Multinational enterprises are struggling to retain many of the employees they send abroad on international assignments.
Multinational enterprises are currently facing a serious challenge. These organizations are companies with multiple locations or operations around the world. They often send employees abroad on assignments so they can gain personal growth and promotion opportunities.
During these assignments, employees gain knowledge and experience about foreign cultures or acquire key market knowledge. However, scant attention has been paid to these employees once they return home — especially how they are reintegrated back into the enterprise.
As it turns out, many of these returning employees — known as repatriates — leave the enterprise shortly after they return. But why is this happening? And how can organizations prevent this?
Our recent research study examined the reasons behind this high turnover rate. Our findings suggest that engagement, or lack thereof, of repatriates strongly influences their desire to stay with their company.
Benefits of international assignments
Multinational enterprises recognize that international assignments help employees develop global competencies that contribute to the firms’ competitive advantage.
Employees sent on international assignments include home country managers, executives and other key members who co-ordinate and control foreign subsidiaries.
During their time abroad, repatriates have the opportunity to hone their management skills, develop technical skills, intercultural understanding, increase the knowledge base of international markets and cultivate knowledge of conducting international business.
International assignments help employees gain experience and knowledge about foreign cultures or acquire key market knowledge beneficial to their organization.
Because of these benefits, there has been a rise in the number of employees sent to international locations, and their subsequent repatriation.
But while multinational enterprises expect to benefit from the new knowledge and experience repatriates bring back from international assignments, there is a high rate of repatriate turnover.
A report from Brookfield Global Relocation Trends found that approximately 38 per cent of repatriates left their firm within one year of returning home. Multinational enterprises need to strengthen their support mechanisms to improve repatriate retention to prevent the loss of key knowledge holders.
We discovered that one of the key requirements for reducing repatriate turnover is ensuring they are engaged in their job after they return. How repatriates perceive their job conditions during the initial period of return (also known as the adjustment period) is a key decider of their job engagement.
If repatriates perceive their job expectations as being in line with their experiences from abroad, they are more likely to be engaged in their jobs and less likely to leave their organization.
The 221 repatriates we surveyed expected their workplaces to adjust their work roles to reflect the international experience and organizational practices they gained from abroad. They wanted deeper involvement in strategic decisions, better team immersion and specific opportunities to apply their new knowledge.
Overall, repatriates wanted their time spent abroad to be valued and recognized in their day-to-day interactions and the orientation of the organization going forward.
Not addressing such expectations during the adjustment period often caused repatriates to develop negative feelings towards their organization. They felt undervalued, underused and unsupported when they were not given adequate assistance to help them adapt back to life and work at home.
Addressing repatriate expectations
The first step organizations can take toward addressing the expectations of repatriates is recognizing the valuable knowledge they gained abroad.
This knowledge might include technical knowledge and skills, knowledge of new sales and marketing processes, cross-cultural knowledge or new language skills. Organizations should recognize such skills in the job duties and responsibilities of repatriates.
Many organizations assign jobs to repatriates that do not match the knowledge, skills and abilities they acquired during their international assignments. There must be a match between the new knowledge and experiences gained by repatriates and the job duties and responsibilities assigned to them.
Organizations should ensure repatriates’ job duties and responsibilities reflect any new knowledge and experience gained by them when they were abroad.
Repatriates also typically had higher autonomy, flexibility and increased decision-making opportunities while working overseas.
Upon returning home, tightened controls, loss of autonomy and a lack of flexibility led to increased work dissatisfaction and lower job engagement. These are key factors that need to be properly addressed in positions offered to repatriates when they return home.
It’s also important that employees maintain relationships with their counterparts in their home organizations during their international assignments as expatriates.
It can be difficult for home office employees and expatriates to establish and maintain relationships due to different time zones, lack of personal contact and divergent goals in their work contexts.
Organizations may need to develop sufficient mentoring programs, including assigning re-entry sponsors to repatriates. This would help repatriates develop and maintain relationships with home organization employees while they are away on assignment, and help them reintegrate successfully upon return.
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