Why Can’t Organizations Retain Their Expatriate Employees?

With the rise of globalization, international experience is becoming a critical asset for global companies. International assignment experience is valuable. In the right context, it can create a competitive advantage — both for expatriates and the companies that employ them.

I realize there are many problems with expatriate/family repatriation back into the home country. However, I will limit the discussion here to career issues.

Returning expatriates (returnees) bring these things to the company:

  • Ability to work and manage effectively in other countries.
  • Information about specific local markets and customers.
  • Ability to accelerate the transfer of knowledge between countries.

Why is this process so difficult

So why is the repatriation process so difficult? It should be simple. Returnees should be placed in jobs that utilize their newfound skills/knowledge.

However, a 2010 survey by Brookfield Global Relocation shows that 38 percent of returnees quit within 12 months. What is worse is that these figures have been consistent for the past 30 plus years.

That results in a terrible ROI for companies that have spent 2-4 times the returnee’s pay during the assignment. Not only is it costly, but having returnees leave the company sends a warning signal to employees that taking an expatriate assignment may be “career threatening.”

This is not just a problem for small to medium size companies that have little experience with expatriates. It includes large multinationals that have been sending expatriates overseas for years. Some of the problems include:

  1. Unclear expectations: During pre-assignment, top management may emphasize that international experience is critical for the company to survive in the new global business environment. Post-assignment— it is as though top management is suffering from amnesia. Management doesn’t quite know how to utilize that experience.
  2. Learning a “new” organization: Returnees see old co-workers that have been promoted while they have been gone. They wonder if the assignment hurt their career. They also must get up to speed quickly about changes in organization, strategy, management, culture, etc.
  3. Under-utilization of overseas experience: Many expatriate jobs are highly challenging and very autonomous. Expatriates are chief spokespeople for the company with the host country government, professional business organizations, customers, legal entities, etc.

Management simply does not grasp that a reassignment as a sales manager for Wyoming, Montana, and Utah, doesn’t cut it for a person that has been the regional sales manager for Europe, for example. Then they are surprised when that person leaves. And to top it all off, the receiving company is thrilled to hire someone with international experience!

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What can be done about it? What advice can be given to companies wanting to keep their returnees, and to returnees themselves?

What companies can do

Companies can:

  • Clarify objectives before the assignment as well as how knowledge can be used and what kind of job will be targeted upon return.
  • Appoint a key line executive as a sponsor for each expatriate. This needs to be someone that is high enough in the company to have easy access to top management and preferably from a different business unit/division/functional area than the expatriate.
  • Quarterly reviews should be held with expatriate, home/host manager and a VP. Having a VP present sends a positive message and recognition. It also allows the VP a chance to understand the challenges and accomplishments of the expatriate.
  • A year before repatriation starts, expatriate/sponsor need to discuss positions that are suitable back home.
  • Sponsor/returnee link should continue for a year after return to make certain “re-entry” works.

What returning employees can do

In turn, returnees can:

  • Find someone to confide in and “vent” to (preferably not the spouse!) — a personal friend, former expat — who will understand, or at least listen to frustrations.
  • Keep in touch with home country friends and co-workers.
  • Use the sponsor relationship to focus on career advancement issues as well as to highlight accomplishments and results
  • As part of repatriation planning, take inventory of new skills gained during the assignment. Discuss these with the sponsor to begin job search at home that will be a good “fit.”

Companies must be able to capitalize on their returnees’ skills and knowledge. In order to do so, they need to cultivate a global vision and corporate culture. Companies that support returnees, value their international experience and utilize their global knowledge and contribution will realize true growth in the strategic development of the company.

Jacque Vilet, president of Vilet International, has more than 20 years’ experience in international human resources with major multinationals such as Intel, National Semiconductor, and Seagate Technology. She has managed both local/ in-country national and expatriate programs and has been an expat twice during her career. She has also been a speaker in the U.S., Asia, and Europe, and is a regular contributor to various HR and talent management publications. Contact her at jvilet@viletinternational.com.