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Research Shows Repatriated Employees Often Leave for New Jobs

Maria KraimerWorkers for big multinational companies who spend time on a foreign assignment have a higher than normal turnover rate when they come back home, and a new study suggests that’s because they don’t feel fully appreciated for their global experience.

“Home may not have changed, but it is not the same place because repatriates themselves have changed after having been expatriates,” says Maria Kraimer, a professor of management and organizations in the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business who headed the research team. “Those who take international assignments often feel fundamentally different after returning, yet they may not see their development reflected in their treatment by their firms.”

That tension goes beyond what could be called culture shock, Kraimer says, and leads repatriates to leave at a higher rate. She notes one recent study that shows 38 percent of repatriated employees voluntarily quit their firm within the first year of returning to their home country. The overall turnover rate is only 13 percent, and this difference considerably increases a firm’s costs for recruiting and training the kind of mid- and high-level employees who are most likely to receive international assignments.

For the study, Kraimer and her team of researchers collected data from 112 repatriated employees through surveys that were emailed to them shortly after their return home, and then from a follow-up survey sent one year later. The employees worked for medium to large multinational corporations based in the United States, UK, Germany, and Australia, and were involved in such sectors as manufacturing, accounting, technology, finance, and consumer food and beverage.

Of the 90 subjects who responded to both surveys, 17 of them had left their former employer for a new job, for a 19 percent turnover rate.

The researchers found that living and working overseas in a new and different culture changes employees in fundamental ways, to the point where many of them create whole new identities for themselves. This new identity has a significant international component and incorporates new meaning and aspirations in terms of how they approach their careers.

Kraimer says repatriates believe this new identity makes them a more valuable employee than they were before they went overseas. However, the repatriates don’t often feel their firms recognize that value, especially when they compare themselves to their co-workers with no international experience.

“When a repatriate perceives her job has less responsibility, respect, pay, or opportunities than the jobs of colleagues without global experience, the repatriate may believe that the organization does not view her international experience and employee identity in the same way that she does,” Kraimer says.

That perceived lack of respect often leads them to find new jobs.

Kraimer says firms can take steps to reduce repatriate turnover. For instance, firms can use repatriates to help train other employees about to go on their first international assignment, or involve them more heavily to develop international strategy, both of which draw on the employee’s global experience and shows the organization values that experience. Firms could also more closely manage expatriates while they’re on international assignments, linking them with other divisions and maintaining close communications to reinforce their identity with the organization.

Kraimer’s paper, “No Place Like Home? An Identity Strain Perspective on Repatriate Turnover,” was published in the Academy of Management Journal. It was co-authored by Margaret Shaffer and Hong Ren of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and David Harrison of the University of Texas.


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