International HR Administration: Avoiding the ‘Small Fish, Big Pond’ Syndrome of Repatriating Staff

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By Lien Hoang

Dec. 8— When employees take on cushy assignments abroad, it's easy to feel like rulers of their own little fiefdoms. They can be in charge of entire countries, have personal drivers and send important intel back to headquarters about new markets. Once the expatriate contract expires, however, these “repats” move back to home offices with little to do—and little reason to stay, says Iain Adams, managing director of Asia Pacific for relocation company Sterling, who estimates that more than half of employees who return from international postings wind up quitting within two years.

Many repats end up feeling bored or less significant when they return, like “small fish” in big ponds, Adams said, because their companies don't have post-assignment strategies. That can jeopardize the returns employers expect on their investment in sending staff abroad.

“We should be doing everything we can to get them back in the business and capitalize on the investment,” Adams said Dec. 1 at the annual Asia Pacific Forum for Expatriate Management in Hong Kong.

Mining giant Rio Tinto addresses this problem through “reintegration” sessions, according to Eric Baden, the company's Asia Pacific senior advisor for global mobility. Repats could face a Rip Van Winkle-like shock back home because the office changed in their absence, colleagues moved on and their old jobs disappeared. Baden says his company uses reintegration to update returnees on what's new at the workplace, as well as to identify new roles for them.

“They would have been used to a different lifestyle, a different mindset,” Baden told Bloomberg BNA on the sidelines of the forum.

Start Early…

Adams recommends that employers take steps toward reintegrating expats while they are still on overseas assignment. Some employers offer flexible vacations back home, for example, allowing employees to visit family and friends and to spend some time working in the home office. Similarly, if the expat goes to headquarters on a business trip, Adams suggests the visit be timed to coincide with a mixer with coworkers, which would allow the cultivation of ties between domestic and foreign colleagues. Such relationships tend to suffer when employees are transferred abroad.

Adams suggests companies draft formal policies to ensure regular communication between headquarters and foreign offices to avoid the “out of sight, out of mind” syndrome.

…or Earlier

Flexibility is key to providing a satisfactory expatriate experience, Adams says. This begins with tailoring expat contracts to the realities of a specific assignment—for example, by giving transfers an allowance for pollution in Beijing or a clothing budget when moving them from hot to cold climates (or vice versa).

“The ‘one-size-fits-all’ may no longer be relevant,” Adams said.

Early planning also means managing staff's expectations. Adams himself, for example, thought his relocation to Singapore would be an easy move, but no one warned him that the haze would force him and his family to stay indoors.

At the end of a foreign assignment, it is just as important to reintegrate the family as the employee, Baden said. Rio Tinto, for example, works with spouses to see what they need when back in their home countries, going so far as to connect them via social clubs. The company also spends time finding an educational match for the children, who get used to years of attending international schools.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lien Hoang in Hong Kong at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rick Vollmar at