For returning expatriates, reentry typically is associated with a great deal of emotion. Sadness, excitement, and trepidation are mixed together. Expectations of a smooth resettlement often lead the way— all, a transferee thinks, “I’m just going back to where I came from, and I know the ropes there.”
Intercultural practitioners often associate reentry with frustration. Although a complex and multifaceted component of the expatriate cycle, reentry typically is allocated little time or financial resources. Both experience and research has taught those of us who work in the field that reentry into one’s culture of origin is more stressful with more unexpected consequences than a transition into the unfamiliar.
The Personal Challenge
The central tenet of an individual’s reentry challenge is psychological. The word “reentry” implies going back, returning to something that is known from prior experience. But to what? Perhaps to the broad fabric of one’s home country, the actual home or neighborhood one lived in before the international assignment, or the lives of friends and family, or a school system. Perhaps it is to the domestic side of an international career.
There is a tendency for repatriates to expect several things: (1) Although people and places change, relationships that were once vital will continue to be so; (2) family and friends will be as eager and excited to hear about their adventures as they are to speak about them; (3) activities and/or job responsibilities that inspired them before they left will continue to do so; (4) they will feel relaxed, at ease, and “at home” because they are once again in a familiar cultural and physical environment; and (5) their broader perspective on life, abilities to deal effectively with diversity, and their understanding of the global nature of the human condition will be acknowledged and valued.
The actual experience of return proves, however, that to varying degrees all of the above assumptions are false. In actuality, there are what Dr. Bruce La Brack, University of the Pacific, Stockton, CA, identifies as the “Ten Top Immediate Reentry Challenges”: boredom; a frustrating inability to explain experiences to those not having similar travel backgrounds; a kind of “reverse homesickness” for the people and places one has left behind; being misunderstood when using behaviors, such as humor, that are now out-of-place; the “no one wants to hear” syndrome; feelings of alienation that can arise in seeing faults in other’s situations that were never noticed; a lack of opportunity to apply new knowledge or skills; and concern that the positive effects of the international experience will be lost. Discovering that their expectations are unrealized can cause disappointment, anger, and perhaps depression.
Surrounded once again by the familiar, repatriates realize that it is not just that others are not interested in their stories and new skills. Perhaps more important, they themselves have changed much more than they realized— once was interesting and engaging is no longer so. In a classic 1980 study involving returnees to Canada, Nancy Adler describes some of those changes.
“Returnees reported having enhanced skills in making decisions under ambiguous and uncertain conditions, being patient, asking the right questions (as opposed to knowing the right answers), seeing situations from a number of perspectives, tolerating ambiguity, and successfully working with a wider range of people. Increased self-confidence and an improved self-image were the most common changes,” she said.
It becomes clear that repatriates are no longer limited by who they remember themselves to be.
The Reentry ‘Shock’
Returnees often are surprised to experience a reentry cycle similar in form, but often more intense, to the one they encountered during their experience abroad. The initial adjustment curve encompasses a “honeymoon” followed by phases of discomfort, tentative adaptation, extreme challenge, and integration over time. The reentry process parallels this process. Its stages have been described as shock, a sense of homelessness and homesickness, then peace and acceptance. Reentry can bring on the same fatigue, restlessness, and vague dissatisfaction with life.
Adler describes the reentry curve having initial emotional highs lasting from only a few hours to a month. The emotionally lowest periods often are reported in the second and third month of return, stabilizing in a feeling of neither very high nor low, but rather “average” after about six months.
Adler suggests that for employees, the low feeling may be associated with “realizing that the job they returned to did not fit their expectations…that their careers had not been enhanced by the foreign assignment. They felt a discontinuity and a loss of momentum in their careers.”
The Professional Challenges
Intercultural practitioners know that professional integration is key during repatriation. Issues of career development and job effectiveness have been in the limelight of reentry training for more than 20 years. Certainly, laudable repatriation programs exist. However, a 1996-97 study conducted by Berlitz International and HFS Mobility Services (representing more than 40 companies from 25 countries) indicates that although companies are meeting needs associated with the details of moving household goods and cost-of-living adjustments, they need to do more in helping employees and their families meet the “softer” needs arising from the stress of transition and its effect on social life, individual development, and career management.
According to the study, the consequences of not meeting the softer issues are clear: “[Nearly] 40 percent of respondents were not interested in taking another overseas assignment, and fewer than half felt that their firm understood the new skills they had acquired. It seems that the benefits did not appear to outweigh the personal and professional price the assignees felt they had paid…the results of the project demonstrate that corporations risk forfeiting any long-term return on their globalization efforts if support for the international transferee’s career path…is perceived to be inadequate in the eyes of the international transferee.”
Career Development and Job Satisfaction
Career advancement often is cited as a major reason for accepting an international assignment. It follows that expatriate returnees wish to be kept abreast of changes in the home office. They want to stay closely in communication with the major players while they are away, and they are concerned about the timing of and their job responsibilities on return.
An all-too-common theme that repatriates seem to believe is “out of sight is out of mind.” The lack of the expatriate’s visibility at the home office contributes to his or her feeling that achievements and newly acquired skills are not recognized on return. Inadequate communication about changes in domestic strategies and priorities compound the situation. Anxiety inevitably increases with questions about how the overseas assignment will fit into an overall career path, especially if the timing and nature of the domestic assignment is not addressed until just prior to return. Data from a research report by The Conference Board entitled “Managing Expatriates’ Return” suggest that companies that offer timely and continuous career discussions are those that call on the direct involvement in formulating the expatriate relocation policies of senior management who have had international experiences.
The perception of having job responsibilities that are a “good fit” with capabilities developed overseas has an important influence on the employee. This may be rated as more important than a salary increase in contributing to repatriates’ satisfaction with the new domestic assignment. Finding such a good fit is complicated by several factors, one of which is the expectation of colleagues who have not been abroad.
Adler’s research suggests that, paradoxically, the more that returnees use the skills and knowledge they learned overseas, the less effective they were judged to be by their colleagues. She concluded that perhaps such colleagues did not understand how to value “foreignness,” wishing their returned colleagues to relearn the ways of “business as usual” as quickly as possible. Home-office employees, then, may need guidance to appreciate fully the potential contributions of those who have come to see business in new ways.
Strategies for Maximizing Returnee Potential
In general, there are many suggestions and strategies available today for companies wishing to develop repatriation practices that honor and use the important potential available in their returnees.
For example, during an overseas assignment, decision-making responsibility often is quite autonomous. Relearning to work within the home-office procedures and environment can be restrictive. Providing a repatriate with a job that encourages a wide latitude in decision making about what to do, whom to involve, and when to act can mitigate the sense that domestic responsibilities are less challenging and fulfilling. At the same time, the returnees’ ability to function autonomously provides a direct benefit to companies that use self-managing teams.
Another strategic approach can be directly relating new job responsibilities to the initial purpose of the overseas assignment. For example, if the purpose was the development of host national managers, the new assignment can continue to relate to development of global managers. If the assignment was technology transfer, the expatriate can help the company understand the technological, marketing, or advertising nuances of the foreign subsidiary.
No matter the purpose of the assignment, the majority of returnees and their families usually are eager to assist in the preparation of colleagues who are about to be sent abroad.
Additional strategies include developing written policies that clearly address the company position in all aspects of an upcoming international assignment. Although such policies can be changed over time, they go a long way toward assuring expatriates that the company is aware of the issues to be faced. The positive effects are maximized when such policies are coupled with a mentor program. Here, a highly placed executive from the home office takes responsibility to maintain an expatriate’s visibility until his or her return by ensuring continuous information flow and a sense of connection. Such a mentor can offer guidance in finding a “best fit” for the repatriate in new domestic responsibilities and in maintaining morale in difficult times. The mentor also can ensure that the returnee is formally “welcomed home,” acknowledged for the challenges of the experience, and given opportunities to debrief and evaluate his or her personal and professional experiences.
Certainly, career counseling before, during, and after assignment is critical. Jane Smith, of Options Resource and Career Center in Houston, TX, suggests that it is useful to frame an international assignment as an investment. All parties involved thus may proactively look for mutual benefit and commit to increasing the return on the human as well as the capital investment.
Meeting Family Needs
Results of the 1997 Berlitz/HFS (now Cendant) Mobility survey reaffirmed the importance of helping not only repatriating employees, but also repatriating spouses and children. As discussed earlier in regards to the employee, repatriating spouses and children also experience both personal and professional/scholastic challenges. They need basic information about the process of reentry, too. In addition, they need help in psychologically adjusting as they discover that the once-familiar is now less-known and that, perhaps most of all, they have changed how they view the world and themselves within it.
The quality of adolescent repatriation is particularly important. This is the time when children are exploring consciously their personal and group identities. If not forewarned and prepared, the shock of reentering the country they were raised to consider their own but in which they now feel culturally foreign can be devastating, and the disorienting effects can be long lasting.
Parents, human resource managers, relocation professionals, and international educators share the responsibility of educating children about reentry. Even two years abroad can be life-changing in ways that become clear only on repatriation. An increasing array of resources exist for adolescents, many of them easily accessible on the Internet (Visit the Resources page for a list of linked sites and other resources.). Indeed, the Internet provides opportunities for repatriated adolescents to talk with peers about their experiences. They can discover that they are not “terminally unique” but part of a large community of globally experienced individuals.
Just as home-office colleagues may look askance at repatriating employees who bring new approaches to the workplace, so, too, may students and teachers at the neighborhood school view repatriating children. Just as it is important to educate the first about the repatriate’s potential contribution to the corporation, so, too, is it important to educate teachers and administrators. Although technically “back home,” repatriated students may experience significant cultural shock and homesickness, and may demonstrate perspectives and behaviors unfamiliar to their peers. It is also the case that such students can potentially enrich the school and classroom, especially if the diversity they offer is acknowledged and appreciated.
One of the most overlooked needs in family reentry is career counseling for repatriating partners. These women and men typically will have put their own careers on hold to support their partner’s transfer abroad. Now “home again,” they undoubtedly will be looking again to engage their own professional development. Depending on the length of their time abroad and the degree of professional development support they received during their sojourn, they may need recertification and even retraining. At the least, they will need guidance in how best to explain on their resume the time-gap created by their international sojourn, as well as practical support as they navigate the new job market.
The Multi-mover Experience
The expatriate and repatriate experiences discussed in this article are compounded for those who are “multi-movers.” Multi-mover expatriate families typically proceed from one international assignment to the next, perhaps ultimately living and working outside their passport countries for much of their careers or childhood.
The challenges for such an employee in staying connected to the home office and of receiving appropriate career development support are exacerbated. So, too, are challenges confronting the spouse, now faced with identifying and developing a “portable career.” The challenges are no less significant for the children whose primary developmental task is to form an integrated sense of their own identity from their exposure to multiple cultural traditions.
Going Back or Moving Forward?
The assumptions involved with the idea of “going home” and “being back” can create a large part of the discomfort in the reentry experience. In actuality, people only move forward; “back” exists in memory. It is important to reframe the experience of reentry as a continuous, ongoing process.
Repatriates need to be dispelled of the notion that a great adventure has ended and that a unique time in their lives is over. They should be encouraged to recognize that they are, once again, entering a new and ever-changing cultural and physical environment, no matter how familiar it may indeed appear. As they repatriate, they open doors that stretch concepts of who they are.
One of the best pieces of reentry advice was offered by an adolescent repatriate. He suggested that repatriating adolescents be advised to treat their “home” country as a foreign country. After all, he explained, once you have moved abroad you have learned how to deal with ambiguity and confusing cultural patterns. It is living at “home,” where you are supposed to know how everything works, that is hard.
Treating “home” like a foreign environment reminds both repatriating adults and adolescents to tell continuous rather than discontinuous stories of their lives. They are reminded that they need not fall victim to repatriation but can carry on the approaches used while living internationally. That is, they can, with awareness and creativity, use the skills and strategies learned abroad to engage the inevitable questions of personal and professional identity.
Sheila J. Ramsey, Ph.D., is principal of the Crestone Institute, Washington, DC, which assists corporate and not-for-profit clients in designing environments that promote creativity, innovation, and human development. She can be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com.
Barbara F. Schaetti is principal of Transition Dynamics, Seattle, WA, a consultancy specializing in the human dimensions of change. She can be reached at e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: This article was originally published November, 1999, in MOBILITY, the monthly magazine of the Employee Relocation Council. Copyright © 1999, Employee Relocation Council. Used by permission. All rights reserved.