Repatriates: high potentials or hot potatoes?

By Philippe Riboton, Managing Director at HR Partners International Executive Search

We all know that expatriate assignments generally represent a huge acceleration of professional and personal development for senior executives. But what happens to “expatriates” when coming back home as they become “repatriates”? I have supported quite a number of international executives throughout their careers and I have witnessed that repatriation is actually more problematic than it seems.

Zuzana Zeleznikova, a former Managing Director on international assignments during eleven years with brewery giant Heineken – including Lebanon and Tunisia – acknowledges the repatriation sequence is critical: “while being expatriated you get a lot of support from your employer”, she says. “But the moment you are back, the support which is really needed is underestimated. You are not really prepared for what’s for you at home. So you are sort of lost in space.” But what is the reason of this perception? Zuzana continues: “it is simply not the same as before you left. A lot has changed and the culture has evolved.” In other words being repatriated actually proves to be more difficult and more stressful than to be expatriated.

Jiri Vacek, a former senior international HR executive with Nestlé in the Czech Republic, Switzerland and Italy and now owner of HR One consultancy firm, makes a similar conclusion from his personal experience: “I have spent nine years on international assignments”, he says. “And when I got back home I felt expatriated in my own country. It was a real shock.” Not only has the country changed but the local organization of the employing organization has often changed too. Jiri takes the case of his former employer: “when I left the Czech Republic, my country was considered a market. When I got back it had become part of a wider region as countries in Central Europe had been clusterized and organizations had been streamlined.”

One of the consequences also is that when coming back home the design of the job you get is pretty often smaller than the roles you used to hold. Jiri illustrates: “you expect a bigger role because you have accumulated so much experience and knowledge while being expatriated and you faced vary different cases and situations. But in fact there is no bigger role in your home country.” In some cases those returning executives are even being kept waiting for a new permanent position as the local organization does not have anything to offer that would correspond to the level of authority and independence they used to have while running a foreign operation. So it is no surprise that most expatriate managers feel that upon returning home their new position is a demotion – rather than a promotion.

So you could almost say that former expats sort of transform from high potentials into hot potatoes. Nobody knows what to do with them. As a result it is not rare that former expatriates leave their employer after being repatriated.

It would be fair to conclude that companies with international activities need to do better work in terms of repatriation programs and cover the entire expat experience: from assignment to returning home.