Sharon O'Sullivan Global firms continue to struggle with how best to acquire and retain global talent, and the repatriation process is right up there on the list of challenges. While some evidence points to an improving record on this front, many studies highlight that botched repatriation continues to lead to higher-than-average turnover – and the loss of valuable global expertise. “Nearly 25 per cent of repats who come back leave the organization within a year because the repatriation wasn’t handled well,” reports Sharon O'Sullivan of the Telfer School of Management. Sometimes employees’ international and knowledge skills aren’t properly utilized, so what they thought would be a promotion track starts to feel like a career rut. Reverse culture shock and family stresses can factor into the mix, too. But there is also an underlying problem that doesn’t receive nearly enough attention, O’Sullivan says: head office managers and human resource professional may lack the tools and knowledge to provide the kind of supports that can help shape the repatriation outcome. As she argues in a new paper, “The empowering potential of social media for key stakeholders in the repatriation process,” the persistence of the turnover problem suggests the need for a fresh approach to this issue.

“Academic HR specialists have tended to view the activities of each of the main actors in the repatriation process in isolation,” O’Sullivan argues, writing in the Journal of Global Mobility, “but repatriation should be prompting researchers to think about connection.” The role of power dynamics and interpersonal relationships in the process is too often missed. The literature hints at a power imbalance between the employees and the firm higher ups, but hasn’t addressed it head-on. “It presumes that the employee is a free agent in the process, and that their proactivity will help them acquire needed repatriation supports,” O’Sullivan says. “By ignoring power dynamics, the research overlooks the fact that HR representatives and managers also lack power in the process. They can’t take advantage of the employees’ new knowledge and thereby prevent turnover because they lack the tools, resources, and knowledge to do so.”

On a practical level, social media offers the potential to empower these actors, O’Sullivan argues. It can help expatriates’ recognize the need to proactively manage different aspects of their own (impending) repatriation. By strengthening access to “key HR and managerial decision-making arenas, it can give repatriates a voice where the official channels may have obstructed that voice.” Through social media, employees can also enter peer-to-peer repatriate networks for mentoring resources. Finally, managers and HR professionals can learn from social media to more effectively direct firm resources toward repatriation supports. “Networks of managers who have supervised international assignees can be of great benefit to managers who don’t have international experience.”

While providing a wider lens on the problem of repatriate turnover, O’Sullivan is careful to point out that, for the individual employee, leaving the firm isn’t necessarily an unhappy result. Turnover can be a positive outcome for the employee, leading him or her to a fulfilling career in another organization. “For the organization, on the other hand, turnover of top global talent equals loss,” she says. “It is not simply the cost of having moved them, and the logistical costs associated with it, it’s the whole intangible cost of lost intellectual capital, the networks these people have created, the understanding they have about the challenges overseas. As for repats returning as managers, they understand how to manage people abroad because they’ve been there. Managers who lack such global insights are less equipped to effectively manage their international assignees in a way that capitalizes on opportunities abroad.” Clearly, social media deserves more attention as a valuable, innovative tool for the retention of global talent.

The research is published in the Journal of Global Mobility: The Home of Expatriate Management Research.