January 01st, 2015

Repatriation - Overlooked and Under Invested?



Some see it as naïve that the corporate clients of relocation companies should consider the funding of repatriation packages, but when confronted with the facts, can they really afford not to? In the 1970’s two psychologists, Holmes and Rahe, developed a scale for measuring cumulative life stress. According to this scale, a score of over 200, made up from life events such as bereavement, divorce and bankruptcy, can result in serious stress that will, if left untreated, lead to mental health problems. When all of the factors on the scale that come into the relocation process are taken into account, the score comes out at 220. When the same scale is used to measure the effects of repatriation, the result is the same score of 220.

The enormous costs to companies of sending an individual overseas are well understood by the relocation fraternity, and yet still, in 2007, we find it almost impossible to persuade our clients to purchase repatriation management packages. When candidate selection has been done and it comes to the careful negotiations with HR over the compensation and benefits package, how often are relocation support costs given a far lower priority than say, host country salary matching?

All of these complex calculations to ensure the middle ground between the employee being well rewarded for what will be a significant life change, and the company conforming to a cost effective relocation policy, are utterly pointless if the assignment fails. As companies have started to understand this and the reasons why, (80% of failed assignments are attributed to a failure to adjust to the host culture) so they have seen the value of funding cultural orientation programmes through relocation providers.

But a worse case scenario is being ignored; the assignment is a success, the transferee does a great job, the family stay for the duration but then because of mismanaged repatriation, the employee leaves the company for a better offer elsewhere. 60% of transferees have no actual role on their immediate return and are “slotted in”. 20% of transferees will leave or be headhunted away from the company within 9 months of return, and 50% with 24 months, if they are not promoted or reassigned abroad. These figures represent a huge financial loss for the company and even those corporations with a culture that does not encourage a hand-holding approach to international assignments, should be able to appreciate the value of properly managed repatriation against the far higher cost of employee loss.

The impact of repatriation can be just as significant for the family as the original move itself. Sometimes referred to as “Inpatriation” but more often as “reverse culture shock” the return to home can provoke huge disruption for the family and transferee. In her book “Homeward Bound: A Spouse’s Guide to Relocation” (Expatriate Press 2000), Robin Pascoe defines reverse culture shock this way:

"(It) is simply the shock of being home. It's the reverse culture shock you experience in your own country when you visit places that should be familiar to you, but aren't; try to interact with people you should feel comfortable with, but don't; or face situations you should be able to handle, but can't. There can be no simpler way to explain it. Re-entry shock is when you feel like you are wearing contact lenses in the wrong eyes. Everything looks almost right."

These feelings can be worse than the culture shock experienced in the first weeks of the assignment. Feeling like a foreigner in a foreign land is expected; feeling a stranger in your own home is not.

Impact on the Employee

The impact of repatriation for the employee, is often far greater than that of the original move to the host locaiton. The move abroad is exciting, usually involving a promotion or at the very least, an increase in peer status, and is playing up to the transferees strengths. The day to day impact of life in the new culture is more keenly felt by the partner and children, who are interacting with it on a far more intimate basis. The transferee on the other hand has been chosen for a particular skill set, usually including language skills where necessary, which are by and large appreciated by the new team as an asset. The transferee slots into a new work culture, with all of the social contact that entails. The family on the other hand have a harder time.

As the assignment comes to an end, the transferee starts the closure process of the post, probably handing over to a locally based team or manager. At this point, home country HR should be back in touch, to start the career planning for the home move. However, 68% of companies provide no post assignment guarantees, and this is going to have a dual impact on the employee.

Firstly, they will feel deeply insecure. They may have taken their family away from extended family and friends, interrupted education programmes and careers, and for what? To return home with no job?

Secondly, they may begin to develop a distrust of the company. They have given their all, made the assignment or project a success, and their rewards in terms of higher salary and status, after three years of acclimatisation, seem like a distant memory. This is what creates the fracture company loyalty and explains why 20% will leave within the first 9 months of return unless a structured repatriation plan is in place. 40% of returning transferees also indicate dissatisfaction that no use was made of the skills they learned while on assignment when they return (Global Relocation Trends Survey 1999).

Recent research indicates that the repatriation process is even tougher for female transferees. Dr Margaret Linehan of the Cork Institute of Technology writes in her paper “Work-Family Conflict and the Repatriation of Female International managers”;

"All the issues of repatriation are enhanced for women executives…. Among other professional challenges felt by the repatriating female manager is the fact that the glass ceiling they hit before they left the country is still firmly in place… Traditionally women were not very good at making demands and were not strong enough in voicing these demands.”

Dr Linehan’s research also points out that women managers have a far greater responsibility within family situations than their male counterparts and are under greater pressure when coming home, to oversee the impact on the family. Often women in these situations need a wife!

Impact on the Partner

The same issues that face the partner moving overseas, continue to be evident when returning home. The challenges that are faced in trying to reintegrate into a social and familial network are akin to having to start again. The relationships may have been neglected and there can be resentment on many sides – people at home didn’t keep in touch enough, the partner has also probably spent more time and energy on creating new alliances in the host country than on maintaining those back home. Then there is the issue of story fatigue; not everyone is as interested in hearing about the experiences of the partner in their life abroad than could be expected, and where a persons world view has been dominated by the host country, there can be a distinct feeling of not belonging once back at home.

Another issue, is the potential change in living standards. In order for the company to persuade the family to relocate, they have generally offered financial incentives, from generous housing allowances to the payment of school fees. On returning home, these are taken away and the lifestyle that the family has become used to is radically reduced. This is particularly a factor for Europeans coming home from the USA, where living standards are very high in comparison with the cost of living in most European cities.

Often, the ability of the partner to slip back into a career they left several years before is curtailed. Difficulty on re-entering the work force can also complicate coming home in that the costs of living back in the home country have not changed, indeed have probably gone up. Where a family relied upon two incomes before the assignment and are now reduced to one, the issues of a comfortable lifestyle are made more complex still. Financial issues are often at the core of relationship difficulties and these are so often a major factor in an unplanned repatriation.

Impact on the Children

This is where the impact can be the most pronounced, and the most dramatic, especially for teenagers caught between school systems, deep friendships and hormonal angst! Where the assignment has been a long one, there is the risk of the child becoming a Third Culture Kid – far more familiar with the host culture than the home one. For them the return is a far greater challenge, as they are already at home and will be going somewhere completely foreign. Not only will they face a profound culture shock, they will also struggle with a sense of loss of identity as they leave their friends and peers behind.

Practical issues also loom large. If they have been able to drive in the host culture, and are deemed too young back home, a central part of their independence will have been removed. Using public transport, facing cultural issues around the freedom of children within the host culture, and potential gender role perceptions back home can also raise enormous issues for the returning child. This can be particularly evident when children are moved from a liberal host culture, to a home culture with stricter social rules and expectations.

So what can relocation companies do to persuade their corporate clients that they can help to mitigate the impact of coming home?

Firstly, keep the facts and figures close to hand. If there is one motivating factor for any of us to spend money, it is the thought that in the long run we will save money. The huge investment companies make in their globally mobile workforce, should be protected at all costs. An employee who moves to a rival company following assignment, is not just a lost investment, they are a potential competitor, taking all of the experiences they have had in opening new markets, overseeing international projects or just learning new skills, to a direct adversary.

Secondly, there should be a level of social responsibility in any company towards its’ best asset; its’ work force. Companies who undervalue their employees, should be frequently reminded of this, and of how a lack of investment in the assets that make it profitable, could eventually lead to it becoming uncompetitive. Profit aside, it cannot be ethical for a company to regard its’ staff as merely a tool. These are people, with lives, partners, children, hopes and dreams. Globalisation is viewed with extreme scepticism by many people – evidenced by the continuing riots at G8 summits. Companies should at the very least show they have a sense of social responsibility not just to the environment, but to their natural resources as well. If you can’t persuade them with the financial arguments, guilt them into it!

Lastly, keep in mind the following lists of how the process can be managed, and offer cost effective and creative solutions that can make a real difference.

A Perfect Planned Repatriation:

9-12 Months Prior:

· Confirm the exact date with the transferee, home and host HR and management

· Let the transferee inform friends, and family of this date

· Provide some way for the transferee to talk with others who have been through the process

· Encourage the family to really cherish the remaining time they have in the host culture

6-9 Months Prior:

· Schedule an exit interview with host management

· Contact home HR and management and have the transferee update them with the new skills they have

· Start the financial planning process – have the family made aware of the changes they will face when they are back on host country income

· Ensure tax management is in place for the transferee

· Discuss with the transferee the probability of HR and relocation support with any likely housing issues in the host location

· Discuss at this point, any issues with host country housing; dilapidations, deposits, etc

· Notify schools of departure dates and contact HR in the home country – can they assist the repatriation with relocation support?

· Will there be support in the home country with school search?

1-6 Months Prior:

· Check Out supervision

· Travel arrangements

· Closure of financial aspects such as bank accounts

· Mail forwarding

· Speak with tax advice

· Repatriation cultural counselling

· Goodbye parties

· Closure of relationships for the children – setting up of IT based “Keep In Touch” schedules

Once back home:

· Relocation support with housing and schooling needs

· Partner employment support

If the repatriation is treated with the same seriousness as support for an international assignment, and the process can be eased by using relocation professionals, then why not do it? The cost is the answer we hear most often.

The bottom line in repatriation, is the bottom line. Even though profit should not be the only motivating factor in providing repatriation assistance, the loss of a valued employee to a competitor makes for a compelling reason to fund extra support. It should not be this way; transferees and their families have the right to be treated with compassion and respect, but if the corporate culture favours profit over social responsibility, then let profit be the driving force behind the provision of quality repatriation programmes.


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Dominic Tidey is the C.O.O. of EuRA, the European Relocation Association.  EuRA is the professional industry body for relocation providers and affiliated services. As a non-profit organisation EuRA aims to promote the benefits of a professionally managed relocation to companies with globally mobile employees.

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