How to deal with expats when they return home

An employee’s time abroad is normally when support is provided from the employer. However, coming home means upheaval, which can in turn bring stress. It falls to HR departments to confront the disconcerting effects of repatriation.

However, HR departments are not always able to deal with these problems. Countering them is seen as both expensive and time-consuming. The reverse culture shock that some employees experience when returning home can be significant and can have negative effects on their output.

As Frances Wilson, manager of international matters at the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD), points out, this is an area that often gets overlooked.

Nevertheless, it is an area that HR departments must address. Though, as Wilson points out, companies are more than willing to spend time picking the correct person for a position abroad, “once they’re out of the country, there is a tendency to see them as out of sight, out of mind”.

However, companies that have successfully dealt with returning workers have taken to providing returning employees with mentors. The issue should be seen, says Wilson, as an extension of the idea of “career management”.

“There are companies that don’t do this,” says Wilson. “They don’t take into account newly-acquired knowledge, and so people feel underused and undervalued when they return.”

It is these so-called soft skills that are the most important for HR departments to master. Rather than helping with the simple technicalities of repatriation – registering for tax, joining the electoral roll, etc – those things most valued are help with finding schools for children, and finding employment for spouses.

It has also been shown that simple measures by employees, such as sending a company representative to the airport to meet a returning employee, can make a significant and positive difference.

This point of view is backed up by recent research conducted by Expertise In Labour Mobility. The research concluded that a constantly high level of communication is advisable while the employee is abroad, and this level of communication should be maintained on their return by the use of mentoring schemes.

The report also found that efforts should be made to take advantage of new skills that have been gained from an employee’s stay abroad. If new skills are ignored, employees can feel underused and in turn, undervalued.

However, HR departments must strike a careful balance. It is important not to give other staff the impression that returning employees are somehow privileged. Further problems arise when dealing with those returning from sensitive regions. This is currently the case with companies that have employees in the Middle East, some of whom return in need of trauma counselling.

Swift re-integration means a more settled, productive employee, which in turn leads to a more productive company. As Wilson says, “This [repatriated] employee is essentially a new employee, who needs re-integration and who needs to be made productive quickly.”

Quick, well-managed re-integration is not just for the benefit of the repatriated worker, but also for the employer too.

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