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.
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.
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The are 8 expectations to manage:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”