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Repatriation or Resignation? Planning for Successful Overseas Assignments

By Simon Mitchell

Simon Mitchell So. You’ve just returned from a decade overseas with your company, having moved around roles in four different regions, all with your family in tow. After an exciting time abroad (and probably quite a lot of mediocre airline food) you’re looking forward to settling in again at HQ and putting the skills and experiences you’ve gained from your overseas posting to good use at home base.

Except, there’s no longer a role for you there. Naturally someone had to take over your role when you were posted overseas, and the company has carried on without you just fine, thanks very much.

Picking up where you left offNow what?

This rather grim homecoming is one an acquaintance of mine in the food and beverage industry experienced upon his return from an extended posting out of the country. Understandably, as a result he felt rather put out and demotivated.

There are some important lessons here. Expat assignments can be hugely valuable for both the employee and the organisation; they are incredible opportunities to develop new skills and a chance for the organisation to parachute some of its most talented people into new markets and territories.

But they must be managed carefully. Badly handled assignments will almost certainly have an impact on the willingness of other employees to accept a placement in the future. Horror stories of what happened to people when they returned to HQ have the consequence of making it trickier to find people willing to go on a posting. Some studies have found that as many as 48 per cent of repatriated employees leave the company within two years of returning home. That’s a huge loss of talented and experienced people.

This can be tackled if organisations start planning for an employee’s return before they even leave for their new posting, as well as offering practical support to them as they take on the complex and challenging new role. Assignments can change, be extended, or moved. This all needs to be taken into account by HR when the employee returns home. And it is equally important that while away from the central HQ (or even nearest hub office) the employee is not made to feel they have been “banished.” We have seen instances where those on overseas assignments have felt they have been sent away from the action, when in reality, they have been sent to an important job exactly because they are highly valued. Likewise, this perceived value cannot be seen to end when they return home.

On the flip side experiences overseas can turn out brilliantly. Another person I know was posted to the London branch of a European-headquartered business. He enjoyed it so much that he requested to stay in London, and he’s since enjoyed a steady rise through the business and couldn’t be happier.

There are also other options available than simply a lengthy posting in another region or country. These may be an alternative if an employee indicates a spell overseas may, for whatever reason, not be right for them or conversely, if international experience is needed for his or her future career. Technology allows people virtual mobility; I know people who lead teams in the States and visit in person quarterly, with all other contact being via Skype and email. Reverse transfers are another option. Rather than sending the person overseas to do the up skilling, you bring a key contact to them for a set time. A short-term posting may be a viable option, or even have someone commute internationally but remain based in their original location. Contracting is another possibility, whereby some people roam the world as global executive nomads, spending significant time in key locations around the world. There is more than one way to cook an egg, and it’s important to consider all the options available to us with improved technology and travel.

And what happened to my friend whom I mentioned at the beginning of this post? He ended up leaving his business, a disappointment for both himself and the organisation.

Simon Mitchell is DDI's United Kingdom General Manager, European and Multinational Segment Marketing Director.

Posted: 11 Jun, 2014,
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