Repatriation is a critical but often-ignored phase in the long-term international assignment lifecycle. This phase is usually considered as a mere administrative formality to get the assignee and their family back to base. Consequently, repatriation support offered by global mobility (GM) functions is usually limited to the physical relocation process, such as arranging shipment, checking out of host accommodation or booking flights.
However, with GM functions striving to transition from being purely administrative to strategic business advisors, is limiting GM’s engagement to just the physical relocation a missed opportunity?
Returning assignees represent the company’s global talent capital which is waiting to be maximised upon return. It is important that companies proactively harness the assignee’s knowledge and experience gained on assignment, especially given the investment made in terms of assignment pay and benefits. However, while the strategic importance of measuring return on investment (ROI) scores high on the GM agenda, the value apportioned to re-integrating assignees back effectively is relatively low.
Risks of attrition are the highest at this phase of the assignment lifecycle. Merely repatriating assignees to their old job is like assuming the assignment never happened. International experience gained on assignment increases the market worth of the assignee’s CV. So, if assignees feel more value is being attached to their assignment experience externally rather than internally, and if there is no defined career development plan within the company, then they will leave. It is no surprise that a significant proportion of respondents to ECA’s Managing Mobility survey said that finding a suitable role for repatriating assignees was a challenging exercise.
Assisting the company in devising measures to retain talent post-repatriation provides an opportunity for GM functions to evolve as strategic business advisors. In addition to facilitating the physical repatriation, GM functions are reviewing their mobility policies and programmes to allow for greater partnership with talent management functions to proactively use international assignments to develop employee careers.
Below are some of the areas which GM functions can focus on to successfully repatriate assignees while remaining compliant.
When to start planning repatriations
Begin with the end in mind. This principle is apt for deciding when to start thinking about repatriations. 36% of companies participating in ECA’s surveys start planning for repatriation at least 6 months before the assignment ends and 54% only start planning between the last 3 to 6 months before the planned end date.
Timing of repatriation planning
© Employment Conditions Abroad 2018
To ensure talent retention and develop future leaders, GM and talent management functions should proactively work together to define a career development plan for the employee even before the assignment commences, a practice followed by only 6% of respondents. The plan should identify a selection of roles which the assignee can repatriate to, which will help them make the most of the experience they gained while on assignment.
Adopting this far-sighted approach and communicating it to the employee before the assignment commences will not only motivate them to perform well while on assignment but also facilitate their post-assignment re-integration.
Encourage trips back home
Home leave trips not only allow the assignee and family to maintain links with their family and friends in their home country but also allow them to stay in touch with their home culture. Doing so facilitates repatriation as it helps at least reduce, if not avoid, reverse culture shock.
While on assignment, assignees may be aware of costs of living in the host country and may lose sight of how these have changed in the home country. Periodic home trips help assignees keep track of such costs in the home country giving them a fair idea of what to expect when they repatriate.
Additionally, encouraging assignees to also meet their home business colleagues while traveling on home leave trips can help in creating a familiar work environment to which the assignee can return after repatriation.
Although assignees may be tempted to trade their home leave trips for vacations to exotic destinations, a large proportion of companies do not cover such travel given the objective home leave trips are designed to achieve.
While the assignment’s end date may be based on business needs, the assignee may raise concerns about its impact on their family, such as their children’s schooling, if, for example, they are made to leave part way through the school year. Not being able to secure admissions in the home country school for the same reason can adversely impact re-integration post-repatriation.
Assessing the assignment’s duration in line with its impact on the assignee and their family’s personal circumstances at the start of the assignment itself can help GM functions highlight and address potential challenges early in the assignment lifecycle.
To address such issues, GM functions should review policies to support home country schooling upon repatriation. Approximately two-fifths of companies provide assistance with such costs.
Remaining compliant is critical for ensuring successful repatriation. GM functions need to ensure that repatriation policies address the following concerns:
In line with the need to plan repatriations before assignments begin, GM functions should carefully consider repatriation clauses in letters of assignment issued when assignments commence, and whether these should be assurances of best endeavour to find a role upon repatriation or a guarantee. While guarantees of a role to return to may provide the much-needed job security to get the assignee to accept the assignment, not being able to honour such guarantees can lead to costly employment tribunals. Wording for such clauses when drafted should provide flexibility to deal with any business eventualities.
While immigration occupies a key focus at the start of the assignment, this is often ignored during repatriation. There is an implied assumption that immigration will not be an issue given the assignee is coming back to their ‘home country’. However, if the assignee is not a national of the home country (also referred to as a third country national), then they may need work or residence permits to work and live in their home country. The issue can create additional complexities if contractual paperwork included guarantees for a role to return to in the home country.
In Europe, it is not clear what impact Brexit will have on UK nationals returning to work in the EU or of EU nationals returning to work in the UK after the expiry of the transition period (currently set for 31 December 2020).
GM functions should assess the nationality of the assignee and their family independent of their home country. Doing so before the assignment commences can help GM functions avoid any immigration-related repatriation challenges which may follow.
‘Full and final’ end of assignment payments
GM functions need to consider whether any pro-rated payments such as bonuses can be made before or at the time of repatriation. If so, then GM policies need to articulate how such payments will be calculated.
If such payments are made after repatriation, then GM functions need to assess whether host country regulations allow for assignees to access their bank accounts post-repatriation. Additionally, if such payments are made in a new tax year following repatriation, this can trigger a tax filing liability in the host country. In such cases, GM functions need to ensure that mobility policies cover for such trailing tax liabilities.
In many jurisdictions, ending an assignment may trigger end of service statutory payments as per host country employment laws, such as severance payments in UAE or FGTS in Brazil. GM functions need to advise the business of such costs before the assignment commences to ensure it is adequately budgeted for.
Understanding assignee concerns
Being on assignment has a substantial impact on the life of the assignee and their family. In many ways this is a ‘life event’ requiring them to uproot themselves from their home country and adapt to life in a new country, make new friends and embrace a different culture. Leaving all of this behind can be stressful. For the assignee’s children, especially those in their formative years, the host country may well have become their ‘home’ country and leaving school and friends behind to create new ones can be a daunting experience.
There is usually a stark contrast to the importance given to the assignee’s family at the start of the assignment compared to when they are asked to repatriate. Support provided at the start can include pre-assignment trips, school searches and settling-in assistance allowing for a ‘soft landing’. However, with typical repatriation support being limited to physical relocation, this can make the assignee feel they’ve got a ‘hard landing’, leaving them and their family to manage the resettling process on their own. Assignees may correlate this to a perception that the company doesn’t value them anymore now that the assignment has been completed.
To aid talent retention post-repatriation, GM policies should recognise the challenges faced by assignees when relocating back and provide support during the resettlement process. Repatriation support provided by companies can include temporary accommodation and help with schooling issues in the home country, while a small proportion of companies also pay a repatriation allowance to compensate assignees for miscellaneous costs incurred.
Financial impact and the ‘career wobble’
Repatriation can herald a change in lifestyle for the assignee and their family. Withdrawal of key assignment benefits such as schooling or housing with the prospect of having to fund these costs personally can have an immense impact.
In some cases, such assignment benefits may have helped offset the loss of a second income of a spouse or partner when on assignment. However, upon repatriation there are no guarantees that they will find a job immediately, leading to a period of financial strain with the family having to survive on a single income.
In addition, ambiguity regarding the type of role to which the assignee will repatriate can cause anxiety and create a ‘career wobble’. Not only does this negatively impact the assignee’s morale but can get them to start looking for opportunities outside the organisation. Assignees may stay on, but any desire to leave could mean they feel disengaged from the company.
To address this issue, GM functions need to partner with talent management functions to communicate a clear career development plan to assignees. Knowing that the assignment will be used as a pathway to develop their career and that their role upon repatriation will recognise on-assignment experience will motivate assignees to stay on, enabling the employer to improve talent retention post-repatriation.
Repatriation can be a challenging phase for the assignee and the company. By strategically aligning with talent management to successfully re-integrate assignees into the home business, GM functions can help companies maximise their ROI by not only helping retain talent post-repatriation but also helping to ensure compliance.
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