There is a contradiction in Global Mobility programmes around the world. More and more organisations are using international assignments as part of the essential developmental experience of valued talent; however, when the talent has gained the skills they lacked through an assignment, organisations end their relocation support. Post-assignment attrition is still growing: E&Y put it as high as 40% within two years of the return home. International experience is recognised as a key element of a leader’s CV, but it seems most organisations are preparing motivated, energised talent to return home and go to a competitor? Something needs to change.
Reverse culture shock – the long return home
Assignees returning home often have a number of challenges, many of which they are ill prepared for.
The Economist identifies some of the challenges facing returning assignees that lead them to consider looking for new jobs:
- They have a lower standard of living in their home country than on assignment
- The assignees and their families have gained a global perspective that can alienate them from their professional and social circles
- Their role may offer less independence and less visibility
Corporate hero or corporate zero?
In addition to often fending for themselves during the repatriation process, assignees may also find the adjustment in their home office surprisingly difficult. This is especially true if they have been abroad for a long time, and can be made yet worse if there was little or no communication with the home office during the assignment.
Assignees may also find the adjustment in their home office surprisingly difficult
If left unsupported, the attrition rate for returning assignees will continue to rise. Not only is an assignment expensive; the loss of their knowledge and experience is wasteful to the company and demoralising to the employee.
Assignees who return home unhappy, but with fresh international experience are very attractive to many other employers – including the organisation’s competition.
What organisations can do
Assignees often feel lost when they return home as if they no longer belong anywhere. They experience a significant disconnect between the reality of their home country and their nostalgic memories. This kind of mismatch frequently feeds stress, dissatisfaction and conflict. It is too easy to lay the blame at the employer’s door, and the new job search begins.
Ambitious employees will soon become ex-employees.
Organisations that want to maximise the return on the investment in an assignee need to present them a secure, well-defined position when they return home. Ideally, they need to acknowledge the returnee’s achievements as well.
Employees returning to the same job – a common occurrence – after thriving more autonomously in a foreign environment will quickly turn into bored employees. Ambitious employees will soon become ex-employees.
Returning assignees need to know that they are on a career development track that gives them personal and professional satisfaction
The biggest failure is to forget the assignment’s objective. An employee with potential went abroad to develop their skills. When they return home, the organisation then ignores or dismisses that new knowledge and experience, either by offering a role which does not build on those international talents or by referring to a “three-year holiday” that needs to be paid for.
Returning assignees need to know that they are on a career development track that gives them personal and professional satisfaction. They need to see that the sacrifice their family has made has a career advantage or they will find someone who does appreciate it.
What returning assignees should watch out for
It is not just the organisation that needs to adapt when assignees return home. The repatriating employees also have an obligation to reintegrate into their corporate culture, even if this sometimes means making compromises.
One very effective method to counter this disconnect with the organisation is the buddy system
1. Keep in touch
Employees who have operated under the principle of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ should not be too surprised if their colleagues are unsure of where they fit upon their return. Keeping channels of communication open throughout the assignment can minimise this risk; so can occasional visits back to the home office, as nothing fully replaces being face to face.
2. Acknowledge the changes on both sides
Employees also need to recognise that their home office has also changed since they went abroad. Ignoring the shift in hierarchy, power and influence may set up the assignee for a diminished role upon their return, especially if their champion has been marginalised or, even worse, is no longer there.
Networks must not only be nurtured while abroad, but they also need to expand.
3. Make sure you have a buddy
One very effective method to counter this disconnect with the organisation is the buddy system. Ensuring assignees have buddies before they leave, during the assignment and on return gives them a relationship link with the home office.
It helps them stay in touch and become aware of the minor changes that are not worthy of an official corporate announcement. Research shows that attrition is most effectively addressed through maintaining positive internal professional relationships.
Organisations and assignees must recognise that the return home is a valuable opportunity to improve both the organisation as well as support the employee on their next step in their career. Continued communication, a clear, well-defined plan, and the opportunity to jointly discuss future expectations will give both parties a much greater chance of continued growth.
Without this, the organisation has probably thrown away their investment as well as a great asset to their team.
Research shows that attrition is most effectively addressed through maintaining positive internal professional relationships