What happens to employees during and after an international assignment? They are much more likely to leave. This has to do with the strain that assignments abroad have on their (now) dual identities—a conflict within the repatriate.
WHAT HAPPENS TO EXPATRIATES?
While employees enjoy the new sights and sounds along with other perks of working in a new environment, they are also taking on an international employee identity, wherein they see themselves as an aggregate of their international work role, work-related experiences, and interactions with international and non-international employees in that setting, thereby making it a part of their self-concept.
This process is facilitated by the degree of job embeddedness (feelings of attachment toward the organization) the expatriate has toward their international role, on and off the job. However, being involved and owning their international identity means letting go of their old one. When they come back to their home county, they see themselves as having taken on an expat identity and responsibilities, which may lead them to expect their home organization to reward them with better perks such as higher levels of job responsibility, higher pay, opportunities to utilize skills acquired on global assignments, and respect from colleagues.
THE PROBLEM OF IDENTITY STRAIN
When these employees are not met with the fanfare they feel they deserve, they may experience feelings of job deprivation when the repatriates compare themselves to their home-based colleagues. This induces identity strain—meaning their positive self-image is threatened because the organization does not see them as they see themselves. If the level of strain gets too high and reaches a point that is unbearable, the repatriate quits in order to find an environment that is supportive of their new identity.
What can employers do to help their employees readjust to life back home? Two things: First, acknowledge that the employees’ self-concept may have changed during time abroad. Second, change their work to fit their new identity. Communicating the value of their experience and involving them in operations in which they now have expertise may keep them happy and in your organization.
Kraimer, M. L., Shaffer, M. A., Harrison, D. A., and Ren, H. (2012). No place like home? An identity strain perspective on repatriate turnover. Academy of Management Journal, 55, 399-420.
Image credit: istockphoto/Nutthaseth Vanchaichana