engagement risks.

Identify a sponsor and support network: Given that repatriation is fundamentally about reconnection it is imperative that we identify both opportunities and individuals who can support this process. Sponsors can offer insight into the operating rhythms, dynamics and up to date company and industry knowledge. Network groups such as Insync offer individuals (and their partners) support by helping them connect with others who are navigating a similar journey.

Provide training and mentoring programs: Tailored repatriate training and mentoring programs can help individuals and organisations not only reconnect faster but also with greater confidence, clarity and purpose. Aimed at raising awareness and equipping individuals with the skills to proactively manage their return raises engagement and productivity whilst reducing the risk of turnover.

With the recent Brookfield Global Mobility Survey suggesting that 88% of organisations expect their international assignment population to either increase or stay the same in the near future, the issue of repatriation seems likely to stay a hot topic. How we choose to prioritise and address it is likely to underpin both our individual and business success.

As always I would love to hear your thoughts.

Margot BLACK Signature