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July 12, 2017
(First published on November 15, 2016)

Business Matters: Global

Why Repatriation Matters (Part Three)

Gareth Monteath

We have seen previously that, in principle, repatriates have much to offer their employers after they have returned to their home countries and organizations. In practice, some companies are better than others at giving repatriates the opportunity to shine, but based on what I have observed, Japanese employers usually provide returning business people with fulfilling roles that continue to develop.

Starting in 2011, I followed the careers of eight repatriates from different industries to build up a picture of the careers of repatriates, as well as their impact on their home organizations. By interviewing them at regular intervals, I was able to build up a picture of their company lives after their return. As already noted, these people all improved their knowing-how in terms of useful knowledge, knowing-whom in terms of their intra-organizational networks, and knowing-why in terms of their sense of contribution to their employers. This finding was broadly consistent with my own anecdotal evidence gleaned from working with expatriates and repatriates since 1995.

In my last article I asked several questions related to repatriates, their organizations, and their careers. Firstly, do their managers encourage them to use the skills and networks they developed while working overseas? Secondly, are people at the Japanese headquarters willing to listen to repatriates’ ideas and use their knowledge? Thirdly, are they satisfied with their new roles after coming back? Finally, do the repatriates change the environment to which they return, or are they changed by it? Let’s look at these in turn.

First of all, the characteristic flexibility of Japanese organizations with respect to human resource management appears to give repatriates scope to find ways to contribute, and their supervisors a way to keep them involved. Out of the eight repatriates with whom I worked closely, only one ended up in a role that had no links with his former work overseas. In his case, he initially returned to a job that allowed him to continue to work with European colleagues, but after eighteen months, the project was handed over to someone else and he was put into a domestic role that failed to excite him or use his knowing-how and knowing-whom. As a result, he started to lose sight of his knowing-why. However, he also believed that a better role might be around the corner.

Turning to the second question, while there does not appear to be much appetite for creating formal communities of practice amongst repatriates, on an individual basis, HQ staff do appear to take advantage of what their repatriate colleagues know. They ask for help in locating information in overseas subsidiaries or making connections with people based in those companies, for example. They elicit advice about business issues related to what their repatriate colleagues have experienced. This type of consultation typically makes repatriates feel valued and valuable, which goes some way to answering the third question above, which relates to job satisfaction. Overall, levels of satisfaction were high amongst the repatriates, with two exceptions: one person who left after nearly three years to work for a competitor and thereby gain a promotion, and a second person (just mentioned above) who found himself in a domestic job.

Finally, I raised the question of whether repatriates shape their environment or are re-shaped by it. One of my study participants told me, “[W]e cannot apply the overseas way to everything in Japan, I think. Even if there are many people experienced overseas, I don’t think they have a big influence by that different culture.” This was echoed by the comments and behavior of everyone in my study. Even the one person who did leave her employer found a stable role with a competing company doing a very similar job. All appreciated the security of lifetime employment, and nearly all found interesting things to do within the flexible parameters of their respective companies’ similar human resource management systems.

The picture painted above is perhaps more positive than many readers would expect, and this is perhaps due to the nationality of these repatriates. In “When expatriates explore other options: Retaining talent through greater job embeddedness and repatriation adjustment” published in HUMAN RESOURCE Management, Shen and Hall have speculated that turnover rates are higher for U.S.-Americans than for most other nationalities, for instance. Meanwhile, in “Repatriation: empirical evidence from a longitudinal study of careers and expectations among Finnish expatriates” in The International Journal of Human Resource Management, Suutari and Brewster found that 35% of Finnish repatriates changed employers over a three-year period. Japanese repatriates, however, are said by Bossard and Peterson (“The repatriate experience as seen by American expatriates” published in Journal of World Business ) to be more likely to return to their home organizations than their European and U.S.-American counterparts, and then to remain. That was certainly my own finding. Once the repatriates have returned, though, can their companies do an even better job of using their talents? I will explore that in more detail next time.

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.