Why Your Returning Expats Need Re-Entry Training
You’ve done everything to ensure that your people living abroad are successful: pre-departure training, language lessons, relocation services, mentors and support while away. And they’ve been extremely successful.
Now they’re coming back home. Pat yourself on the back. No early returns for your people. Your job is done. Right? So wrong. Not even close. In fact, the biggest hurdle is waiting in the “home” country.
By now, it’s common knowledge that relocation problems abroad can cause early returns. This, in turn, can mean loss of revenue and key people. But re-entry difficulties can also cause loss of people and productivity.
What fails to make it onto many people’s radar—including those abroad—is that, during their years abroad, people have changed; people at “home” have changed; and the entire “home” culture has changed. It’s true that you can’t really “go home again” because home has moved on without you, and you have moved on without it.
After the first few busy re-entry months—and sometimes well before—a new kind of culture shock can set in. Re-entry culture shock is often more difficult to deal with than that of relocation because it’s unexpected and invisible. The idea that coming back “home” means taking up where you left off creates unrealistic expectations that are a major cause of re-entry difficulties:
Unrealistic Expectation 1: I am going back to colleagues and a culture I know and that is familiar to me. I am going “home.” No problem.
Most expats don’t even consider the question of “fitting back in.” What’s to fit in? The plane touches down and you think, “I’m baaaack!” only to find that the place where you “fit in” has changed. Ironically, you can feel more like a stranger at home than abroad.
In addition, while away, you may have idealized the home culture. Frustrations with the foreign culture may have caused you to make unrealistic comparisons with the “more perfect” home culture you remembered. It can be a rude awakening to return to equally frustrating aspects of your own culture that you had forgotten or never previously noticed.
Unrealistic Expectation 2: I am the same person I was when I left and can easily return to my old behaviors.
You may be unaware that your adopted ways of doing things while abroad have become more familiar to you than those you took with you. Or you may think these changes are superficial and that you will revert when your plane hits the ground.
At the same time, these changes tend to be largely invisible to your friends and colleagues. Therefore, they expect you to be as you were before.1 This can lead to a sense that you yourself are invisible.
Unrealistic Expectation 3: People will be interested in my “adventures” or life abroad.
As a foreigner abroad, you are a person of interest. When you bring your stories home from abroad, you may continue to expect the spotlight. However, people in the home culture are involved in their own “day-to-day,” and often have little time to listen to stories to which they often can’t even relate. After a honeymoon period, they expect you to “get over it” and “get on with it,” as though your experiences are no more than skin deep.
While those in the home culture fail to grasp the depth of the changes you have experienced, and the difficulties of readjusting to the home culture, you yourself may be unaware of why things feel so unsettling.
Re-entry involves a potential feeling of loss at multiple levels for you as the returning expat:
Loss of the now familiar foreign culture that has become home, where you have learned to live and be successful.
Loss of the culture you expected to return “home” to, where you previously knew how to be successful and live.
Loss of the self with whom others were more familiar.
Loss of the attention and interest you received as a foreigner, and loss of ability to express, in context, the self you became in the foreign culture.
No wonder some have referred to re-entry as a kind of “grieving” process!
- Expats consistently report that it is much more difficult to readjust to the home culture following relocation than to adjust to the new culture abroad.
- The ways of living and doing business in the home country have continued to evolve. The culture you left no longer exists. And although you have also changed while immersed in the culture abroad, these changes are often not apparent to those back home.
- A report on key findings regarding what helps people to feel “settled in” recommends to professionals: “Don’t ignore repatriates because you think they’re ‘just coming home’.”2 And another states that, “Although focus on repatriation and its importance remains high, widespread adoption of formal strategies by companies remains elusive.” 3
- Most companies now recognize the importance of relocation training. However, there is more than one way to lose investment in a valued employee one sends abroad. Though the need may be less obvious, indications are that re-entry training for those returning “home” is even more important than relocation training.
NOTE: Re-entry Training provides information and skills to help employees prepare for and re-enter their own home culture. The need for, and benefits of, re-entry training have not been as widely publicized as those for relocation training. Companies acknowledge the importance of the repatriation process.4 However, they often remain unaware of how much training and support is required for re-entry, since repatriation difficulties tend to be less visible and more varied. Many companies still provide only a “discussion” or other informal approach for employees returning “home.”
Martin, Judith N. "Patterns of Communication in Three Types of Reentry Relationships: An Exploratory Study." Western Journal of Speech Communication. v50 n2 Spring 1986, p. 183–99.
Moving Matters: A Study of How to Help International Transferees Relocate: Final Report Fall 2005, Research conducted by The Interchange Institute, Brookline MA; Commissioned by GRAEBEL, Aurora, CO.
Global Relocation Trends 2012 Survey Report, Brookfield Global Relocation Services, Woodridge, IL, p. 14.