How to effectively retain expatriates? 

August 2022

Mobility and people departments are adept at anticipating the challenges an expat may face when they go on international assignment. Your business is likely to provide soon to be expats with pre-departure training to highlight potential issues in advance. You may also provide an expat liaison to assist with problems while they are away and access to an expat assistance programme for personal issues. However, what about when they return to their home country?

Studies across several countries have shown successful repatriation can be the most challenging element of an expat assignment for both employer and employee.

  1. Professionally, returning expat employees must navigate the changes that may have occurred in their home workplace. Changes in roles or employee turnover while they were away may mean they do not have the visibility they once had in the business. It will take time to build this connection back.
  2. Expat employees must also adjust to their new role. This may be difficult if it varies significantly from the role they held while abroad or if they need to liaise with new stakeholders to get work done. 
Away from the office, returning expats and their families may find it difficult settling back into life in their home country, particularly after a long period spent overseas. It is usual for employees to believe returning home will be easy only to find they experience many of the same problems they faced when they first moved overseas. It can be particularly hard if their personal life has undergone a lot of change while they have been away. They may face a period of social readjustment when they realise friends and family may have moved away or are at different stages in life. 

Even more concerning for the wider business is the knowledge that after all the investment, a Spanish study found between 10% and 60% of repatriates leave their company within two years of returning home.  A US study by the University of Iowa found that 38% of returning expats left their company within a year of returning home. Both statistics are much higher than turnover rates for those who have not completed an overseas assignment. 

Studies have found there are a variety of reasons why employees may choose to leave so soon after returning. 

1. Insufficient recognition of their contribution

Expats are sent on assignment for a variety of reasons:

• Starting a new operation

• Transferring skills to a local market

• Maintaining corporate control

But their contribution is often not sufficiently recognised when they return to their original workplace. A Geodesy survey found that although most expatriates expect a promotion when they get home, the majority [58%] are not promoted when they return from assignment


2. They are unable to use their new skills and experience

It is understandable that a returning expat would want to use the international skills and insight they have acquired while on assignment. This is something that is underutilised by many global businesses. Research by Harvard Business Review found 61% of repatriates lacked opportunity to put their international skills to use.   


3. Reverse Culture Shock

Returning to a home country after a long period overseas can require more adjustment than many anticipate. Some employees feel homesick for their expat country and may miss the lifestyle or friends they made while away. This is known as reverse culture shock and may be just as difficult to navigate. The situation may be further complicated if they have children who must move schools. 

Now we know why repatriates are valuable to your business, the question is how do businesses work to keep returning employees in the fold?

1. Begin the repatriation process before an expat leaves on assignment

This may seem counter intuitive but planning for an employees return before they leave is a great way to ensure a smooth repatriation. Taking some time to help an employee understand what they are likely to come back to is useful in preventing a disconnect between what they may hope for and what your business can offer on their return. 

2. Set clear expectations about post-assignment career advancement

Expat assignments can usually be distilled down to two motivators, employee development or task completion. If your employees are primarily sent overseas to complete a task rather than for their own development, the business may not be able to guarantee a promotion when they return. Communicating this early in the process is essential to manage employee expectations. 

3. Conduct career planning

Before an expat leaves on assignment, the best people or mobility managers conduct some form of career planning. Although it may be difficult to plan for three- or five-year’s time, try to establish an outline of what their career trajectory could look like on their return. Even if it changes, again it is a useful way to manage expectation. 

4. Assign every expat a home mentor

Prevent your expats from becoming completely disconnected from what is happening in their home office by allocating them a home mentor. Encourage regular meetings. Staying connected to the corporate office is critical to a successful repatriation. 

5. Maintain regular communication

Similarly, to their mentor, regular communication from HR or mobility departments helps expats stay in touch with the home office while they are away. It is easy for communication to drop off once an expat is settled but you will aid the repatriation process by keeping communication going throughout the assignment and ramping it up as the assignee gets closer to returning home. 

6. Facilitate visits to the home office

If an expat is on assignment for several years, try to facilitate a return to their home office for a week or two so they are not completely disconnected. This offers the opportunity to meet new employees in person and catch up with colleagues and friends. 

7. Provide repatriation assistance

Businesses are very good at providing employees with assistance when they are going on assignment, there may be a formal pre-departure training course as well as financial and practical help with settling into their new home. Few offer similar support when an employee returns, even though they may face the same challenges of finding a place to live, schools for children and reverse culture shock. Any assistance you can provide during an often-unexpected difficult time is likely to be much appreciated. 

8. Recognise expat experience

Last but by no means least, encourage repatriates’ teams to do all they can to acknowledge and recognise an expats international experience. If a promotion is not possible, can they be put on an international project or used to train others going on expat assignment? Be as creative as you can be to keep repatriates engaged and challenged. 


With some planning and investment your business can look forward to retaining more repatriate talent, so it achieves the best return on investment on these valuable employees. 


While repatriate retention may be a challenge for your business, expat health insurance does not have to be. We work with your business to find the best international health insurance product for your expat employees.