Cigna
Insights for Global Employers
Volume 5 of 5
we know expats
An employer's guide to a successful assignment
we know expats
An employer's guide to a successful assignment
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3 Steps to successful repatriation of returning assignees
When a company sends an employee overseas on assignment, it can be the opportunity that employee has been waiting for. These people are chosen because they have valuable skills that can help the organization as a whole. Yet statistics show that the return home is disappointing for many, and it’s merely a matter of time before they take the skills they acquired overseas to a new position elsewhere.

This is not news to companies that send employees on assignment regularly, and the 2013 Expatriate Trends Study confirms it. Satisfaction scores regarding repatriation were the lowest of three major categories studied (before, during and post assignment). While awareness of the problem exists, developing an effective plan to combat it often gets overlooked. Day-to-day office tasks take precedence, and the absent employee is out of the loop and off the department manager’s radar.

Companies that have the most success in retaining their returning assignees start thinking about the repatriation process before the employee even leaves.
1
Issue: How has their job changed?

The assignee will have new skills and new ideas after completing their assignment. Ideally, they will come back to a position that incorporates those new skills. That may involve a promotion or a move to another department. The manager who worked with them before their departure will most likely not be the manager who works with them upon their return. Many processes and people will be unfamiliar to them, either because they have changed positions or because of turnover in the office while they were away. So while they come to the office with long-standing employee status, the actual experience is one of starting anew.

Solution: Prepare for an adjustment period

The assignee will have new skills and new ideas after completing their assignment. Ideally, they will come back to a position that incorporates those new skills. That may involve a promotion or a move to another department. The manager who worked with them before their departure will most likely not be the manager who works with them upon their return. Many processes and people will be unfamiliar to them, either because they have changed positions or because of turnover in the office while they were away. So while they come to the office with long-standing employee status, the actual experience is one of starting anew.

  1. Think about the employee’s return from the start by drawing up a repatriation plan. Determine the job or jobs that will be suitable for them once the assignment is over, and what needs to be done by both employee and manager to ensure a smooth transition.
  2. During the assignment, have at least one colleague in the home office stay in regular contact with the overseas employee, keeping them up to date on personnel changes and other company news. When the employee is home, have their contact schedule office time with them.
  3. At least one year before the end of the assignment, have a discussion with the employee to learn what skills they will be bringing back with them and how they see those working in the home office. If it becomes clear that they will be working with a different manager when they return, start building that relationship during home visits and through ongoing communication during the rest of the assignment.
2
Issue: Reverse culture shock

No matter how homesick they may have been, and no matter how foreign they felt during their stay, an employee who has spent a few years in another country needs time to adjust when they come back home. Most companies make an effort to prepare their employees for life in a new country, but assume that coming back to their own country is just a matter of arranging transportation and finding them a desk.

In reality, the employee probably feels completely disoriented. They are home, but they are strangers. They may see things differently after experiencing another culture deeply, but find that others may not understand the changes they have gone through. They have a more international outlook, one they may feel is not readily accepted at home.

Solution: Ease the transition
  1. A company can’t assume that their returning employee will pick up where they left off. There should be some form of repatriation assessment and training to help them understand that their feeling of disorientation is natural.
  2. Refer the employee and their family to expatriate support groups, including online forums and social media communities.
3
Issue: Wasted knowledge

If a company sent one of their executives to a conference to hear about new business approaches and efficiencies, there would likely be some sort of follow-up. That may not happen with a returning assignee who has not merely listened to an expert’s industry presentation, but actually achieved results using a specific approach. One of the biggest complaints of repatriated employees is the feeling that they are undervalued. They don’t have the opportunity to share their new perspective, or if they do, it’s ignored in favor of doing business as usual.

Solution: Include innovation in their new job description

  1. Part of the advantage of sending an employee overseas is having someone with a new perspective and experience to call on. Make that a key part of their new job when they come back to the home office.
  2. Give them responsibility for implementing a new project that will benefit from the skills and knowledge acquired overseas. Find a way to make it clear to both the assignee and their supervisor and colleagues that the experience they gained by taking on the assignment is important to the company.
  3. Benefit from the work relationships they developed by appointing them as a liaison with their overseas office. Keep the lines of communication open and both locations will grow as a result.

As the United States continues to be a primary destination for globally mobile employees, it's increasingly important for multinational employers to remain cognizant of the many challenges for their employees embarking on an assignment here. While a U.S.-based assignment represents an exciting opportunity for most, often, complexities that can potentially compromise success are overlooked.

It is widely recognized that the U.S. healthcare system is among the most complex in the world. Health care reform has added to that complexity significantly and contributes to difficulties for employees to understand the choices available to them, and how to achieve better healthcare outcomes for themselves and their families. Global mobility managers need to be as nimble as possible to help their employees on assignment in the United States navigate this increasingly complicated healthcare landscape.

Better understanding the key issues and anticipating the evolving needs of their companies' most highly valued assets will enable global mobility managers to protect the considerable investment they make toward expatriate assignments.
David Maltby
President, Cigna Global Health Benefits