No Place Like Home? Minimizing Re-entry Pain for Returning Expats

Imagine being sent from the U.S. by your employer to manage program timing responsibilities at your company’s technical center in Germany. You immediately recognize the career potential—you’ve been entrusted with important responsibilities in a pivotal place.

It’s a two-year assignment, and spending such a time period without your family is unthinkable. You discuss the possibilities with all of them and reach agreement. Some are more enthusiastic than others, but the consensus is“go!” You uproot your family to make a new home in a foreign land. Your employer helps all of you learn important cultural differences ahead of time, you box up your belongings, and your tribe makes its way with anticipation across the ocean.

Fast-forward two years. You’ve managed the assignment successfully and done your employer proud. Family members have managed their many adjustments—community, schooling, culturaladaptation, etc.—equally well. It’s time to return to the U.S. Each of you feels proud of what he or she has accomplished in two years. All of you are eager to go home.

As you make that return, you are full of anticipation. The feeling is one part “mission accomplished” and two parts “there’s no place like home.” After you touch down, you feel like a celebrity for two or three weeks, enjoying time catching up with family and friends. You share stories of your unique international experiences and enjoy listening to stories from the lives of others. You reminisce. This feeling is new. It’s exciting. It seems to be the best of both worlds—the world you left behind and the home you’re once again a part of.

In a short time, however, the energy and the excitement diminish. The pace of connecting slows down. Those dear folks in your circle, after all, are soon used to you being home again. Life goes on. A “new normal” begins to set in, and it’s rather quiet, even isolating.

Feeling Unexpectedly Foreign

Your overseas experiences have changed you in subtle yet formative ways. You have new habits, priorities, and ways of looking at situations and people. You’ve developed a quiet confidence that comes with having successfully managed life’s many, different demands in a foreign place. You left. You grew. You changed. Now that you’re back, why is it so hard to share the story with others?

Double Disconnect

For most, the anticipation of coming home is enormously comforting. But the truth is that you don’t just “fit back in” without deliberate, thoughtful support—the same kind of practical and emotional support that was provided when you went abroad.

Employers increasingly understand that, without such assistance, their expats face a serious, two-part shock to the system, a disconnect every bit as severe and every bit as real as the one in play when their expatriate families first crossed the ocean.

The first part is cultural and impacts every family member. Elements of that disconnect center around such factors as whether communication carries on in today’s U.S. as it did in the time before your expat left? Have nuance and innuendo changed in a way that leaves expat family members puzzled or hurt? How about cultural norms? Is it possible to recognize important social hierarchies in the neighborhood, school, and workplace? How have interpersonal behaviorschanged? Such cultural disconnects—the big ones as well as the small ones—often leave the expat shaking her or his head and struggling to play catch-up.

The second disconnect is professional and centers squarely on the transitioning employee. First, there’s the cost of distraction. 

If international assignees spend significant time in the last months of their overseas assignment trying to secure return roles in their country of origin, how on earth can they remain fully focused on delivering the results they were sent to deliver?

Next, assignees’ overseas positions often carry both prestige and autonomy. Expatriates are expected to acquire global leadership skills, to bring home new market knowledge, and to become ready for the next career step in the organization. While employers invariably bring employees with foreign service experience back to the U.S., they are too often repatriated stateside with eitherno defined roles or roles that seem blind to the new insights, experience, and knowledge gained.

Given the expense of an international assignment, an indifferent placement strategy upon repatriation is almost incomprehensible. If employees are given overseas assignments and manage them well, that’s certainly a good thing. If they do good work and come back with new insights and tools, but those things aren’t further leveraged by the employer, that’s a net loss to theenterprise.

The expat has gained new knowledge, insight, self-confidence, and open-mindedness.Failure to employ those insights can lead to a disturbing sense of job dissatisfaction.

Repatriation orientation programs can provide your expats with a new sense of belonging andan ability to better visualize and manage successful returns. Such strategic “re-onboarding” begins months before the actual return. It addresses both sides of this complex equation for returning families and professionals alike.

The Bottom Line?

The benefits of organized repatriation—of deliberate re-onboarding—are many, and they are real. They include:

  • Increased employee retention.
  • Encouragement of a larger candidate pool for tomorrow’s international assignments.
  • An improved global mindset for the organization as a whole.

Failure to develop and deploy such a plan may very well prove a gold mine for headhuntingcompanies, which are only too happy to locate and woo experienced talent to succeed on a global stage.

The above information is excerpted from an October 2017 Mobility magazine article.

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