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back to index backGLOBALtalk November,  2015


Not-so-happy returns: Big businesses fail to make the most of employees with foreign experience

COMPANIES devote a lot of thought to sending people abroad. They offer foreign postings to their most promising employees. They sweeten the deal with higher salaries and big allowances, and sometimes help to find work for spouses. But when it comes to bringing the employees home, it is a different story. One study suggests that a quarter of firms provide no help for repatriates at all. Many others offer at best a few links to websites.

Big companies are more globalised than ever. So you might think that they would treat staff with foreign experience as particularly important for maintaining their competitive advantage. Yet in practice they neglect such employees, blithely assuming they will soon be back in the swing of head-office life. The cost of this neglect is high. Sebastian Reiche of IESE business school in Spain estimates that anything between 10% and 60% of repats” quit the company within a couple of years of returning home. Their attrition rate is notably higher than for those not sent abroad.

This represents a squandering of investment, given that expats often cost several times as much as locals to employ. It damages the leadership pipeline. It may discourage high-flyers from taking a foreign posting. Worst of all, it can be a subsidy to rival firms: they end up with the people best placed to bury your company, trained at your expense.

Repats often complain of culture shock: things that once seemed familiar about home can seem strange and parochial. No one in the office wants to hear their war stories about the struggles of working in foreign climes. They find they have lost their niche at headquarters—partly because the balance of power has changed (allies have left and newcomers have greased their way into favour) and partly because they have got used to running their own fief rather than slotting into a hierarchy. Add to this the fact that they have to adjust to a lower standard of living—particularly if they have the misfortune to be moving back to an expensive city like London—and it is a recipe for discontent. One review of the academic literature, by Jan Sebastian Knocke of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, notes that there are signs of repatriation being more difficult than integration into a culturally distant country.”

Most repats would be happy to put up with a bit of culture shock if they came back to a plum job. But most do not. Clare Hughes of PwC, a consulting firm, says that a striking number of them are given no properly defined job. They wander the corridors or get given ‘projects’,” she says. A 2013 study by Christina Bailey and Lisa Dragoni of Cornell University shows that, far from moving up the hierarchy, the majority of repats return to a job on the same level as the one they had left when going abroad.

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Source: The Economist - GAI




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