Employees that are sent on assignment overseas for a specified period of time often experience difficulties upon their return to the United States in readjusting to the culture that they once closely identified with. As a result, it has been established that employees often leave their organization within two years of returning from an assignment overseas. This complicates matters for the employee that must find new employment as well as the employer that has lost a significant intellectual knowledge asset in addition to wasting extensive financial resources on expatriation and repatriation processes. Organizations with successful repatriation programs have identified various requirements and employee needs that result in employee retention for an extended period of time. The following study will provide an in-depth analysis of the process of expatriate repatriation, commitment and retention in today's U.S. organizations. The discussion will define the importance of retaining repatriated employees within a given organization and will also identify some of the reasons why employees choose to leave the organization shortly after repatriation. Finally, conclusions will be drawn and recommendations will be made regarding the repatriation process and its long-lasting effects on employees as well as organizations.
The Process of Repatriation
Employees that have been selected to commit a portion of their professional lives overseas must make many sacrifices that may affect the rest of their lives. Many decisions must be made regarding ties to the homeland, including how to manage the residence, if spouses and children will also travel overseas, and how to effectively compensate employees for their commitment. Furthermore, employees are required to completely alter their existence upon transfer to overseas operations for a specified period of time. Once the commitment has been satisfied, they are expected to quickly acclimatize to their original culture without significant time to gain familiarity with any changes that might have occurred. Therefore, it is extremely difficult for many employees to maintain such an existence upon return to the homeland. Some employees may feel out of place and even betrayed by their employers for requiring them to transfer on a temporary basis. The readjustment period may often be too difficult to bear, and consequently, employees seek other employment alternatives. Repatriation is a difficult process that requires careful consideration and thought regarding the best means of reintroducing employees to the original corporate culture in order to make them feel as comfortable as possible.
Employers that transfer employees to overseas organizations must pay a high price. On the average, employers can spend up to $1 million on each employee that is sent to serve at an overseas organization only to discover that almost one-third of these individual terminate their employment within two years of their return (Klaff 40). Some of the common reasons that employees leave upon return is that they often feel out of place and no longer feel comfortable in their surroundings. Furthermore, many employees do not have any reason to utilize the skills that they have acquired during their overseas assignments. Other employees have gained autonomy in their overseas assignments and no longer experience the challenges that they strive for in their daily work activities. Each of these outcomes results in high turnover rates for expatriates that have returned to their home country.
Review of Related Literature significant factor in the low retention rates of expatriates is the difficult transition from one culture to the next. A person that has lived in one culture for a specified period of time will naturally experience some difficulty upon transfer to a new culture. However, the most difficult aspect is when a person returns to the homeland and must gain familiarity with concepts that were once commonplace in daily living. A study by Nan M. Sussman demonstrates that cultural identity is a significant factor in the ease of transition into the original culture. The Cultural Identity Model (CIM) proposes the following (Sussman 394):
Cultural identity is a critical but underlying aspect of self-concept
The importance of cultural identity is a consequence of the start of a cultural transition
Cultural identity is dynamic and can shift as a consequence of the overseas transition and a disturbance of self-concept
Shifts in cultural identity serve as a mediator between cultural adaptation and repatriation
The Sussman study concludes that those who experience a strong cultural identity with their home country will experience less distress during repatriation, while those who do not share a strong sense of cultural identity will experience higher levels of repatriation distress (403).
Furthermore, host country cultural identity also influences the degree to which repatriation is a stressful event (405). This study has identified several key areas of cultural identity that provide an explanation for the stressful events involved in repatriation.
A second study conducted by Nan M. Sussman examined the repatriation transition in a different light. It has been established that one of the primary causes of extreme repatriation distress is the unexpectedness involved in the process (Sussman 110). Furthermore, the person's social support network is also unprepared for the unexpected difficulties that may arise upon repatriation into the home country. One significant finding of this study is that repatriates may misunderstand their feelings of distress and may place the blame on their employers (119). On the other hand, "Returning workers may find they are more attractive to other companies, their new "intellectual skills" being more acknowledged and rewarded outside their home companies" (120). This study also determined that gender played no significant role in the experiences of repatriates that experience distress upon return, which can provide human resource managers with more recruitment options and alternatives as well as the importance of cultural identity and its potential consequences.
Other problems that repatriates experience upon return to their homeland include the lack of concern for future career development and the cultivation of skills acquired while on overseas assignments. As a result, employees tend to exit the organization soon after they return to their home country. A significant portion of the failure for organizations to recognize the importance of career development for repatriates is the dynamic and volatile environment that is international business: "Under such conditions, interventions that require top-down long-term planning or thoughtful, thorough communication from management may be neglected in favor or more immediate business concerns" (O'Sullivan 598). By focusing on individual needs, retention rates may demonstrate some promise.
O'Sullivan reveals that career transitions possess both objective and subjective components. They are objective because a repatriate must dramatically shift from one role to the next. Such a role is called an intra-organizational transition (599). In addition, such career transitions are subjective in that an individual assumes a new and different orientation to an existing role (599). As a result of the objective and subjective models, repatriates face a number of challenges, including the following (600):
Gaps are encountered between the anticipation of and experience in a defined role
Inaccurate expectations are often formed: This may include taking on a set of tasks in a new area, acquiring a management position, and relocating in the organization's information network. Each of these may result in unmet expectations that eventually disappoint the repatriate.
Repatriates must also cope with unexpected changes in responsibilities, authority and reporting relationships, information needs and availability, and workspace.
O'Sullivan suggests a new coping strategy to manage the problems associated with repatriation, called the protean approach (601). This approach "reflects the presumption that career trajectories can, and often must, be actively influenced by the individual if the career is to advance to both the individual's and the organization's satisfaction...the protean career thus consists of boundaryless competency-based explorations, which develop through relational learning, interdependence, mutuality, reciprocity, unfolding evolutionary sequences, and chaos. Employees are expected to adopt proactive behaviors that use their own know-how, know-whom, and know-why in order to help meet their own and their organization's objectives" (601).
This concept involves a number of coping strategies that may positively influence career transitions, including the following (O'Sullivan 601-602):
Vigorous attempts to change the work environment, such as working overtime and modifying procedures
Active attempts to seek new information or gain additional training
Psychological reappraisal, which includes maintaining a positive outlook on organizational problems and taking advantage of benefits that are offered
Psychological withdrawal, which includes keeping feelings inside, abstaining from communicating with supervisors regarding problems, and daydreaming about gaining employment elsewhere
Social networking and active information-seeking have been shown to promote greater adjustment, greater success at securing suitable employment and career advancement, and better success at reducing turnover rates (O'Sullivan 601). Such activities are also known to improve repatriation outcomes for many employees. Furthermore, "Repatriates' adjustment can also be assisted by organizational provision of reimbursement for frequent communication (and trips to) home...through social networking, repatriates could conceivably gain both greater financial supports and a greater assurance that the post-return job will be designed to their liking" (O'Sullivan 604). It can be assumed that if repatriate turnover continues to be very high, the pool of qualified internal candidates for overseas positions will dwindle: " The need to successfully repatriate the few…