Expatriate employees struggle to readjust to old lives

Without support, returning staff may use their experience abroad to find another job

Early in her career with a big-four professional services company, Annaliese Allen was seconded from her home town of Melbourne to the company’s Chicago office, which needed more people urgently. The move was easy. She was well-paid, eager to explore and made to feel special. Life was good — until she boarded the plane home after more than two years away.

In Chicago, Ms Allen had impressed decision makers with her aptitude for policy work. Once home, however, she discovered that her overseas achievements counted for little. She was given tax compliance work, a business area that was growing but a poor fit for her talents.

She felt unappreciated and adrift. “In the States, I had been doing lots of strategic consulting and meeting very senior executives . . . when I moved back to Melbourne, I was sitting doing tax returns.”

After two months she resigned, and went to work for the US business on local terms. “I had been trying to return to my old life, when I had become a different person,” she says.

Ms Allen calls her unhappy homecoming an “extreme return failure” — a combination of professional disappointment and a dose of reverse culture shock. Yet her experience of a good assignment followed by a bad return is common.

How employers support the people they send abroad colours how those employees look back on their experiences and how they approach their next role. If things go badly, an employee may use their international know-how to find another job.

Yet research by Cartus, a relocation business, found even employers that do a lot to help employees and their families move abroad neglect basics, such as asking how the assignment went or helping in the readjustment after a period away. Seventy-eight per cent of employers did not know if they were losing recently returned staff to competitors because they did not collect data.

Foreign assignments are expensive: an industry rule-of-thumb is that sending people abroad costs two-to-three times the cost of employing them at home, says Diane Douiyssi, a director at Brookfield Global Relocation Services. So why do companies pay repatriation scant attention?

One reason may be that other tasks seem more urgent. When organisations send people abroad, often it is “to find an immediate solution to a problem”, says Tanya Thouw, head of HR global mobility at SAP. What the employee will do once the problem is fixed barely features. David Enser, who heads international mobility at Adidas and co-founded the RES Forum, an international HR network, says this is short-sighted. Many multinational employers including his own “[have lost] expensively developed talent through lack of forward planning”.

Talking to people from day one about the roles that might be open to them when they return — something just 23 per cent of companies do, according to a survey by Brookfield Global Relocation Services — might result in fewer post-assignment fallouts.

In the absence of discussion misunderstandings abound, says Benjamin Bader, a professor at Leuphana University of Lunebürg and a co-author with the University of Hamburg of a study on repatriation conducted with the RES Forum. The employee sees the assignment as a passport to promotion, but the employer simply wants someone to get the job done, and is not making any promises.

Employers who struggle to persuade people to accept assignments need to think carefully about what employees expect on their return. To overcome a perception that people were “sent overseas and forgotten”, Adidas introduced new contracts for some types of fixed-term assignments, guaranteeing people a right of return and help finding their next role.

Oliver Schramm, a senior director at Adidas, is on an assignment to Oregon, for a minimum of three years, accompanied by his family. He says that “having a job ticket back to Germany” removes the financial worry that he might not have a job to return to. He and his wife have retirement-age parents and want their children to resume education in the German school system. “Knowing that we will return means that we are able to enjoy our adventure,” he says.

Even when bosses are supportive, employees may be wise to seize the initiative. The Leuphana and Hamburg study found expatriates who networked and banged on the HR department’s door ended up with bigger and better-paid roles.

The research found that the staff who received the biggest rewards were not always those who had achieved most while abroad. In fact, performance appeared to have virtually no effect on what the employee did next.

That could imply that companies are promoting the wrong people because their HR systems are not set up to share information across the organisation, Prof Bader believes. “If you perform extremely well and HQ doesn’t know, that’s really a frustration.”

Given the vagaries of international moves, the best strategy for individuals is to prepare for all eventualities. Katherine Cox, a client director at Schroders, in London, advises expatriates to keep in contact with as many senior figures as possible while abroad.

While on a four-year secondment to New York, Ms Cox made a point of dropping into the London office on trips home and scheduling catch-ups with senior colleagues. It landed her a job with a former boss in a business area she enjoyed.

Encouraging people to share knowledge might also soften the comedown that follows a foreign adventure. The realisation that, as Mr Enser puts it, “no one is as interested in your stories as you are”, comes on top of the stress of getting the utilities reconnected and finding the children a new school.

SAP improved its repatriation policies after discovering that the number of people resigning within three years of returning home was, as Ms Thouw puts it, “higher than we wanted it to be”. It now limits assignments to three years (two years with a possible 12-month extension), and pairs expatriates with mentors based in their home country.

“If you send someone abroad for five years, home [can] really seem like a strange country,” Ms Thouw says. Your friends’ interests may no longer be your interests, colleagues may have come and gone and even local etiquette that you took for granted may now seem alien.

But what if re-embracing the day-to-day feels too tame after making your mark in an unfamiliar culture? After working in the US, Ms Allen returned again to Australia — and this time stayed put.

“I bought myself a tourist guide and told myself I was a tourist in my own country. It made returning home much more fun.”

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