Expat Repatriation: The Long Road Returning Home

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As returning expatriates often find out, coming home can be the toughest relocation transition of all.

Due to the high costs of international relocation, companies today are paying more attention to overseas assignments. Often neglected in the “International Relocation Procedure Book,” however, is the final phase of the assignment — returning “home.” Having experienced repatriation myself, I know that although it is challenging, there are also ways people can ease reentry shock and achieve a smoother transition to their home country.

Putting new skills to work

Repatriating families quickly realize that while they are eager to share their overseas lives with friends and families, this type of conversation is not welcome for long. As Michael Schell of Windham International points out, “It [repatriation] is like you feel when you come home from a great vacation with lots of slides and nobody wants to watch them.” Families returning to an environment they remember as being comfortable and secure often find it no longer feels that way. Instead, they face what may be their most difficult transition experience to date.

Individuals who have lived abroad have gained multicultural skills and persevered through many diverse challenges. When utilized constructively, this newly acquired versatility and knowledge can help employees integrate into the home office, career-interrupted partners reestablish careers, and children reenter a school lifestyle that now seems strange.

I suggest returning expats approach reentry to the US as they would an assignment to any other “foreign” country — by relearning American culture and trends. What changes have taken place in clothing trends? What are the new TV shows? The latest slang? What foods are currently in vogue? Who are the top musical artists? What movies are hits at the box office?

At the same time, they’ll want to take stock of the techniques, skills and attitudes that helped them adjust to the foreign culture, since these will be invaluable during their repatriation..

The difference experience makes

Prior to moving home, employees should plan return trips to the US for meetings or company functions and learn about technological, personnel and organizational changes that have taken place. If a trip home isn’t feasible, home-based mentors or friends can bring employees up-to-date via e-mail, memos or video conferencing.

Returning employees will also want to assess how the overseas experience has made a difference in their lives. What new values, priorities and direction have they gained? How will these factor into their future career plans? Have communication channels changed at their company? What can they do now that they couldn’t before the assignment? What problems did they overcome and how did they overcome them?

Once they’ve returned to American soil, employees need a forum for sharing the information they’ve gained. Communicating their new knowledge, insights and skills allows them to demonstrate their value to the company. It also helps their employers gain valuable insight into future international relocations.

Repatriating working partners

Two important factors are currently impacting international relocation: dual-career partners are increasing in number, and employees are no longer eagerly saying “yes” to a move abroad. As a result, corporations are more amenable to providing services that encourage international moves and promote a productive relocation experience. One such service includes helping returning partners with job counseling, resume writing, networking or even finding a job within the employee’s corporation.

Prior to their return, relocated partners should also take time to realistically assess the skills, knowledge and accomplishments they achieved while abroad — and update their resumes to reflect these efforts.

Since it is nearly impossible in many countries for partners to obtain work, their efforts may have focused on volunteer opportunities. If so, they need to convey to employers how these skills apply to the job position they seek. Carefully worded resumes that detail volunteer efforts and unusual accomplishments, can be self-promoting. Recommendation letters from anyone with whom they have worked, volunteered or assisted (at home and abroad) are another vital plus.

Children are repatriates, too

Returning expatriate children need to keep in mind that their American classmates may feel insecure or ill at ease talking to their now “worldly” friend who has lived and traveled abroad. It is helpful if they avoid making comparisons between friends and schools, and intersperse references to life abroad with interests they share in common with their American friends. Fellow students will view too much talk about life in another country as an attempt to make their town seem insignificant, unexciting or small by comparison.

To help ease the transition, expatriate parents should encourage their children to think about the positive aspects of returning home, such as having more contact with grandparents (who usually are willing to listen to overseas stories), or revisiting favorite American pastimes.

Expats helping expats

There are numerous ways in which companies can help expatriates make a shorter trip on the “long road home.” One form of assistance that is proving especially effective for repatriating families is to connect with other families who have made the transition back home. Those who have been through the experience can offer advice and insights into what repatriates should and should not do. They also can lend a sympathetic ear to the challenges repatriating families face.