Given the excitement of going on an international assignment, expatriates often get a lot of attention. And that’s fair. During their journey into the unknown, expats go through a complex adjustment cycle—all while taking on valuable business opportunities. But what about repatriation?

Repatriated employees play a crucial role in the globalization process, too. First, they add invaluable knowledge to the global wisdom of the company as a result of their international experiences. They also continue to broaden the scope of global vision and general global awareness within the corporation by sharing their experiences, from triumphs to failures. Finally, they serve as role models and mentors for others who may consider expatriate assignments.

But even though they’re returning home, repatriation can be just as challenging as expatriation, albeit in different ways.

The Personal Challenges of Repatriation

Reentry to the home country can be traumatic, and many experts agree that it requires as much cultural adaptation as the initial international move. Not only is the expatriate and family returning to an environment that is quite different from the one they left, but they often don’t expect it to be altered. Here are some of the personal challenges faced during repatriation:

  • Repatriates have changed due to their experience
  • Their friends have changed over time
  • Their home may look different, both in reality and from a subjective perspective.
  • Their children may need to find new friends and readjust into a “home” community that feels strange
  • Their spouse spouse/partner may struggle to re-enter the workforce in their home country
  • They might have to live on a salary without additional allowances

The Job-Related Challenges of Repatriation

Repatriate adjustment matters in the workplace, too. The way returning expatriates are treated in an organization sends out strong, clear signals to others considering taking on such assignments. Unfortunately, repatriation often doesn’t get enough attention. Here are some common challenges faced by repatriates when they return to their home organization:

  • The job back home often has reduced responsibility and control
  • They may have authority and autonomy in their new role
  • Friends and fellow employees can think that expatriates are bragging when they discuss their experience
  • The expatriate experience is not always adequately valued by the company, making employees feel underutilized and underappreciated

What Makes a Good Repatriation Program

A good repatriation program helps employees adjust to the “reverse” culture shock of returning home by reducing emotional turmoil, for one. But good repatriation programs also recognize that expats are an important asset to the business. For example, expats can be a trove of accumulated knowledge and experience. What better and more visible role model could future expats have than someone who has been in the trenches and returned—having done the job successfully? Retaining the wisdom of returning employees and institutionalizing it is critical for the message it sends to future expats, and for the organization as a whole.

It’s important to keep in mind that the talent pool for potential expats is not great, even in the largest and most successful global companies. However, if an organization recognizes and values their repatriated employee’s contribution, it sends out a profoundly different message than a firm where employees return to no job, are passed over for promotion, or are slotted into a dead-end position. In such a scenario, workers inevitably depart the organization to enhance their careers and capitalize on their expatriate experience elsewhere. And they create a brain drain in the process.

When expatriates return from international assignments, there is a reentry culture shock that occurs. If you’ve repatriated before, what were the most salient challenges you faced? How can organizations better support repatriates?

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