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How to manage repatriated staff

Prof Marie-Therese Claes

After Brexit, our workforce is changing and many of your staff on assignment abroad may be returning to the UK. So how do you help them fit back into the British workforce? Professor Marie-Therese Claes, leader of CEMS Global Leadership, and director of Louvain School of Management, gives her advice on repatriating "the forgotten workforce"

Global mobility is strong and the movement of people will only increase over the next few years. The next generation of leaders is now going into the workplace prepared for a global career, scattered with international assignments and placements.

New research from CEMS – the Global Alliance in Business Education – has found that the topic of internationality is a huge challenge to nearly half HR managers.  Companies are struggling to find globally minded people (to place overseas or recruit from overseas). Too many people leave the companies after repatriation, because their international experience is not recognised, or they have to move to a lower position. They are effectively "forgotten".

A recent survey, conducted by CEMS and its corporate partner Universum, among HR managers, suggests repatriation is a challenge when it comes to global assignments.  Too many people leave the company after returning from international placements because either their experience abroad is not recognised, or they have to move to a lower position, because their old role or equivalent no longer exists. They are effectively "forgotten". 

Repatriates can feel out of touch with the changes in the organisation and, to some extent, society in general. They may find it hard to fit in because they lose the autonomy and decision-making power they enjoyed during the assignment. If there is no knowledge-transfer system in place, returnees have no way of sharing acquired experience, leading to frustration: they have useful information to share, but nobody seems interested. 

Poor management of repatriates can mean letting talented executives offer their services to competitors, which is a huge loss for the company and a boon for the competitor. 

Executives and HR must manage careers

Recent research carried out by Arnaud Dupuis, at Louvain School of Management, found that HR does not currently do much for expats' careers – from the surprising absence of pre-departure preparation to a lack of clear repatriation strategy.

HR and international mobility managers mentioned that executives are in charge of their career choices as leaders of their professional development.  This means managers must look out for what positions they can apply for before they come back, putting them in the difficult situation where on the one hand they have to achieve success in their foreign assignment and simultaneously look for openings after their return.

Taking into account the time of adaptation to the new position at the beginning of the expatriation and the pressure related to the job-search, keeping the executives fully responsible for their career development during international assignments is likely to decrease the productivity of their mission abroad and negatively impact managerial behaviour.  So while managers do have to take their career into their own hands, this does not mean HR should neglect a repatriation strategy - indeed most HR departments need to do better in this area.  

HR needs to do better

Expatriation can only be positive if company and executive work together. The negative impact of a returning expatriate being promised a position on return, and facing a demotion or even a jobless situation, is too harmful to be recurrent in a multinational company. 

While HR cannot give a clear idea of what the situation will be in three or five years’ time, or predict what job they might have on return, the possible gap between the expectations of the expat and reality upon return must be made clear.

For example, a repatriate will not have the same financial advantages as on assignment and will need to look for another position before the stint abroad finishes – something they may not be aware of.  

 HR should also update expats about possible next positions. When you are abroad, you are cut off from conversations, and people at home think you know what is going on. It is of course the expat’s role to keep their network active, but HR must provide the people out there with extra information.  

Expatriates develop a unique set of skills during their placement: managerial, technical and cross-cultural. Managers with such skills tend to be oriented toward positions in which they are unlikely to use or teach these skills and, with the focus on the immediate mission of expatriates, there seems to be no future for skilled managers on return.  

By focusing on brief mission-oriented expatriations, companies too often deliver short-term financial impact but fail to grasp a key long-term benefit of international assignments: to develop a sustainable and globally integrated business model abroad.

Managers should be challenged to prove they were able to make the host workforce more autonomous and educated to the corporate culture.  For this reason, knowledge transfer should appear in the appreciation of expatriates’ work, despite the difficulties in assessment.   

Foreign assignments can be hugely beneficial to companies, if the company manages to keep the experienced people, valuing their experience and using the knowledge gained to the best advantage. However the reality is, if the company does not manage repatriation, they will probably lose some of their best people. 

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