Statement: Starting an expatriate assignment requires more company support than repatriation

It is commonly recognized by HR professionals, managers and expatriates themselves that starting an expatriate assignment entails many challenges such as relocating one’s family to a new country, adjusting to a new culture, etc.

Therefore, company support at the outset of the assignment is much more important than when completing the assignment and returning home.

Fact or Fiction?

Evidence:

The statement that starting an expatriate assignment requires more company support than repatriation is a fiction.

Several researchers suggest that repatriation adjustment is as difficult if not more difficult than the original expatriation adjustment (Adler, 1981; Black & Gregersen, 1999; Howard, 1980; Stahl, Miller & Tung, 2002). Thus, at least the same amount of company support is needed during the repatriation process.

Although the expatriate returns home there are several challenges and readjustment problems related to the process, for example due to changes in living and working conditions in the home country. In other words, when repatriating a certain degree of novelty is involved, just like during expatriation. Scholars indicate four different dimensions of novelty: job, organizational, environmental and individual aspects (Black, Gregersen & Mendenhall, 1992). When returning home after a long absence one needs to readjust to a new position (job), get acquainted with new colleagues and practices (organizational), refresh friendships, rebuild social networks and adjust family life to the home setting (environmental), and finally integrate one’s changed values, attitudes and habits with the environment (individual aspects). These dimensions are similar to the ones relevant during expatriation adjustment, thus making the repatriation experience as challenging.

Furthermore, what can make returning home even more difficult than leaving home are expectations. Expectations towards the home country are often less flexible than towards the host country given one’s existing previous experiences (Black et al., 1992). When going abroad, expectations are mainly developed based on stereotypes or secondary experience and tend to be constantly revised. In contrast, when going abroad, one seems to know exactly what to expect when returning. Consequently, because of this rigidity there is a higher risk that these expectations are unmet, which can result in a relatively stronger shock during repatriation than when moving abroad.

The following is an exemplary experience from a Finnish spouse returning from Australia (Gregersen & Stroh, 1997: 635-636):

Coming back home was more difficult than going abroad because I had expected changes when going overseas. During repatriation it was real culture shock! I felt like an alien in my own country. Surprisingly, I was totally unprepared for the long, harsh, cold, dark Arctic winter. My attitudes had changed so much that it was difficult to understand Finnish customs. Old friends had moved, had children, or just vanished. Others were interested in our experience, but only sort of…

There are several sources of company support that can facilitate repatriation adjustment (Lazarova & Caligiuri, 2001):

  • Pre-departure briefings on what to expect during repatriation
  • Career planning sessions
  • An agreement outlining the type of position assignees will be offered upon repatriation
  • Mentoring programs while on assignment
  • Reorientation programs about the changes in the company
  • Repatriation training seminars on emotional responses following repatriation
  • Financial counseling and financial/tax assistance
  • On-going communication with the home office

Further reading:

Adler, N. (1981). Re-entry: Managing cross-cultural transitions. Group and Organization Studies, 6, 341-56.                                                                                       

Black, J.S., & Gregersen, H.B. (1999). So You’re Coming Home. Global Business, San Diego, CA.

Black, J. S., Gregersen, H., & Mendenhall, M. (1992). Toward a Theoretical Model of Repatriation Adjustment. Journal of International Business Studies, 23, 737-760.

Gregersen, H.B., & Stroh, L.K. (1997). Coming home to the arctic cold: Antecedents to Finnish expatriate and spouse repatriation adjustment. Personnel Psychology, 50, 635-654.

Howard, C. (1980). The returning overseas executive: Culture shock in reverse. Human Resource Management, 13, 22-26.

Lazarova, M. B., & Caligiuri, P. (2001). Retaining repatriates: The role of organization support practices. Journal of World Business, 36(4), 389-401.

Reiche, B.S., & Harzing, A.-W. (2010). International assignments. In A.-W. Harzing & A.H. Pinnington (Eds.), International Human Resource Management (3rd ed.), pp. 185-226. London: Sage.

Stahl, G.K., Miller, E.L., & Tung, R.L. (2002). Toward the Boundaryless Career: A Closer Look at the Expatriate Career Concept and the Perceived Implications of an International Assignment. Journal of World Business, 37 (3), 1-12.

10 thoughts on “Statement: Starting an expatriate assignment requires more company support than repatriation

  1. Company support at the outset of the assignment is much more important than when completing the assignment and returning home.

    Fact!

    Members at InterNations will agree with you 100%.
    It’s so much for important for a company to support potential expats before leaving their home country and while relocating.

    http://www.internations.org

  2. I have some friends that just moved to Hong Kong for a work assignment and they are having a terrible time settling in. They feel lonely and stressed much of the time. Their company is trying to be supportive, but it seems like they should be doing more. Though returning home will be difficult in a different way, I cannot imagine that it will be nearly as hard as going.

  3. I personally had no problem moving to the US from Germany. Generally there is a stint of home sickness which most people suffer from at some point and many give up. Probably the biggest hurdle is difference in cultures. I can imagine having a really hard time going to China or Japan. Having then once adjusted it seems it should be fairly easy to come home in my case, but again, once you adjust to a totally different culture, switching back again will be hard, mentally.

  4. Any type of relocation would be stressful, specially if the individual moving has a family. Single people may find it more interesting and adventurous to relocate. While individuals with a family might have a tougher time due to the increased responsibilities involved for the whole family instead of just the individual involved. Either way moving to a new location would naturally seem more difficult than moving back to one’s country of origin.

  5. I have some friends that just moved to Hong Kong for a work assignment and they are having a terrible time settling in. They feel lonely and stressed much of the time. Their company is trying to be supportive, but it seems like they should be doing more. Though returning home will be difficult in a different way, I cannot imagine that it will be nearly as hard as going.

  6. Relocation with a family is always a stressful time. Not only are there cultural and working adjustments for parents but also for the children trying to settle into completely new surroundings and environment as well as the challenges of schooling to consider.

  7. My father was a diplomat and I had to live in several countries. I was lucky enough to spend my teen age in one place, but soon got again on the move and today I have lived in 6 countries. If it is hard or not? Not if it is part of your nature. This has helped me to set up a company that today provides housing solutions in 12 cities around Europe, helping other expats like me 🙂

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