Returning home and facing culture shock – Really!?

Remember a few years ago when you began your relocation experience abroad? It was most likely that you benefited from an inter-cultural training program provided by your host or home organization before relocating. Organizations place a significant emphasis on preparing assignees and the family for outbound assignments, recognizing the importance of providing training so that you and your family can adjust to your new home and professional life with minimal challenges.

But what happens once you are ready to return home? After all, returning “home” should not present any challenges; you and your family are coming back to a culture and environment that are familiar, right? Surprisingly, it’s quite the opposite, return culture shock is a much more difficult adjustment than the outbound one; and there are many reasons for this, most of which are hidden and unexpected.

Home country is my comfort zone. Assignees and family remember home as it was when they left, and many a times idealize what they left behind. Upon returning the family may have to face the changes that the home country has undergone. Bureaucracy in re-acclimation may be overwhelming and tedious, and friendships often need to be rebuilt, even with those that were left behind. Children also face acclimation challenges: Often they come back with foreign accents; the educational system which they left behind might be different and difficult to adjust back to. Furthermore, it takes time for children to find social groups with whom they feel comfortable and, in some instances children desire to return to the country of their expatriation that has already become their comfort zone.

Most importantly, the assignee and the family fail to recognize that they have changed individually and as a family, and that these changes are only recognizable when returning home, and upon comparing the home culture and its values to the country they left behind and already felt comfortable with.

Professional Challenges. There may be professional challenges as well for the partner who accompanied the assignee abroad. The partner may want to re-enter the workforce and return to their career. However, having been abroad for several years, the partner often struggles to pick up where they left off which can lead to feelings of frustration and sometimes even depression.

The assignees may also face a number of challenges returning to the home organization. There might be less congruence between the kind of a position and work the assignee expects to do, and the position and responsibilities that the organization has available for them. Having worked abroad, most assignees are used to a high degree of responsibility with large teams to manage, and when returning to the home organization they might experience that the organization has “shrunk” and feel less challenged by their new positions.

Recognize the assignees global skills. Upon return, the assignee has acquired extensive global knowledge and skills that will advance the organization and take them to the next level of production, sales or service. Therefore it is imperative that the assignee is given the appropriate professional framework from where he can advance the goals of the organization. Statistics show that an unhappy assignee will leave the organization within two years of returning home and often transition to a competing organization that knows how to value his global knowledge.

In conclusion, successful re-integration depends on both the awareness of the assignee and the family as to the challenges facing them upon their return, and on the organization to recognize the importance of retaining its global talent.