For mobile employees taking on a new assignment, proper planning and support are important first steps to ensure success, both for the employee and in achieving the objectives anticipated by the business. An equally important, but often overlooked, step is having a proactive and structured strategy for their return when the assignment is over. Without it, the employee may experience “reverse culture shock,” an experience most companies are rarely prepared for and often surprised by. Whether returning from a different country or a different region within the same country, reverse culture shock can have negative impacts on everything from productivity to employee retention. Much like an astronaut returning to earth after an extended time in space, proactive planning for reentry – instead of a sudden jolt back into the mobile employee’s original “atmosphere” – is critical to both their safe return and the long-term success of the assignment.
So what is culture shock, how do employees and organizations recognize it, and how can it affect mobile employees both personally and professionally? In today’s current climate, when many companies are restructuring and redistributing their workforces, answers to these questions are more important than ever. Equally important, with some business stakeholders so far removed from seeing the downstream impacts to the employee, HR and mobility professionals are in an ideal position to educate and guide their colleagues on the best ways to support mobile employees and, ultimately, the organization. In this blog, we’ll explore what reverse culture shock is and how to guard against it.
What is “culture shock?”
An international assignment is an exciting opportunity, but it also requires a tremendous amount of psychological, emotional and physical energy from the employee and their accompanying family. Everything is new and unfamiliar, so with new languages, customs and behaviors to get used to, even a team meeting or visit to the local market can be stressful. This culture shock can cause disorientation and anxiety for the mobile employee and their accompanying family members for a while, which can also have negative impacts on the business. Knowing this, global companies typically recognize that a successful assignment requires fully supporting a mobile employee and family’s successful integration into their new surroundings, well past the move itself. This results in increased productivity, employee retention, achieving objectives, assignments being carried through to completion, and a stronger reputation for their mobility brand.
What is “reverse culture shock?”
But what happens when the employee returns to their home country – or place of origin – after the assignment ends? Dr Nancy Adler, professor of organizational behavior and cross-cultural management at McGill University in Montréal (Québec), Canada, lectures on expatriation and repatriation as a very complex cycle. Too often, organizations don’t fully comprehend just how complex, and haven’t adequately prepared for the repatriation process; they may not even be familiar with the concept of reverse culture shock at all. Their expectation is that the employee is coming home to a familiar way of life and should easily re-adapt. What can often happen instead, is that the employee’s perspectives have changed, along with their ways of thinking. And while they were abroad, a multitude of events and developments may have occurred that changed the dynamics of their community, friend groups and family members in their origin location. These drastic changes mean that, upon their return, the cycle of culture shock and integration occurs all over again. Mobile employees face some general challenges upon returning home1:
- Family and friends less interested in hearing about the mobile employee’s foreign experience as the employee is in telling them about it
- The returning employee isn’t as interested in hearing about what happened at home during their absence as family and friends are in telling them about it
- The returning employee misses:
- Being abroad
- The feeling of “celebrity status” that often comes with being a person from another country (at home, they don’t stand out as much)
- The “royal” treatment, lifestyle and social status they may have enjoyed abroad
- The tight-knit foreign affairs community they were a part of
A global issue, whether a domestic or international assignment
The above challenges are global issues that apply to mobile employees anywhere they may be based. What’s more, they also extend into the workplace, adding even more layers of complexity to the effects of reverse culture shock on the employee, globally. Finally, these feelings aren’t limited to international assignments, since employees returning domestically can still experience similar feelings of disconnect, strong feelings of disruption, and a general sense that their lives aren’t seamlessly falling back into place. Because employees are returning to a location where languages and national identities are assumed to be the same, organizations may be even less aware of the challenges employees may face upon their return.
Mobility assignments: Challenges and solutions for employees and the business
On a professional level, the mobile employee may have been celebrated as a “big fish in a small pond” in their host location: They may have felt well-compensated, engaged by their work and learning experiences, more autonomous and that they were gaining new skills and knowledge. If returning to their old position, their previous role may not be as attractive or challenging to the employee. The organization may not have a plan for leveraging all the new knowledge the employee has accumulated. The employee’s original team may have disbanded, their leaders changed, their goals and objectives altered, and their newly acquired skills and knowledge may be overlooked altogether. According to Laurette Bennhold-Samaan, Vice President, Global Advisory and Intercultural Services at NetExpat, mobile employees often feel alienated and concerned about their next role — what it will look like, how they’ll integrate with the team or whether their career might be derailed altogether. Even employees on short-term assignments are often surprised by the impact of reverse culture shock; it can hit hard and in varying degrees based on multiple factors like the length of time spent on assignment and the frequency of contact with support networks in their origin destination during the assignment. The latter can be especially concerning in the case of international assignments.
In recent years, organizations have had to adapt to living in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) environment, so they can be hesitant to plan too far ahead or simply expect the employee to “just deal with” assignment conclusions on their own. In fact, many organizations don’t even recognize reverse culture shock as a problem until the employee either becomes a "quiet quitter" or resigns and takes all their valuable experience to the competition.
From a personal perspective, each individual will experience reverse culture shock differently, so companies need to be aware of those needs within their talent pool. Check-ins, assessments and communication with employees before, during and after they return from an assignment will be key to identifying those needs — then meeting them and leveraging lessons learned to benefit the employee and the business.
For instance, if a mobile employee was provided with training prior to taking on an international assignment — and they adjusted well and developed a level of cultural agility — when they return, they may be disappointed to find the old environment to be lacking in the global mindset and diversity they’ve become used to. According to Gabriela Weglowska, Senior Manager, Intercultural Services at NetExpat, it’s important to realize that if an HR manager has never worked abroad, they may not be able to anticipate the challenges mobile employees face with international repatriations. With this in mind, it’s important for companies to recognize that they may not know what they don’t know. Conducting regular employee check-ins with an eye on both intercultural experiences as well as diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is crucial. She reflects that “global mobility is innately an advocate for cultural diversity and can create an inclusive company culture which, in turn, increases productivity.” And like other DEI initiatives, “companies need to recognize potential barriers, give employees a voice to create a sense of belonging, and provide inclusive spaces to share their experiences.”
Make culture shock and reverse culture shock a consideration in assignment planning
In addition to preparing mobile employees for culture shock, organizations should prepare for and support repatriations and returns early in the assignment planning process. Following assignment conclusions, there’s also a significant opportunity to assess whether employee experiences have run smoothly so they can revise and improve their programs accordingly. While this may seem challenging, a great place to start is with organizational data and strong communications with the mobile employees themselves. There are several factors to consider:
- Does your organization communicate regularly with your mobile employees, both during and after assignments, to assess their experience and well-being?
- Does your company culture encourage open communication during the above check-ins?
- What’s your organization’s retention rate among mobile employees after their assignments end?
- What types of support and benefits are you providing, both during and after employee assignments? Is intercultural and language training a part of your offerings? What about coaching and debriefing upon their return?
- What’s the promotion rate among repatriated employees?
- If there's no advancement for the employee following a relocation, are you keeping them engaged by using their newfound expertise as a mentor for other future mobile employees, or some other activity?
- Does feedback from your employee performance surveys or internal satisfaction surveys provide insight into the employee’s experience with both the relocation and return to their original location?
Once you’ve taken a look at the answers to the above, consider working with your relocation management company (RMC)/relocation services provider to conduct an assessment and review your policies. They can offer recommendations for adjusting benefits and internal processes to elevate any areas where opportunities for improvement are identified. If your international assignment policies don’t already, consider making intercultural training a core component of your core-flex (or care-flex) program for both the employee and any accompanying family members. There are a variety of training options, from virtual to in-person, and a wide range of costs are available. Before repatriation, coaching should also be provided to help mobile employees prepare for their return to their country of origin. Proactively paying for these benefits up front goes a long way toward avoiding the greater expenses that can occur later when they're not: Failed assignments and employee attrition have significant negative downstream impacts. These include the hard costs associated with backfilling roles and onboarding new employees — and the soft costs associated with lost productivity and damage control regarding the company’s mobility brand reputation.
And finally, facing and fixing the challenges of reverse culture shock will take the commitment of senior leadership to facilitate those changes. Yet another way for mobility to amplify its seat at the table, mobility professionals have an opportunity to work with HR and senior leaders to both point out the issues associated with reverse culture shock and guide policy design that mitigates negative impacts, supports talent, and strengthens employee retention and company growth. We’ve assembled a list of best practices below:
For repatriating employees:
- Be proactive – Plan for repatriation in conjunction with the outbound assignment. Give employees a method to capture and share their experiences when they return home.
- Implement a debrief program – Design a structured way for repatriating employees to reflect and provide honest feedback about their intercultural and relocation experience. For example, Bennhold-Samaan shared one client’s success story about senior leadership’s willingness to hold a debrief session with a group of recently repatriated employees. Expecting to hear praise and positive feedback from the group, the leadership team was quite shocked to hear just the opposite. Many employees reported feeling like a “lost soul” and “a disappointment regarding the inability to use the skills they’d acquired on assignment” after returning home. This served as an impetus for change and improvements to their mobility program.
- Communicate openly with employees – Provide mobile employees with the time and tools to document their new skills and experiences and then pair them with outgoing assignees or schedule peer-to-peer learning sessions.
- Engage destination services support – Make sure there’s a component of care in repatriation policies or guidelines. Consider the individual and what services (for them or their family members) would be most beneficial to allow them to focus on work.
- Support outplacement services – Provide a level of assistance to employees if their original roles have been transitioned or eliminated altogether.
For internal stakeholders:
- Add value to the mobility program – HR and mobility professionals can ensure that policies and/or guidelines include specific steps on how the business unit will package and apply employees’ newly gained skills and experience when they return from assignment.
- Develop structured learning opportunities - Career counseling and management training for managers of mobile employees will help them re-integrate the employee into their teams or work streams with care and efficiency.
- Facilitate internal networking – Set up a repatriation network with other employees through an online portal, as well as arranging virtual get-togethers or in-person events.
- Capture the data – Develop and administer (either internally or through a third party) a formal survey to collect feedback from employees about their relocation experiences. Cultivate a culture that encourages honest and open feedback, share the results with company stakeholders, and take measurable action to address negative comments or gaps in support.
It’s a significant financial investment for an organization to send an employee on an international assignment — and an equally significant emotional and psychological investment for the mobile employee to fulfill that role successfully. Companies can take the lead in maximizing and leveraging those investments by proactively planning for both the mobile employee’s assignment and successful repatriation into both their professional and personal lives. An integrated approach will be key: A true success story can only happen when all stakeholders are aware, engaged and committed to all aspects of the assignment – and beyond.
To learn how you can provide exceptional experiences to your mobile employees, including repatriation best practices; get the most out of your mobility program; and maximize the return on your mobility investment, contact us for more information.
Special thanks to our partners at NetExpat for their contributions to this content.
1 U.S. Department of State - 2009-2017.state.gov/m/fsi/tc/c56075.htm