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June 22, 2017
(First published on October 25, 2016)

Business Matters: Global

Why Repatriation Matters (Part Two)

Gareth Monteath

In the previous article, we looked at the reasons why companies send employees overseas to work, and we saw how valuable those people can be to their organizations. In 2010, Thunderbird International Business Review published “Exploring organizational and individual career goals, interactions, and outcomes of developmental international assignments,” a paper by Michael Dickmann and Noeleen Doherty that framed the benefits of overseas assignments in terms of the personal benefits of knowing-whom, knowing-how, and knowing-why. These three terms neatly sum up what I wrote last time.

For instance, if a Japanese man from the global HQ had spent three years in Gurgaon, India, managing local sales and marketing teams, then he might have passed on knowledge to his Indian team members of how things were done in Japan (knowing-how). As a result, there would have been reduced communication and management costs for the people involved. He might also have learned how those colleagues in India went about their business, and funneled that information back to his bosses in Japan, so that the headquarters could better understand the situation in that market. He might have seen how to adapt his management and communication styles, making it more likely that he could later do the same thing in other countries or with culturally diverse teams. He might have felt a greater sense of contribution and purpose in his work (knowing-why). Through all of this, he might also have earned the trust of people locally and in Japan, allowing him to solve problems and persuade various colleagues of the value of new initiatives (knowing-whom). In other words, he might have invaluable knowledge and networks that could benefit the entire organization.

How does this match up with empirical evidence? During my own doctoral research, I was lucky enough to work with study participants from a variety of companies and industries. What I found was positive. For instance, they had all been challenged by the scope and content of their roles overseas as expatriates. They had enjoyed the responsibility given to them and the sense of freedom. They had been happy to host senior managers visiting from the Japanese headquarters, passing on information and suggestions for how to improve the management of the business. Due to his assignment in Europe, for example, one expatriate told me that he felt better equipped to deal with the demands of working in a global organization. Obviously, he had more opportunities to work with non-Japanese peers: “Before, the chance to work with colleagues in other countries was very limited, but currently I need to work with non-Japanese colleagues.” He was now more confident in his communication and management abilities. Another repatriate told me that he had been highly stimulated by his colleagues and experiences in the U.S.A., and that he was highly motivated to acquire more knowledge and experience: “I need to learn more about many aspects that I have not learned yet, like how to run bigger organizations and how our company can survive in this competitive environment.”

In other words, the people with whom I worked had improved their knowing-how in terms of knowledge, knowing-whom in terms of their networks, and knowing-why in terms of their sense of contribution to their employer. However, while companies typically provide a lot of support for their expatriates in terms of training, follow-up interviews, paid visits back to the home country, and various financial allowances, there is currently much less support for repatriates. Repatriation training is rare, and after relocation expenses are paid, there are typically no special allowances. Put another way, being selected for an overseas assignment in the first place gives employees a strong (“Job satisfaction among expatriates, repatriates and domestic employees: The perceived impact of international assignments on work-related variables” in Personnel Review) sense of worth, and their preferential treatment while overseas reinforces that feeling. Jaime Bonache has suggested that the gap between expatriation and repatriation may cause dissatisfaction, as repatriates struggle to deal with the fact that they are no longer being treated in a special way.

In my next article, I will look at how repatriates’ careers develop after their return to Japan. Do their managers encourage them to use the skills and networks they have developed? Are people at the Japanese headquarters willing to listen to their ideas and use their knowledge? Are they satisfied with their new roles? And perhaps most interestingly, do the repatriates change the environment to which they return, or are they changed by it? Going forward, I will share with you my own answers to these questions.

About the author

Gareth Monteath

Gareth Monteath

Gaz has a doctorate from the University of Manchester (2015), an MBA from the University of Cambridge (2003), and a Master’s degree in Chinese Language, Business, and International Relations from the University of Sheffield (2007). He worked in London for Daiwa Europe before moving to Japan in 1991. Gaz spent three years on the JET Programme, and then joined LGS in 1994. In his current role, he oversees the creation and delivery of new programs, and is a member of the management board. He holds level 1 of the JETRO Business Japanese Test (1997) and the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (1994). Gaz is also a published author.