Back home but under-appreciated

Aug 09 2012 by Brian Amble Print This Article

It's no secret that staff working for multinational companies who spend time on a foreign assignment have a higher than normal turnover rate when they return home. But now a new study suggests that this is because former expats don't feel fully appreciated for their global experience.

"Home may not have changed, but it is not the same place because repatriates themselves have changed after having been expatriates," says Maria Kraimer, a professor of management and organizations in the University of Iowa's Tippie College of Business who led the research.

"Those who take international assignments often feel fundamentally different after returning, yet they may not see their development reflected in their treatment by their firms."

That tension goes beyond what could be called culture shock, Kraimer says, and leads repatriates to leave at a higher rate.

One recent study found that almost four out of 10 (38 per cent) of expat employees leave their firm within the first year of returning to their home country, compared with an overall turnover rate of just 13 per cent.

And with international assignments normally the preserve of top performers, that figure means that organisations will be incurring significant recruiting and training costs in finding and onboarding their replacements.

Kraimer's study, which followed 112 repatriated employees who worked for medium to large multinational corporations in the United States, UK, Germany and Australia, found that almost one in five (19 per cent) left their former employer for a new job within a year of their return home.

The reason for this turnover, the research suggests, is that living and working overseas in a new and different culture changes employees in fundamental ways, to the point where many of them create whole new identities for themselves.

This new identity has a significant international component and incorporates new meaning and aspirations in terms of how they approach their careers.

Kraimer says repatriates believe this new identity makes them more valuable than they were before they went overseas. However, the repatriates don't often feel their firms recognize that value, especially when they compare themselves to their colleagues who lack such international experience.

"When a repatriate perceives her job has less responsibility, respect, pay, or opportunities than the jobs of colleagues without global experience, the repatriate may believe that the organization does not view her international experience and employee identity in the same way that she does," Kraimer says.

That perceived lack of respect often leads them to find new jobs.

Kraimer says firms can take steps to reduce repatriate turnover. For instance, firms can use repatriates to help train other employees about to go on their first international assignment, or involve them more heavily to develop international strategy, both of which draw on the employee's global experience and shows the organization values that experience.

Firms could also more closely manage expatriates while they're on international assignments, linking them with other divisions and maintaining close communications to reinforce their identity with the organization.

Kraimer's paper, "No place like home? An identity strain perspective on repatriate turnover," was published in the Academy of Management Journal.