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Bringing Them Back Home

A recent study suggests the majority of expats are unaware of the repatriation assistance available to them upon returning home. While many large employers have an array of repatriation services to offer, many of these same companies must do a better job of making returning expats aware of them, experts say.

Monday, December 23, 2013
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Every organization knows the importance of helping an expatriate settle smoothly into an overseas assignment -- from assisting with relocation expenses and arranging medical care to helping spouses find employment and covering preschool tuition for the kids.

But what happens when the expat comes home? While many companies offer repatriation assistance to returning employees, a recent survey from the National Foreign Trade Council and Cigna suggests a majority of expats are uncertain of just how their employer can aid their re-entry to the home workforce.

In a poll of 1,511 employees at all levels, 59 percent of expatriates said they were unaware of their employer's repatriation assistance, and didn't know whether their employer would track what happens to them after they return home.

It's not that companies don't have a wealth of resources to offer returning expats, says William Sheridan, vice president of international human resources services at the National Foreign Trade Council's New York office.

"In our experience, and [based on] what we hear from our members, the majority of companies do in fact have good information facilities for their assignees -- usually online and accessible through company websites," says Sheridan.

Rather, "the problem may be insufficient communications with the assignee," he says. "Information may well be available, but the assignee is not informed about how to access it."

Many organizations have typically lacked a formal repatriation program, repatriating employees on a case-by-case basis, says Eileen Mullaney, a New York-based principal in the international assignment practice of PricewaterhouseCoopers. This approach doesn't necessarily address the post-return, long-term aspects of the assignment, she says.

"Pre-assignment discussions regarding expectations and objectives are focused on the immediate assignment, rather than the assignment within the [expat's] overall career context," says Mullaney. "While the assignee is anxious for the assignment opportunity, he or she often leaves with some anxiety about what may be next."

She adds, however, that "organizations are becoming much more focused on the planning process, and in turn formalizing their repatriation programs."

Once a program is in place, she says, HR and global mobility leaders need to communicate the intent and objectives of the organization and the mobility program to all stakeholders.

For example, "many companies are now offering a repatriation planning trip; a business trip where the assignee returns to the home location approximately six months before the projected end date of the assignment, to focus on networking, reconnecting with the home-country team and starting to plan for the transition back home," she says.

Some organizations also opt for offering acclimation programs at home, says Mullaney.

"These are conducted by third-party providers," she says, "functioning as 'reverse' cultural training programs intended to assist the assignee and family transition back home."

These programs can be particularly helpful, she says, for assignees who have been on several assignments, and have not lived and worked in the home location for many years.

The high percentage of these types of programs, however, comes as no surprise to Ed Hannibal, the Chicago-based global consulting leader for North America at Mercer.

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Generally speaking, many global firms "do a great job of managing the compliance and risk aspects of expatriation," says Hannibal. "But repatriation is not owned [strictly] by global mobility teams. In fact, it is a collaboration between the business leader while on assignment, the business leader or sponsor of the assignment, talent management and senior leaders."

Whereas global mobility managers typically oversee lists of international assignees and the details of their assignments, "the organization owns the repatriation," he says. "There are a myriad of practices, from companies enforcing return trips for employee interviewing for new roles up to 12 months before repatriation to talent planning at a people-committee level."

In addition to handling these responsibilities, business leaders, managers and HR professionals must share the availability of repatriation services with employees via websites, online portals, brochures and checklists, says Hannibal.

This team should "articulate and advertise successful assignees -- including C-suite and business leaders -- that have returned and been successful one, three and five years post-assignment," he adds.

 "All parties should start before the employees deploy, and remind them throughout the assignment -- encouraging check-in visits to the home office or headquarters on business trips or on home leave," says Hannibal. "Employees and employers need to reinforce the need for mobile employees to constantly network for their next opportunity through social media as well, not just face-to-face."

Of course, measuring the usefulness of the organization's repatriation services is critical, adds Mullaney.

"Companies are very focused on the overall effectiveness of their programs, including performance metrics such as retention rates and promotion rates, and comparing the global mobility results to domestic results."

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