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August 2, 2017
(First published on December 27, 2016)

Business Matters: Global

Why Repatriation Matters (Part Four)

Gareth Monteath

It is clear that returning expatriates (in other words, repatriates) have much to offer their companies in terms of know-how and networks. Therefore, I asked at the end of my last article what companies could do to benefit further from what and who their repatriates know. Let’s examine that question now.

I found in my own research (“Vectors for change or the new Old Guard?: repatriation and Japanese HRM in the twenty-first century” published in EThOS) that Japanese companies, or at least the ones I glimpsed secondhand through the eyes of their repatriates, could do better. Michael Stevens and his research colleagues wrote in 2006 in “HR factors affecting repatriate job satisfaction and job attachment for Japanese managers” (The International Journal of Human Resource Management, page 832) about the “strong tendency of firms to neglect repatriates upon their return from overseas assignments.” There is certainly a lot of energy directed towards expatriates, including pre-departure training, post-arrival interviews, and regular reviews while abroad. There is, however, much less attention paid to repatriates. If this is the case, it is no surprise that people exhibit adjustment problems, disaffection, and disengagement after returning to Japan, sometimes resulting in employee turnover.

Retention is an issue, although perhaps more so in North America and Europe than in Japan. One of the participants in my study left her job two-and-a-half years after repatriating to take up a managerial position at a non-Japanese firm in the same industry. The other people, though, stayed where they were, and a further one-and-a-half years after I had concluded my study, they are still in those jobs. My sample size was small, so we should not draw specific conclusions from my qualitative research. Nonetheless, it seems to me significant that the woman who did leave her job reported a lot of emotional conflict. When she handed in her resignation, a senior manager told her that he was shocked and disappointed as he really valued her work and felt that she made a big contribution to domestic and overseas colleagues. If only he had told her this before she tendered her resignation.

What Companies Might Do
This leads me to what I think companies might do better. The first is to talk with repatriates in a low context way about the valuable skills, knowledge, and networks that they bring to the organization. This should be done not only by their bosses, but also by senior managers. It should happen within three months of repatriation, and there should be follow-up discussions within a further year.

Another suggestion is to ask repatriates to give presentations and join meetings when they have knowledge of the countries and colleagues connected to specific tasks or projects. This can be done across sections, departments, and functions. For at least one year after returning, the repatriates have valuable and unique knowledge. They can keep their information current by joining meetings or dinners involving overseas colleagues who are visiting Japan. Not only would this help them to update their knowledge and networks, it would likely also make the visiting colleagues feel more relaxed.

In addition, repatriates could be consulted when a Japan-based colleague is about to go overseas to visit a local group company, supplier, or client. The repatriates almost certainly have information that would be useful. The same is true when overseas colleagues known to the repatriate are about to visit an office or factory in Japan, so they should be encouraged to ask for some advice. I found that in many cases, this was already happening because overseas colleagues took the initiative.

The final suggestion is to form a loose network of repatriates in Japan by organizing lunch and dinner events so that they can provide support for one another. Repatriates often comment that they cannot talk about their overseas experience because domestic colleagues have no frame of reference and show no interest. Therefore, companies should help by creating networks. The cost would be low (food and drink), while the benefit would be large (increased motivation and greater knowledge sharing).

These are simple ideas, but it is difficult to find any company that employs them. Perhaps one reason is that the people making HR and management policies may not have lived overseas, and so they do not understand the value of the above. Another reason may be that repatriates work so hard to fit in back in Japan by not making any waves, with the result being that they ignore their potential contribution.

So much for what companies can do to help repatriates. Next time, we will look at how repatriates might help their companies even more by supporting the process of localization, both of management and of products and services.

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.