While an overseas assignment demands investment for the initial relocation and through ongoing support, there are common risks and challenges associated with repatriating employees as they return to their old workplace and lives.
There are many reasons for high employee attrition rates following overseas assignment, and HR and mobility teams should take proactive steps to manage employee expectations about their return to the UK, both to reduce the risk of attrition and make the settlement process a positive experience both for the employee and employer.
Why repatriation matters
Repatriating employees is the process of an employee returning to live and work in their home country, typically once an overseas assignment has come to an end.
Essentially, repatriation is the last step in the expatriation lifecycle and, in many cases, will involve a process of practical, mental and emotional readjustment for the employee, as well as their families where they relocated abroad altogether.
Repatriation is an often overlooked part of employers’ global mobility programmes. But supporting employees through repatriation is shown to deliver value by reducing post-assignment employee attrition rates, enabling the organisation to enjoy the full benefit of overseas assignments. A returning employee can offer an organisation enhanced international experience, greater organisational insight, new language skills and internal relationships. Failure to support employees returning from overseas assignment risks the employee leaving the organisation and taking this enhanced knowledge and perspective – which will be considered valuable and desirable to competitors – out of the organisation.
How to support repatriating employees
There are various challenges for employers when deploying employees overseas, in particular ensuring they remain competitive in retaining global talent at the end of the assignment lifecycle.
Maintaining contact and open lines of communication while the employee is on assignment and as they repatriate and readjust is beneficial in supporting the employee to raise and discuss issues that the employer can then act on.
Reverse culture shock
The employee should not be expected to settle back straightaway or without issue. In the same way, relocating overseas can feel like a culture shock, the returning assignee may also suffer ‘reverse culture shock’ requiring a period of reintegration into their old work and life and in the UK.
They may find the return home is an anti-climax after a period of change and upheaval, and staying motivated becomes difficult.
The challenges facing a returning assignee can also be exacerbated by long-term disconnection from the UK, where an employee has been unable to keep in touch with colleagues and work-life back home. There are likely to have been changes to the team in their old workplace, impacting interpersonal work relationships and creating new workplace dynamics where the employee’s time away is received negatively by colleagues.
A human-centric approach should be taken to managing a returning assignee, as absent the right personal and professional support this could seriously affect the employer-employee relationship in the long-term, resulting in loss of talent in which you have invested an entire costly overseas experience.
Re-entry counselling both for the employee and their family members can be effective to talk through the issues and coping mechanisms to support reintegration. Family members heavily influence the success of repatriation. Where there are issues at home, this is likely to take the employee’s focus, impacting performance, motivation and value to the business.
In some cases, assignments can end prematurely, either for professional or personal reasons. In these circumstances, where an employee elects or is otherwise required to come home early, additional support may need to be provided promptly to support the employee and their family through the transition phase.
In advance of the assignment ending, it will be important for both the employer and the employee to have a clear plan and expectations of what the repatriation process will involve.
Pre-departure career discussions are a positive way for HR professionals to begin managing repatriate expectations. Will the employee be returning to their old job or a new role, suited to their skills and experience?
For example, where international experience forms part of a wider talent development and training programme, returning employees will expect to be met with career opportunities and progression aligned to their enhanced capabilities. This could include the provision of a suitably senior role or where not available, more creative opportunities to motivate and encourage returning assignees to remain within your organisation following assignment.
Assigning a returning employee a holding role, perhaps with less responsibility than they previously had, is a high-risk tactic that can impact employee morale and motivation, and could steer the employee out of the organisation.
The provision of a suitable job role may not, in itself, be sufficient incentive to retain an employee. For them, both personally and professionally, much may have changed during their time away. They may have different goals or even a different career path in mind, so you may need to be open to exploring what options are now available to them and listening to their experiences.
Inevitably, controlling costs plays a key role in what you are reasonably able to offer an overseas assignee on their return to the UK. It is likely the assignment will already have demanded budget for compensation, the relocation package as well as management and administration support, but this must be balanced against the need to retain talent and safeguard a return on the investment that has already been made.
The organisation also needs to consider how it will leverage the additional knowledge and experience assignees have gained through the expatriate experience.
Formal debriefing can help to identify areas for improvement and enhancements based on the international experience and can make the returning employees feel valued.
Depending on how long the assignment was for, the employee may also require practical support with resettlement, such as locating new accommodation and help with enrolling children in school.
In some cases, where the returning employee or family members are not UK nationals or do not have UK settled status, there may be immigration requirements to be addressed to ensure the relevant permissions. Indefinite leave to remain holders for example may need to confirm they have not lost their status due to excessive absence.
Repatriating employees FAQs
How do you repatriate employees?
Support with repatriation of overseas employees should involve help with travel and relocation arrangements as well as assistance once they have returned to avoid reverse culture shock and support with reintegration into the workplace environment.
What is a repatriation process?
Repatriation usually involves an individual returning to their home country on a permanent basis.
What are expatriate workers?
Expatriate workers live and work in a country different to their country of nationality. They typically receive a package of support and remuneration consumerate with their level of expertise and to allow for the expenses incurred when relocating to a different country for work.
The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.