Repatriation: 8 causes of “re-entry shock”

Repatriation can be more stresful than the outward trip
Repatriation can be more stressful than the outward trip

I am a long term expat with two international moves under my belt. Three if you count the move from England to Wales. Both my children are “Third Culture Kids”  (TCK) having been born outside their passport country.  So I know first hand that a successful international experience can be an enriching one, personally and professionally, for both the expat and his/her family.

Increasingly there is a great deal of corporate support during the outward process to guarantee a seamless transition into an expat assignment.   But I know from any number of stories heard socially and professionally, that repatriation is quite often not supported as seriously as the outbound transfer and even neglected totally by many companies. This is both financially and also in terms of transition supervision.

Why?

In theory, the expat is going back to a situation with which he/she is familiar and it is often incorrectly assumed that this process will be problem free.

Stressors tend to intensify in relation to the length of the international assignment.  Long term expats with multiple moves under their belt, with portable careers and skill sets, report additional difficulties.

8 causes of re-entry shock

Re-assimilation can take anything from six months to five years depending on the length of the overseas assignment and the degree of local integration experienced  in their expat lives.

If you need support with repatriation or an expat transfer check out the individual coaching programmes 

The are 8 expectations to manage:

  1.  The home environment will be the same – the expat has usually lived a life changing experience. There is a tendency to assume that practices in the workplace of origin will be unchanged and professional relationships can be picked up where they left off. This is almost always not the case. These too will have evolved, particularly any nuances in the balance of power and influence which may have developed and changed during the period away from base. It is very common for the expat to feel excluded or passed by, especially if the re-entry is to a central headquarters. Many expats make a decision to return to HQ for career development reasons because they perceive being away from headquarters reduces their visibility quite literally. When they get back they are considered to be out of touch.
  2. New skills will be appreciated and maximised: Feelings of frustration are commonplace if accompanied by few or no opportunities to maximize any new skills or experience. If the expat experience does not seem to be valued, disappointment will be intensified. Unmet expectations can even lead to depression and the employee leaving the company.
  3. Family and friends will be interested – the expat has usually had an exciting time, using professional opportunities to enhance their personal experiences via travel and other activities. Returning expats report that old friends show very little interest in their overseas lives to the point where they cease to talk about it. In some instances it is perceived as bragging.
  4. The returnee will feel at home  – many cultural changes will have taken place in the culture of origin during the international assignment which the expat will not have been part. The expat can feel like a “foreigner” in his or her own country and customs and practices that were once completely normal to them now seem alien. The expat location was their home.
  5.  Career Transition Coaching is not needed – to support this stage of career development is invaluable to engage all stakeholders to achieve successful re-integration and to maximize the return on what has been a significant corporate investment. The reality is that repatriation process should be positioned as part of an ongoing longer term career strategy to maintain motivation. Ideally it should start well in advance of the return to home base. Many companies do not do that to their detriment and are surprised to see transition issues with the employee on his/her return. They are even more surprised to see the employee leave with a 19% turnover reported. This is a poor ROI on talent management investment.
  6.  Family and Partners will be fine  – this is part of the thinking process that needs to be re-examined by many companies as the professional and personal continuum is blurred during the return to the country of origin. The expat not only has to manage his/her professional re-entry, but will be impacted by negative experiences to which the family is exposed. So if the trailing spouse and any children are struggling, especially those born outside their passport countries (TCK),  then the expat will be under even greater pressure professionally.
  7. Loss of expat perks – depending on the seniority of the assignment expats miss very often the financial perks of an international mission which could include company car, petrol allowance, school fees, flights home etc. On the return these benefits tend to cease.  In some regions (APAC, Eastern Europe) domestic support is provided and/or is very affordable.
  8. Expats will not miss their friends and overseas lives – international communities tend to be very open and welcoming, as well as offering a variety of cultural experiences, shopping, travel and  food items and so on.  Adjustments will need to be made  contributing to the feeling of homesickness.

So, for many the challenges of  “coming home”  can be just as significant  as  the transition of “going overseas.”

18 thoughts on “Repatriation: 8 causes of “re-entry shock”

  1. Hans Soderberg

    Dorothy, I both agree and disagree. First of all I must say that running a foreign owned subsidiary somewhere in the world is the most fun and rewarding job I can imagine. I have 12 years of overseas experience (13 if I count a year when I communted weekly or bi-weekly to France) from the Middle East and the US, from multi billion dollar corporations to start ups and medium sized companies. Running the regional business of course has its challenges but that is straight forward and what you are hired for. No, the main issue is the envy from the HQ organization from the day you set foot in your new country. You might make more money, at least net, than your boss at home, develop a close relationship with your customers’ top management, you are interviewed in local press and TV, meet with government officials etc. This leads to the fact that some people at HQ want your job and start trying to “back stab” you and pointing out all sorts of problems to your boss whom they meet in the office every day, others just want you to fail or spreading rumours by slandering (HR is good at that). One of my bosses once told me “You got the fancy expat job you wanted, now you’re out in the cold, so don’t expect me to help you if make any mistakes or when you return home after your contract has expired”.
    However, I agree that returning home can be a problem, but there are easy ways to avoid at least some of the problems. First of all, keep your home in the home country (some companies try to make you rent it while you are away, but that is a big mistake), if you don’t get a housing allowance or can afford keeping it, don’t accept the assignment. Make sure the family can spend summer vacation and Christmas at home, the kids keep their old friends and meet them over summer. If HQ is in your home country, you most likely go there at least bi-monthly on meetings etc. You are also not exactly isolated wherever you are in the world. keep in touch with friends using Skype, various social media, read local news online etc etc.
    The only main repatriation problem I have experienced is financial, coming home not having a job and not getting one as your overseas experience doesn’t seem to have any value for firstly recruiters who are the first filter, secondly new employers.

    Reply
    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Thanks Hans for your detailed comment. As I mentioned on LI I think each family chooses the route that suits them best for managing friendships and relationships while overseas and if that helps the repatriation. For many if on a fixed term contract then it was more sensible to do what you suggest. Others make a decision to explore and integrate in the destination location. I have known many families who go home too often and experience settling in issues. So perhaps there is not one template formula.

      It also depends on the level of benefits attached to the assignment and if they facilitate that proposal. HQ envy which you referenced is something I have definitely heard before.

      Reply
  2. Judy

    Two points I would add based on my own experience of 3 repatriations. 1) You underestimate how much you have changed while living overseas. In fact I think the changes we undergo are far more significant than changes back home. 2) You lose your ultimate back-up plan (if the job doesn’t work out, if I don’t like the place, I can always go home). Realizing you have nowhere to run to if things don’t go well, particularly when home no longer feels like home, is quite scary.

    Reply
    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Thanks for your input Judy- very relevant comments. I have heard from long term and portfolio expats that this is very often the reasoning behind a successsion of expat roles. They also define their concept of “home”. It becomes wherever they are at any given moment. I have heard the phrase that expats have ” wings but no roots” which is how I feel now.

      Reply
  3. AHLondon (@AHLondonTX)

    I got caught on the ‘I’m going home and know what to expect’ aspects. I thought I would have the easiest transition in the family. I had the worst. It took a good 18 months before I felt home. Just like the move abroad.

    Reply
  4. Benedicte

    Dorothy, i enjoyed reading your post and found your list very relevant. After 3expatriations and 12 years abroad, we relocated in Paris and i feel i really experienced what you are talking about (all of your points, no exception!) For my husband, who was the “working” one, an almost hostile environmement at the office, struggling to regain the confidence from colleagues who were feeling threatened by his return and different set of skills, was a really difficult point. For me, the “trailing” one, the reverse culture shock, finding a much changed country and old friends, was really challenging. A sense of being foreign in my own country, without the escape route of “going home”, as Judy said, brought in a lot of distress. It has been almost a year before i felt comfortable in my new home, new routine, and with some old and new friends. even if i had lived in this city for 10 years before leaving it. The kids had to cope with a new country and culture, new people, as they have grown abroad and knew france only through their holidays at their grandparents house. We had decided to put them in international schools and retrospectively i think it had been the best decision we’ve made. Through schools, We could make new friends with an international mindset and with whom we had a lot in common. As an “old” parisian, i could help them in Paris and i must say it helped me settle also. We were lucky that we could afford this choice, i must say, as being repats meant no more schooling and these schools are not cheap! But, since then, another great opportunity came up and we were happy to jump in a plane with the kids, eager for a new expat experience!

    Reply
    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Thanks Benedicte – I appreciate your insights. Cold shouldering in HQ is not uncommon I believe – what Hans called HQ envy. International schooling is a good option on return although when privately funded is challenging because as you say they are expensive.

      The trailing spouse also has struggles – many of his/herfriends are working and not available during the day, leading to feelings of isolation. Re-entry into the work place can also be difficult if the trailing spouse has a career gap or following a dula career model(one job/one career or one career/ 2 people) rather than congruent careers .

      The kids can suffer -possibly they have different accents, played different sports or followed another academic curriculum. I know one young boy who at the age of 13 had only returned to the same school once in his young life!

      All of these circumstances are misunderstood, or factored in at all by organisations and not supported.

      Good luck in your new life!

      Reply
  5. Repat Jack

    Spot on, Dorothy. Repatriation tests emotional resilience more than an expat move as all, or parts of the above, tend to keep coming at you in waves in the first few months, or even year, back ‘home’. Reading all the top-notch advice on-line or in books from serial expats / repats helped me enormously to understand the re-entry process during these past two years since my repatriation.

    Reply
  6. E. Niollet

    Reblogged this on Psychologue pour Expatriés and commented:
    The effects of Re-entry Shock are very often underestimated and it is important for all expatriates and companies to bear this in mind not only when planning the time abroad but also throughout the duration of the assignment so as to minimize collateral damages.

    Reply
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  11. Rosemary

    Hi Dorothy,

    I couldn’t agree more with the points you make. We were overseas for five years and it was a time of tremendous growth and excitement for all of us. We did keep our house to return to during Summer break so our children could stay in touch with friends, but that didn’t prove to be enough. On returning, my daughter’s friends were cruel and sent her texts telling her to “return to China” and while we were overseas, my son was diagnosed with ADD and our school there was amazing. Upon return, it was such an uphill battle to get services for my son. I ended up returning to full time work to put both kids in private school and although they are now happy, I wish everyday to return to Hong Kong.

    Reply
    1. Dorothy Dalton Post author

      Rosemary – this is a very common occurrence ane one that many employers do not anticipate. Thanks for your comment.

      Reply

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