Many companies with an international presence will send their employees abroad at one point or another, whether for learning and development purposes, to head up certain projects, or simply to fill up the overseas team in between hiring. And for the most part, they are happy to take those employees back once the overseas stint is done. A 2019 study by Hays Asia found that 53 percent of employers are satisfied, or even highly satisfied, with their returnee workers; 90 percent would even recommend hiring overseas returnees to their peers.
But both returnee workers and employers face a number of stumbling blocks. The Hays study found that 61 percent of companies are deterred from hiring overseas returnees by mismatched expectations: the returnees themselves cite unsuitable job opportunities and unsuitable remuneration. And a wide range of estimates suggest that up to a third or more of returnees end up leaving the organization because of these problems, although the exact numbers are uncertain because a third of organizations also do not track the returnees’ retention rates.
So what can companies do to better reintegrate their repatriates?
Plan their return in advance
Philip Morris Singapore, which frequently sends local team members to other markets for learning and development purposes, told People Matters that expats’ roles on returning are planned out as much as possible at the time they leave, so as to manage their expectations and minimize the discontinuity for them. The company has about 200 employees in Singapore, of whom between five and eight people may be abroad in the average year, with a corresponding number scheduled to return at any given time.
“We recognize that sometimes the transition can be difficult, both going out and coming in,” company spokesperson Anthea Jackson said. “For those who have gone out to other markets, we have regular calls to update them and help them keep in touch. When they return, we provide support and assistance to help them prepare for the next role.”
However, if an employee is abroad for a year or more, it can be more difficult to predict the company’s manpower needs, not to mention the employee’s own gained experience and expectations. “You need to work with them and communicate with them,” Jackson said of such long-term expatriates.
Help them with cost of living and partner employment
Natasha Madhavan, who heads the risk, legal, compliance, and IT recruitment team at Selby Jennings Singapore, pointed out that many people who move back to Asia do so mid-career. This means that a high proportion of them repatriate with families, and they will be looking for benefits such as schooling costs, housing, and medical benefits as part of the consideration package—hence their higher expectations regarding remuneration.
“It will be helpful to provide returning expats with market information on the cost of living and types of support from the internal HR teams about mobility,” she suggested. Relocation reference reports, she added, are particularly useful as these not only facilitate relocation but also give clearer direction on the mobility programs available.
On top of this, spouse or partner employment is a major factor for those expats who make the move with their families. Atlas World Group’s 2019 corporate relocation survey found that as much as the expat’s own job, the job prospects of his or her spouse or partner are critical to relocation, both going out and coming back in. The demand for spousal assistance, whether in the form of networking assistance or outplacement assistance, has risen correspondingly.
Be flexible about positioning them
Some expats on long-term assignments have expressed fears that when they return home, there will be no suitable role for them to fill, and they will end up taking an effective demotion, their skills and experience going to waste. A 2019 KPMG survey on global assignment policies and practices found, in fact, that these are among the top reasons why returnees leave an organization after coming back: with good reason, as the research also shows at least a third of returning expats find themselves either in the same role as before they moved, or worse, in placeholder assignments.
On the bright side, Madhavan observed that companies have become more open to moving their returnees between roles and functions. “There seems to be more fluidity across functions—people are moving into different roles, and getting the opportunity to take on new functions if they move to different locations internally,” she said. “This ensures retention as employees are given the opportunity, even at the senior level, to pick up new skills. This also saves the firms the cost of hiring someone externally.”
It makes enormous business sense to leverage the skills and experience of returning expats. The Hays report identified language and communication skills, cross-cultural awareness, and different business perspectives as the top skills acquired from working overseas, all of which are increasingly important in today’s world of diverse workforces and international teams. And considering the expense and investment involved in sending an employee abroad, it is only practical for companies to exercise a little extra creativity and flexibility where these returnees are concerned, to hold onto talent that would otherwise leave and take that investment with it.