Skip to contentSkip to navigation

Walking the Talk on Foreign Experience

To stem the loss of repatriated employees, multinationals must show them more respect.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Title: No Place Like Home? An Identity Strain Perspective on Repatriate Turnover 
Authors: Maria L. Kraimer (University of Iowa), Margaret A. Shaffer (University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee), David A. Harrison (University of Texas–Austin),and Hong Ren (University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee)
Publisher: Academy of Management Journal, vol. 55, no. 2
Date Published: April 2012

Multinational companies have long been aware that employees posted abroad have a painfully high turnover rate when they return home. The loss is a major challenge for firms seeking to capitalize on the international experience of these repatriates, who often leave for competitors. Ironically, though, this paper finds that the reason for so many departures is a sense of corporate indifference. Returnees often feel unappreciated and underutilized, resulting in a form of alienation that the researchers call identity strain.

The problem was highlighted in a 2010 study of 120 multinationals, which reported that 38 percent of their repatriated employees quit during their first year home. By comparison, only 13 percent of their total workforce resigned that year.

But little research has been done to explain the disparity. To shed some light, the authors of this paper tracked 112 repatriated employees who worked for multinationals based in Australia, Germany, the U.K., and the U.S., in such industries as accounting, finance, food and beverage, and technology.

The employees were surveyed shortly after their return and again a year later. Of the 90 who responded to both surveys, 17 had switched to a new employer, which equated to a 19 percent turnover rate.

The authors concluded that working in a foreign culture fundamentally changes workers, to the point that many create a new identity based on their international experience, making them feel more valuable than before they went overseas. But despite their companies’ ostensible interest in their experience, the repatriates reported that their knowledge and skills were often not recognized, especially compared with what they saw as the treatment enjoyed by colleagues without foreign exposure.

To reduce the turnover, the authors say, multinationals have to reach out long before the expats come home. If international jobs are structured so that employees maintain ties with home-based divisions and remain in close communication with headquarters, their identification with the firm may be strengthened, instead of strained.

Once the expats are home, their managers should make sure to involve them in international strategic planning and operations. Similarly, repatriates should be assigned to train colleagues as they transition into and out of overseas jobs. 

Bottom Line: Employees who return from foreign assignments often feel unappreciated. To avoid losing these workers, managers need to reinforce their ties to the company while they’re overseas and quickly tap into their experience when they return.

Get s+b's award-winning newsletter delivered to your inbox. Sign up No, thanks
Illustration of flying birds delivering information
Get the newsletter

Sign up now to get our top insights on business strategy and management trends, delivered straight to your inbox twice a week.