Tame Reverse Culture Shock

Tame Reverse Culture Shock
An executive built three manufacturing plants in Southeast Asia. He drew up budgets. He was his company's presence in the region, and whatever was needed for the projects under his control, he could get.

Then when the international assignment came to an end, he returned to corporate headquarters in the US, and things were not quite the same. The ultimate snub: He had to request permission to order new business cards.

"The whole world crashed in on him," recounts Frank Alagna, president of Consultants for International Living in New York. The executive had gone from a position of control, of learning and excitement, to one of constraints. "It's a matter of job shrink, of life shrink,” Alagna says. “It's always more difficult to get put back in a box.”

Repatriation, the process of returning home from a job abroad, can be a traumatic experience, often rivaling the initial move to another country for the potential upheaval it can cause, both personally and professionally. Relocation experts say that as many as 40 percent to 50 percent of professionals leave their companies in the two or so years following a long-term international assignment.

According to Peter Burgi, director of research and a trainer for International Orientation Resources, repatriation is often traumatic for the following reasons:
  • Cuts in Perks and Pay: Compensation packages often include allowances for housing and children's education, along with "hardship pay." Upon returning, the perks vanish.

  • Loss of Buying Power: Simply put, the cost of living is significantly lower in some regions, allowing an international employee to spend more. "Suddenly, a hundred grand salary in Thailand does not buy you the same level of service and lifestyle as it does back in Topeka," says Burgi. 

  • Special? No Longer: Burgi sees the expatriate as occupying an "extraordinarily wonderful role" in a globalizing world. "Returning to everyday life on Oak Lane in Everytown, USA, causes that very sense of ‘specialness’ to shrink and disappear," he says.

  • Lack of Appreciation: Like someone returning from a life-changing trip, expatriates, including employees and their families, want to share their newfound experiences and knowledge. "Corporations do a lousy job, and that's lousy with a capital L, of reintegrating the skills that their employees have acquired abroad into the work practices back at the head office," Burgi says. "On the family side of things, or the personal side of things, when one returns with experiences that one is desperate to share, to tell friends and family members about, it's often a rude shock for people to find out that attention levels for this can be remarkably short."
The same firms offering services to those leaving for a job abroad often have programs to help employees with repatriation. Cornelius Grove & Associates, for instance, offers a coaching program, "Homecoming: Seizing the Opportunity," that includes contact with family members prior to return and a one-day workshop aimed at preparing for unexpected adjustment challenges, regaining on-the-job effectiveness and creating a plan to use the knowledge acquired abroad.

Consult your human resources department about any opportunities to assist you and your family upon your return, beyond the obvious assistance with airfare and documentation. And these links can provide more advice and details on repatriation programs:
  • Grovewell provides coaching, training and other support services for international employees.
  • Aperian Global offers relocation services, from predeparture training to on-site coaching.
  • ExpatRepat Services provides cross-cultural training and other services.
  • The Insiders' Guide to Relocation covers such topics as family preparation and the difficulties for career-interrupted partners. An excellent overview on avoiding the pitfalls of repatriation.