Reverse culture shock – the dirty little secret of repatriation by Felicia Schwartz

Where’s my driver?

The trouble with repatriation is that few expect “coming home“ to be so difficult. Of course the notion of “coming home” in itself is largely ambiguous because the place one knew before has changed during one’s expatriation as have we as people. Roaming around old stomping grounds chasing shadows is hence often more alienating an experience than confronting a new culture we consciously know will be a challenge.

Crazy Suitcase Plane

Coming home…

It does not help that the environment and companies largely ignore the returning expat’s plight. There is little in the way of readjustment programs or any consideration that the repatriate may need help fitting back into the very place they came from. Complaining about having lost the maid and driver and taking a salary cut also tends to attract “surprisingly” little sympathy.

What a blunder!

Why did I ever come back?

This stands in stark contrast to the tightknit expat communities, training programs and VIP treatment that welcome the expat upon arrival in a host country at the start of their mission.

As a result, many repatriates quickly become disgruntled and experience difficulty both in their private and professional lives. BBC capital found that in 2013, about 16% of workers left their employers within two years of a global assignment ending, while relocation experts such as Brookfield GRS and GMAC quote twice that number*. In any case, given the considerable investment in expats, any attrition would seem like a big loss in terms of ROI.

It would make sense that companies step up their efforts to support repatriates, but also give more thought to making use of the repatriate’s skills and knowledge. Of course, repatriates can also plan their own readjustment process more thoroughly:

  • Where possible, expert relocation consultants such as Brookfield GRS suggest repatriates should prepare for repatriation a good 6-9 months prior to their return. This includes planning and discussing new positions at work, living and family arrangements including schools and so on.
  • Expect the repatriation process, similar to expatriation, to extend over several stages of adjustment; the honeymoon period: “its so nice to be back in a place where the air is clean and shops are quaint, it feels like a holiday!“ to culture shock “Why are those people at work so parochial and where can I find a decent Chinese restaurant in this city?!“ to eventual adjustment “need to get a mortgage, need to sort out pension, need to plan a vacation to the Isle of Wight“ …
  • Similar to expatriation, it is crucial to adjust one’s behavior and devise a strategy for a smoother transition;
  • Refrain from starting every second sentence with “Well, in China/ Bahrain/ Rio …” while at the same time ensuring that one’s international expertise is well known and recorded across the organization.
  • Equally, avoid overloading friends and colleagues with stories of wonder and adventure in rural Guangzhou – only offer information when asked … as hard as the prospect might seem!
  • Develop and show interest in some aspect of local life; sports, music politics …and get involved in the local community. Volunteering is one meaningful way to do so.
  • Proactively ask for training if you feel any specific topics/ technologies/ skills have bypassed you while you were abroad. A mentor might also be useful.

From a psychological point of view it is primordial to achieve closure on the expatriation period and stop pining for the past or giving in to the urge of constantly comparing. Without such closure it will be difficult to successfully move onward in a familiar yet new environment which requires a great investment of positive energy!

Author Profile– **Felicia Schwartz has spent 13 years in China and is the founder of China Insight www.hitangandccc.com/china-insight a training and consultancy company helping businesses and executives adapt to cultural change and markets across China and Europe.

Felicia Schwartz

* Data Sources – Dr Katharina Lefringhausen : 23% (GMAC, 2013) to 38% (Brookfield, 2010) of repatriate employees resign from their company within the first year upon return and up to 50% leave after 2 (Brookfield, 2010) to 3 years (GMAC, 2013) upon return.

 

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