Research Paper By Els Poot
(Career/Expat Coach, CZECH REPUBLIC)
I am a Belgian living abroad for more than 15 years, following my husband for his job. Up until now we lived in 5 different countries on 3 different continents with our three children.
This kind of life has sometimes been overwhelming and challenging. We constantly have to adapt to different cultures and lifestyles. We have to learn new languages (Hungarian, Chinese, Czech) in order to be able to communicate with the local people. We have to build up social networks from scratch. It is a very intense and energy consuming life.
But this kind of life has also brought us an enormous amount of unforgettable experiences, new possibilities, interesting relationships and great friends. We learned to be open-minded and flexible.
Over the years we had to say goodbye to numerous friends. Some of them moved on to a new international assignment, others returned home. It became clear to us that, how difficult expatriation can be, repatriation is an even bigger challenge, not only for the assignee, but also for the trailing spouse and the children. And unfortunately reality shows there is not a lot of support in case of repatriation, as ‘going home’ is considered to be easy.
My interest for this topic has grown further during my (peer) coaching sessions with three expat-women. All three had to move back home, two after a couple of years in an international environment and one after an international career of 20 years.
What also intrigues me about repatriation is how to combat the very nature of the word itself—the implied sense of going back rather than of moving forward? The big challenge (and at the same time opportunity) of repatriation is to stay present in each moment and not to waste energy crying over yesterday. Nostalgia is fatiguing and destructive and it doesn’t help you to move forward.
The aim of this paper is to highlight the relevance of repatriation management and to find out whether coaching could be a tool in the repatriation process.
When the opportunity to live and work abroad presents itself, individuals tend to focus their attention on the expatriation process as well as the benefits of residing outside the home country. They discuss the impact of an overseas assignment on their career and relationships, identify personal and professional challenges, speculate about the types of skills and knowledge that will be gained overseas, anticipate career development and personal growth.
After embracing the expatriate life, it is quite common to defer planning the return home or not giving it much thought. The majority of expatriates and managers assume their repatriation to be an easy affair (Stroh et al. 1998), a simple move that can be summarized as relocating “home”, an environment that is not only familiar but also well known and understood.
However, empirical evidence and observations that depict the realities of repatriation reveal that the repatriation process is not as simple as it seems. The environment, defined as “home’”, is no longer familiar and understood. Living abroad for an extended period of time profoundly, yet silently, changes individuals. By learning different cultures, expats begin to see the world from different angles. These new perspectives not only change their beliefs but also their behaviors. At the same time, family and friends back home also undergo many changes in their absence.
According to Adler, this shock in realizing nothing at home is the same as before is called the reverse culture shock . This culture shock is often more difficult to deal with than adjusting to living abroad because the emotions and thoughts are unexpected. It may create a lot of frustration.
This shock sets in almost immediately and strikes all the members of the family. It is therefore very important to support both the assignee and his family in order to facilitate the transition.
3. Repatriation of the assignee
International assignments have become an important part of managers’ careers and are considered one of the most effective leadership development tools. Jet, studies consistently show that companies fail to integrate international assignments with long-term career development and succession planning and that a substantial percentage of expatriates leave the company upon completion of the international assignment.
Past research suggests that between 20 and 25% of repatriated employees leave their firm within a year after return (Black, Gregersen, & Mendenhall, 1992; O’Boyle, 1989). Some companies have reported losing as many as half of their repatriates through voluntary turnover within three years after repatriation (Black et al., 1999).
3.1 Causes for repatriation failure and resignation from the assignee
3.1.1 Expatriate’s expectations
The difficult process of adaptation is influenced by the expatriates’ expectations.