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Expatriates and Repatriates: Key talent segments in a mobile workforce

Expatriates and repatriates are key talent segments in today’s global mobile workforce. Expatriates are employees leaving a country to go and work in another country, usually with the expectation of returning to their home country, although some of them may opt for citizenship in their host country, if that is allowed.  For example, South African expatriates in countries such as the UK and USA can obtain citizenship, while expatriates in the Middle East can not acquire citizenship and therefore are likely to eventually return to South Africa.

Expatriates returning to their home countries are called repatriates. In other words, you are an expatriate when you enter a new country for a work assignment, and you are a repatriate when you return to your home country after the international assignment. Be that as it may, expatriates and repatriates are key talent segments and they therefore need to be treasured for their specialised skills and international knowledge and experience, as well as the sacrifice they were willing to undertake for these international assignments.

In this article I will first outline key success factors for managing expatriate assignments, and secondly offer some lessons for repatriate management. Let’s start with expatriate planning, here are some guidelines:

  • Create a dedicated expatriate and repatriate management programme as part of your global talent management strategy, with a particular focus on employee wellness.
  • Conduct thorough research about the host country so that the expatriates will have sufficient background knowledge about the country.
  • Ensure adequate orientation and training about the host country, e.g. national context, culture, laws and environment.
  • Prepare expatriates to have a clear understanding of their position and role in the host country.
  • Identify any possible risks in the host country and develop appropriate mitigation plans.
  • Orientate the expatriate about any cultural dynamics in the host country, e.g. language(s), laws, habits, customs, norms and rules (spoken and unspoken).
  • Test potential expatriates on their global cultural adaptability, people who are very adaptable to different cultures in one country may not be able to adapt to a total different cultural environment on a totally different continent.
  • Integrate the family of the expatriate in your planning, in fact research has indicated that expatriates adapt much quicker than their family members.
  • In addition to a home country contact person, create a host country support system for the expatriates so that they are actively and proactively supported at the local sites.
  • A key aspect is to ensure that all HR and logistical arrangements are in place, such as expatriate allowances, accommodation, language training, schools etc.
  • Ensure good communication with their home country so that they never feel isolated or neglected, keep them informed of all developments affecting them at the home and host countries.

While most of the global HR research has focused on preparing expatriates for international assignments, the whole issue of repatriation requires more attention, i.e. when expatriates return to their home country.  We often put 90% of our effort into expatriation and only 10% of our effort into repatriation, while the latter part is of utmost importance. Recently, a South African expatriate returned home after five years.  The repatriate struggled so much to adapt back to her home country, that she returned back to the UK and eventually acquired UK citizenship.  Sadly, we lost a highly skilled and capable professional given the fact that the repatriation phase of the assignment failed.

  • Keep a special folder of major changes in the country before the repatriate returns.
  • Prepare the repatriate to return, inform them of changes in laws, rules and other changes.
  • Organise a welcoming party and pack as part of the repatriation programme.
  • Formalise the repatriate programme so that the repatriate looks forward to his or her return and can visibly be part of a caring repatriate experience.
  • Support the repatriate with logistical arrangements, e.g. schools, home, office etc.
  • Activate the necessary HR and other processes, e.g. salary arrangements, relocation.
  • Arrange an official debriefing with the repatriate and capture this knowledge as part of your global market intelligence.
  • Provide the necessary employee wellness support by focusing on the unique wellness issues of repatriates.
  • Develop a repatriate retention strategy to retain this special global talent in your company.
  • Ensure that the expatriate’s knowledge is used to tap into the host country market.
  • Use the experience of the expatriate to mentor, coach and prepare a new team of expatriates, and to provide inputs into other global operations.
  • Put specific emphasis on developing a global mindset and culture in your company, this will ease future international assignments and repatriation in the process.
  • Monitor the re-integration of repatriates into the company and the country and address any problems or challenges as they arise.

The importance of the professional talent management of expatriates and repatriates cannot be over-emphasised. It requires a special programme and dedicated focus to deal with the complex and unique needs of expatriates and repatriates.  Despite their special skills, as talented mobile employees, expatriates and repatriates should also be treated as a high-risk talent segment, as it may be more difficult to retain them, given their preference for mobility.  Ultimately, expatriate and repatriate management requires an international talent management programme ensuring that all phases of the talent life cycle are professionally planned, implemented and evaluated for improvement and alignment.

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