FRANKFURT - After the plane landed, the Baier family felt a little lost. The customs officer didn’t smile; the taxi driver seemed annoyed by the amount of baggage they had. The Baiers (not their real name) were “home,” back in Germany – but it seemed foreign to them. The family breadwinner, Markus, had spent nearly 10 years working in Asia and during that time he and his family had returned only for brief trips.
Markus is now working at his company’s global headquarters in Frankfurt – a city that neither he, his wife nor their two children are familiar with. Yet, it’s the whole country of Germany, not just Frankfurt, that seems “foreign” to them, and the culture shock they are experiencing isn’t only due to the move from Shanghai to a sedate suburb of Germany’s financial capital. The experience of working in the head office is so different Markus has had to reorient himself completely.
As a new Global Expatriates Observatory study by the Berlitz language and education company shows, he is far from being the only expatriate to experience what’s known as "re-entry-shock." This phenomenon can be particularly severe if postings abroad lasted for more than six years. Over 400 expatriates and 125 dependents participated in the study.
Most participants considered their time abroad enriching – in stark contrast with their homecoming, which they qualified as “hard,” “unhappy” and even “painful.” Sixty-two percent found reintegrating difficult, not least because one third would have preferred to stay abroad. A further third would have preferred to move to a different country from their home country.
Another reason why many homecomings were less than happy lay with the company itself, which only 19% of returned expatriates felt was really supporting them. The others felt that their experiences abroad were not valued, and they’d had to face the fact that they were no longer considered to be part of the social career network.
This was certainly the case for Markus who – more realistic about his years abroad than many others – knew that immediate promotion would not be on the cards after he got back. So when he learned he was going to be moved to the head office, he was careful to nurture contacts there and to monitor attractive positions as they opened up. But when he applied for one, he was told that he might have gotten the job if he’d stayed in Frankfurt, but that he wasn’t familiar enough with internal structures and the project at hand. Somebody else got the job.
His former boss had even worse luck: when he got back there were no jobs open at his level. However, the department that posts employees abroad has to take them back, "so you get a desk, but maybe no work," Markus says. His boss wasn’t going to take that, so he took the next available job – and is now below Markus in the hierarchy. "He would have been better off coming back, spending six months relearning the ropes and getting to know people again before applying for a job."
At the supermarket checkout
But only very few people can tolerate uncertainty of that kind, and because of the consequences for dependents, Andreas Bittner, the managing director of the relocation firm Institute for Intercultural Management (IFIM), doesn’t recommend it. Nothing, he says, is worse than spending months in a hotel. The whole family is concerned since “coming home” doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll return to the place in Germany you think of as home: there might be good openings in other places in Germany.
Children face getting used to a new school and making new friends; partners have often given up their own jobs to go abroad, as well as friendships, which have to be rekindled or made from scratch. For the returning worker, finding that colleagues haven’t exactly missed you is as sobering as realizing that they are far from waiting with baited breath to hear how this or that is done in other countries.
But Bittner also points out that many companies don’t know how to make good use of worker experiences abroad, and suggests a kind of “company wiki,” listing the contacts and knowledge that employees who have worked abroad have.
As a company representative abroad, one might be invited by the great and the good – but this is not the case upon return. In many parts of the world, Bittner adds, expatriates are among the elite classes and have plenty of domestic help: "There, they were used to the housekeeper doing everything. Here they’re suddenly standing in line at the supermarket checkout counter themselves."
"You have to wean yourself off the privilege – and many don’t want to. I know many people that just keep going from one foreign posting to another for just that reason," says Markus Baier.
Bittner says the danger that comes with this, however, is that one suddenly finds oneself a permanent expatriate without ever having consciously taken the decision to become one.
So would it be better to avoid foreign postings entirely?
Not if you want a successful career, Bittner says. You might not be able to count on a promotion right after your return, "but the ones who fare best are the ones who are successful in their work abroad and then come back and prove themselves at home for six months or a year.” Indeed for some jobs, he points out, somebody with no experience abroad isn’t even considered.