Repatriation Management – The Key to Retention

Despite ongoing concerns about high expatriate attrition rates companies do not seem to be paying a lot of attention to the repatriation phase. A similar observation can be made in HRM journals; whereas expatriation has been researched extensively during the last decades, repatriation has received scarce attention in literature. The purpose of this article is, therefore, to highlight the relevance of repatriation management in the earliest stages of expatriate management.

Recent research indicates that successful expatriation assignments rely on four elements: the selection of the candidates, pre-arrival preparation for both expatriate and family, the provided support and possibility to keep in touch with the home organization while on an expatriate assignment, and the repatriation arrangements after completion of the assignment (Baruch and Altman, 2002). That appropriate attention to repatriation arrangements is important follows out of various observations: (1) Valuable personnel frequently leave the organization relatively shortly after repatriation. Research findings from 2002 showed that about 50% of personnel left a financial services company within a few years following the return to their home country (Baruch & Altman, 2002). As well, it has been found that 30% to 40% of expatriates leave their companies within two years of repatriation compared to 5-10% of non-expatriate employees. (2) More than 30% of overseas assignments fail, resulting in similar premature return rates of expatriates. Expatriate failure rates are generally unrelated to aspects of functioning that were relevant in domestic organizational settings.

Although a lengthy discussion of underlying reasons for expatriate failure is unfortunately out of scope for this article, it can be argued that companies benefit from managing this repatriation process in order to exploit the knowledge and skills of returning expatriates. (3) High attrition rates have been found to be primarily related to organizations’ difficulties to effectively reposition their repatriated employees. This observation is a strong argument to stress repatriation management in HR departments. (4) Organizations may experience difficulties in finding candidates for expatriate positions when potential candidates see what will happen to expatriates once they return. (5) Ogberg, who coined the term ‘culture shock’ in 1960, also considered a reverse culture shock that expatriates experience when returning home. Proper preparation for this future shock may prepare expatriates for the transition to domestic work and family settings. (5) Research in 2005 showed that repatriation adjustment was the strongest predictor of intent to leave the organization (Lee & Liu, 2005).

Retention and career management, therefore, should be central to planning expatriate positions. Positions should be gradually more challenging in order to challenge valuable employees and be part of a long term career path. Long term career planning foresees in building on previous assignments; assigning repatriates unchallenging positions once back home may be regarded as an invitation to apply for positions elsewhere. Sound expatriate management will therefore consider repatriation arrangements as good practice.

In reality, however, organizations often seem to have forgotten who these expatriates are. HR departments fail to build on expatriates’ skills and experience because they do not know well what they have accomplished during the years. Expatriates experience frustration once their expatriate benefits and status will be lost upon repatriation. They will have to get used to ‘normal’ levels of pay and taxation again. Their children will have to attend national curriculum schools, private school tuition fees will not be covered upon return to the home country. Establishing a mutual understanding and a clear definition of successful repatriation could help repatriates establish correct expectations before returning home. A proper preparation towards the end of expatriate assignments may ease the transition and avoid costly turnover for the organization. An ongoing lack of attention to repatriation management will likely continue to fuel high attrition rates. The question is: do we really want valuable personnel to leave the organization after costly assignments abroad or should we take action?