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?
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
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.