Managing Expatriate Repatriation Successfully

Olivier Meier
4 min readJun 8, 2020
Photo by Mantas Hesthaven on Unsplash

Repatriation is a major issue for organizations and a fundamental part of the overall assignment process, yet many companies neglect this process, in comparison to the effort spent on pre-assignment preparation. Companies should regularly reevaluate mobility policies to help retain and use newly-acquired skills and knowledge and re-integrate the assignees without any adverse effect on performance.

Why does it matter?

Repatriation and career planning is listed by companies as one of the top three challenges when managing long-term assignments, along with cost and compliance issues (Mercer’s Worldwide Policies and Practices survey.) Mismanaged repatriation can lead to career issues, skills mismatch, increase stress for the returning employees and their families, and ultimately retention and performance issues.

The career and retention dilemma

Companies cannot always offer an employment guarantee to expatriates after their repatriation. There are objectively not enough jobs of a certain level available in every single country. International assignments tend to increase the skillset of international employees and in some case accelerate promotion — but that leads to increased expectations and ultimately to a retention crisis when employees reach the bottle neck in the managerial path.

Leveraging skills and knowledge

The skills and know-how developed during an international assignment are not necessarily the same ones required for a job in the home country. This leads to a paradox where mobile employees are more skilled than before but less employable for the type of jobs that are being offered at home. The results of this skill mismatch are decreased employee satisfaction, lower performance and, again, retention issues.

Furthermore, a majority of companies still don’t request feedback from employees at the end of the assignment:

  • 66% don’t conduct employee satisfaction survey after repatriation.
  • 78% don’t solicit formal feedback from business unit managers on assignment experience.
  • 69.5% don’t conduct debriefing interview with assignees.

(source: Mercer’s Worldwide Policies and Practices Survey)

This lack of feedback prevents companies from effectively managing post-assignment issues and improving assignee experience.

Employee wellbeing

While employers struggle to find positions for assignees back home or elsewhere in the organization, assignees have to worry not just about both long-term and immediate career issues, but also about resettling back home with their families. Assignees might have lost their connection to the home country and sometimes face a reverse culture shock. The challenges of repatriation mirror those on departure: the spouse might struggle to find a new job, the children have to change schools, new accommodation has to be found in a home city where costs might have exploded during the assignment. Financial worries might come on top of this stressful situation if wrong decisions are made about savings, currency issues, and pension.

Altogether these different challenges are bigger drivers of costs for the company than expatriate packages. There is a strong business case to have a more strategic view about mobility and reframe the cost debate to include the additional costs for the business linked to employee attrition, low performance, and missed opportunities.

Tips to succeed

1. Start the process early enough

Ideally the discussion should start prior to the beginning of the assignment. The different options (repatriation but also localization and a new assignment) should be clarified in the assignment letter. Talent management should be involved in the discussion about career issues and succession planning.

2. Prepare repatriation during the assignment

Maintain a channel to keep assignees informed of changes in the home country (business developments and job opportunities). Check the evolution of both the assignees’ and management’s expectations (repatriation or localization). Encourage discussions with HR during assignees’ trips to the home location.

3. Treat repatriation like an expatriation

Repatriation should be treated with the same amount of attention as the outbound assignment, and similar relocation benefits should be provided. Anticipate a possible reverse culture shock and consider providing re-acculturation assistance. Follow a structured process and provide guidelines to all mobility stakeholders (including home HR and line management).

4. Facilitate reintegration in the home country workforce

Remind home country line management to provide training about new procedures and technologies to former assignees who might have missed out on recent developments. Completing skills assessment prior, during, and at the end of assignments is a good way to mitigate skills mismatch and identify potential gaps in terms of competencies, knowledge, or business network resulting from being abroad a long period of time. Encourage “lateral moves” (moves between functions) to open up new career opportunities.

5. Leverage returning assignees’ knowledge

Conduct an-depth debriefing with assignees and make sure their input is taken into account by mobility stakeholders. Encourage former assignees to become mentors for employees moving abroad. They can also serve as role models — success stories from women and minorities are important to encourage diversity.

6. Beware of false success

Securing a job upon return doesn’t always mean that the repatriation has been successful. Former assignees might leave after a few years or simply stagnate in a position where their skills are not being used. Regularly check in on former assignees and conduct career progression analyses.

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Olivier Meier

Exploring trends about people management, workforce mobility, globalization, work from anywhere and the future of work.