The hiring of international employees and the relocation of employees for overseas assignments are common practices for HR departments across the globe. From sending trusted managers abroad to oversee operations, to onboarding foreign workers with desirable skill sets, there are many beneficial reasons for establishing an international assignee program.
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However, these processes can come at great expense, both in terms of time and resources. To maximize the cost-effectiveness of an international assignment, the assignment itself –whether permanent or temporary – needs to be completed in its entirety. Unfortunately, assignment failure and subsequent repatriation – that is, when the assignee returns to their home country before the assignment is complete – are alarmingly common. More than 40 percent of managers sent abroad end up failing.
Identifying and addressing the key drivers behind repatriation is the best way to improve success rates and keep assignees where you want them.
So, what are the causes of repatriation?
Lack of Internal Mobility
Many employees decide to take jobs abroad in order to boost their career prospects. An international assignment is a chance for a motivated worker to learn new skills, prove themselves, and progress professionally. Overseas assignments provide unique opportunities in this respect, but they also have their limitations.
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It can be easy to think of your international employee only in terms of their overseas assignment. When you do that, however, you may neglect to provide the employee with opportunities to progress above their current role. While domestic employees are given chances for internal mobility and promotion, an international assignee can become caught in a static position: the single role they were relocated to carry out.
This leads to a frustrating scenario. An employee looking to progress can no longer progress. If they took the role because they wanted to grow and they've maximized the benefits of working on the assignment, they'll end up repatriating to find other opportunities unless they have room to grow in their international role. At this point, the business faces the cost not only of repatriation, but also of finding a new international assignee.
The solution is clear: Don't pigeonhole international workers. Workplace mobility is important, no matter where an employee is or what their role is. Enable some kind of career progression for international assignees – even if it is just extended responsibilities under the same role – and you'll be more likely to maintain the assignee's position for longer.
Failure to Prepare
It entirely possible that your overseas employee assignment was doomed from the start. Failure to prepare is one of the biggest factors involved in the repatriation of employees.
An overseas assignment comes with a number of professional challenges above and beyond a domestic hire. While workers must manage the usual workplace integration processes and get up to speed in their roles, they also face challenges concerning international culture, language, and local/regional knowledge.
An employee who enters an international assignment without appropriate preparation faces an uphill battle to become a functional member of the business. This creates a vicious cycle: While the employee attempts to gain their footing, they absorb time and resources designated for the completion of their assignment projects. They then start to fall behind, which creates a greater struggle until the assignee can no longer cope. It sounds dramatic, but it is a possibility if the differences between the employee's home country and new country of residence are substantial.
The way to curb this problem is to invest resources in preparing your assignee for their role prior to their start date. The best method for this is a mentor system whereby somebody on the employee's new team can help them prepare to operate successfully in their new role. If the employee isn't part of a team, mentoring from a third-party source would be recommended. Other resources like reading materials and guides on business culture abroad can be helpful, too, although firsthand experiences are likely to provide the best results.
Poor Personal Integration
When a work assignment falls through, you may quickly look to what went wrong with the job itself, but the work may not necessarily be a factor. Personal struggles are a major contributing factor when it comes to repatriation.
Homesickness, problems settling in, family ties, and culture shock are all personal elements of an international work assignment that can derail the entire project. If a worker is not happy in their personal life, their performance will be impaired, and they may not be able to cope with life abroad at all.
It may seem like you have very little control over an employee's personal life, but there is plenty HR can do to help an international assignee find stability in their personal life. Steps you can take include:
1. Cultural Education
Culture shock can be devastating. It occurs when a culture is so different from the one you know that you struggle to cope with completing even the most basic tasks like buying food or paying bills. Mixed with language barriers, culture shock becomes a recipe for a disastrous overseas assignment.
Education is the key to overcoming culture shock. The more an employee knows about their new environment, the less likely they are to struggle. A good idea is to invest in a pre-assignment trip. This will give the employee a head start on acclimating to the region. Providing educational resources on culture and language classes can also help.
2. Local Orientation
The goal is to have your prospect feel like a resident of their new country, not a tourist or a visitor. Giving them opportunities to get to know their local area is a helpful step in that direction.
3. Community Integration
Living in a new country where you don't know anyone can be an isolating experience. Community binds people together and helps them become happier in their environment. Helping your assignee get involved in the local community of their new country can go a long way. Consider arranging social opportunities, introducing assignees to expat communities, and helping them establish hobbies and interests outside of work.
4. Family Relocation
Being away from your family is a difficult experience, and the drive to be reunited can be too much for many overseas assignees.
The answer to this problem is simple: Provide assignees with family relocation assistance. If an international employee's family is with them, they won't feel the need leave their role early in order to be with them.
5. Visits Home
Travel is expensive, and assignees may be unable to afford trips overseas. This can leave them feeling separated from the place they call home, resulting in increased homesickness.
If, however, you provide assignees with trips home, perhaps annually, they'll be able to maintain a connection with their country of origin without leaving their role abroad.
By offering a comprehensive personal support structure, such as those advised above, you'll greatly reduce the risk of assignees repatriating.
Mark Costa Rising is group sales and marketing director at Gerson Relocation.