International mobility: the challenges of repatriation
An assignment abroad is a high-stakes situation, both for the employee and for the company that decides to invest in the mobility of its employees.
However, while many companies quite naturally deal with the various stages relating to the departure and start-up on site, in the field we find that very little effort and resources are deployed to facilitate the repatriation of employees who have spent two, three or even several years abroad. However, they represent an important asset that the company has invested significantly in, since the cost of an expatriate employee is around 2 to 3 times their annual salary.
In this context, the repatriation is both a challenge and an opportunity, sometimes greater than the original assignment.
What are the challenges of repatriation?
For the employee, it is primarily a question of capitalizing on their experience abroad to advance their career, by reintegrating the organization in a motivating position that they consider suitable for their career path.
Unfortunately, several studies  have found that this is not always the case and that returning managers often feel that their expatriation has had a negative impact on their career within the organization.
This is due to several concomitant factors, including the impression that the absence has weakened their internal network or the lukewarm welcome of certain colleagues or managers, who seem to be jealous of the international experience they themselves lack. The challenge of employability is generally better met, since a significant amount of experience working abroad still represents a major asset in several sectors.
On a more personal level, readjusting to the home country environment can be difficult, contrary to popular belief.
For the company, it is a question of capitalizing on the investment represented by the employee’s expatriation in several ways.
First of all, by making sure that the employee does not leave the organization for lack of adequate opportunities. This remains a major difficulty for companies, since some reports estimate the departure rate between 30 and 40% in the year following the repatriation . The timing of the return is all the more crucial given that after the first year, the departure rate of repatriated employees in the medium-term is lower than that of their colleagues.
Then comes the ability to organize the transfer of knowledge and the sharing of the network acquired by the employee during the international assignment. A structured approach to employee reintegration (internal networks, cross-functional working groups, mentoring programs, etc.) can ensure organizational learning and a return on the company’s investment, which is often evaluated solely in terms of the results achieved during the assignment abroad.
What are the solutions?
Support for a repatriation must be prepared and should be structured over a relatively long period (between 8 and 12 months), to meet the following objectives:
- 6 to 4 months before repatriation: clarification of the employee’s expectations, in line with their career plan and depending on the positions that are actually available, including those outside the employee’s current position (sales, marketing, operational….).
- From 2 months before the repatriation: preparation of an integration plan, to be considered as a fully-fledged career path, just as important as the one reserved for newcomers.
- On taking up the position, for 4 to 6 months: support for the employee to facilitate their reintegration, the transfer of their international skills to their immediate environment, change management on a professional and personal level.
This support must involve not only the candidate, but also their immediate superiors and HR, who are stakeholders in any integration situation. In some cases, it is advisable to extend the scheme to the spouse, whose situation often represents a major cause for concern (and therefore energy expenditure) for the employee, both on departure and on repatriation.
The cost of a possible failure, for the organization as well as for the candidate, fully justifies the company taking a fresh look at repatriation, and devoting more resources to it.
Angela Lequenne, Akteos Consultant
 See the work of J.L. Cerdin, G.K. Stahl, M.C. Bolino.
 PWC study on the evaluation of international mobility assignments.