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Workers Abroad: The Repatriation Problem

Introduction

For a number of decades, corporate entities have made financial investments in expatriating workers. Such investments are supposed to cover monetary compensation, skill development, and the toil that future assignments might entail. Due to overseas business interests, professional researchers have had to acknowledge “reentry” – the repatriation phase of international assignment – since at least the 1960s. Ultimately, though, it has been the expatriation phase of international assignment, and not reentry, that has received the lion’s share of scholarly attention (see Storti, The Art of Coming Home). Moreover, available research suggests that international assignees (workers on international assignment) experience greater difficulty with the reentry phase of their work than with entering a foreign culture for the first time (see Black et al., “Toward a theoretical framework of repatriation adjustment”).

The difficulties associated with, or related to, workers’ “reentry transition” are documented and researched across distinct academic disciplines. But academic documentation remains largely unconnected as many issues have yet to be addressed with rigorous interdisciplinarity. What is more, there are many lacking elements, including such basic things as definitions for terms like “repatriate,” “reverse migrant,” and so on (see Szkudlarek, “Reentry—A review of the literature”). Furthermore, researchers have yet to fully address the fact that (1) anthropological analyses of return migration, (2) psychological studies of expatriate readjustment, and (3) the intercultural literature on other repatriated subjects endure as distinct phenomena—and with little-to-no overlap!

In addition to a lack of interdisciplinary analysis, a lack of common theoretical frameworks, and a lack of standardized methods of research, numerous other factors contribute to a poor understanding of reentry as a thing in itself. Though a number of publications on expatriation refers to reentry as “the theme of cross-cultural reentry, its course, impact, and features” (see Szkudlarek), the general lack of standard measures for reentry yet impedes researchers from drawing conclusions and comparing studies (see Cox, “The role of communication, technology and cultural identity in repatriation adjustment”). Ultimately, reentry remains both neglected and underestimated amongst corresponding academic circles. Despite this, researchers have begun questioning the role that communication technologies have played in the experience of returning expatriates.

Communication

Communication behavior plays an important role in reentry. One assumption holds that the “quality or emotionality of communication would be restricted by the technical limitations of various kinds of media.” On a similar note, there is evidence that newer technologies (e.g., e-mail, the Internet, etc.) were not only subject to the most frequent use by sojourning workers, but also, their use was linked to high levels of satisfaction in users. In fact, one study shows that communication via different types of information and communication technologies is “just as satisfying to individuals on overseas assignments as personal visits” (see Cox, Szkudlarek). This is remarkable. But why?

A good number reentry analyses indicates a universal concern for the psychological wellbeing, social readjustment, and cultural identity of “repatriating sojourners” (see Szkudlarek). Indeed, some cases of reentry are so severe in their psychological impact on the individual worker that they reach clinical levels (see Sahin, “Re-entry and the academic and psychological problems of the second generation”). Repatriating sojourners even experience the same levels of distress as bereaved individuals (see Chamove et al., “Grief in returning sojourners”). Cox states, “Understanding the use of … communications technologies, would give individuals and organizations a better understanding of how technology can be used throughout the expatriate experience to facilitate successful [reentry].” Greater study of this particular area could potentially affect numerous individual volunteers—as well as the sponsoring organizations that deliberate communication technologies and their impacts on worker reentry.

In all, reentry research is complex despite the fact that many problems in cross-cultural adjustment in individuals on international assignment are well known and documented. Without a doubt, the reentry phase of international assignment warrants greater attention from the research community (see Martin, “The intercultural reentry: Conceptualization and directions for future research”). While some scholarship is mindful of the fact that cross-cultural adaptations of certain groups – immigrants, refugees, and sojourners – have undergone extensive investigation within the social sciences, there is no integrating theoretical foundation for a truly comprehensive assessment (see Kim, “Communication and cross-cultural adaptation: An integrative theory”). Any attempt to systematize much of the available literature would require addressing several areas of concern: the reentry process; reentry theories and behavioral nuances; gender; age; marital status; etc.). In addition, future researchers might examine studies that treat the influences of “demographic factors, communication behavior, and cultural identity” on the reentry phase of international assignment (see Cox).

History and Key Aspects

By the end of the Second World War, sociological research had already begun examining the “equivocal concepts of ‘home’ and ‘primary relations’” from the perspective of an expatriated individual as much as that of someone welcoming an expat home. Findings suggest that both individuals changed with time—not merely the returnee herself. Insofar as returnees are concerned, some researchers have seriously asked whether it is even possible to for them “go home again” once they have expatriated (see Scheutz, “The homecomer”). Beyond these domestic relationships, international and intercultural relationships also impact the young members of an expatriated family. These young individuals must sometimes adjust to two or more unique cultures, which remains no small task for them as they mature to adulthood (see Firmin et al., “Social adjustment among students growing up in foreign mission-field contexts”). Such observations call into question the boundaries of the expatriation/repatriation experience wrought on workers and their loved ones.

It is ultimately true for expats living in different societies that all kinds of problems can manifest upon their return (see Bretsch, “A study of intercultural adjustment problems of missionary children”). Grief models and related research on expats sojourning in foreign places focus on the initial adjustment phase to the host country—but not on reentry. Again, in some cases, sojourners who repatriate to their home states experience grief on levels comparable to those experienced during “loss from death” (see Chamove). Consider, for example, the Unitedstatesians who sojourn abroad and then experience reverse culture shock upon reentry. In this particular demographic, the returnees who reportedly experience a “high level of reverse cultures shock” may also have greater difficulty with reentry than those who report little reverse culture shock. Research also evinces a negative correlation worthy of note: with an increase in culture shock comes a decrease in the use of support services (see Gaw, “Reverse culture shock in students returning from overseas”). In terms of business and industry, some researchers urge that human resources departments ought to at least adopt a “clear policy on repatriation”— most likely for similar and related issues (see Hurn, “Repatriation—the toughest assignment of all”).

Research that examines the expectations for, and reactions to, “college level” study-abroad programs commonly assess the following characteristics: age, gender, program location, previous transition or experience with sojourning, and communication (see Rohrlich, “Host country and reentry adjustment of student sojourners”). These same details might be important for prospective research that seeks to treat repatriated workers. In one phenomenological investigation, for instance, students returning home after their college-level experience of studying abroad were asked to interview and to reply to the following statement: “Please describe your experiences of returning home after your study abroad.” After taping, transcribing, and analyzing within the context of group subjects, a few “bipolar themes” emerged: “Shock/Adjustment,” “Freedom/Restriction,” and “Changing/Static”—all of which the researchers “grounded in the theme of cultural comparison” (see Thompson et al., “Can you go home again?”). Such phenomenological interviews might also provide a sound platform on which to build greater knowledge vis-à-vis workers returned from international assignment.

Conclusion

Generally speaking, a good deal of the research performed on expatriating workers does not entail the repatriation phase of their international assignment, or “reentry.” How communication technologies effect this particular phase receives even less attention (see Storti). Many international firms fund the research related to this topic, which is perhaps the most significant reason for it having been conducted. Nevertheless, firms do not always consider the repatriation phase of sojourning workers (reentry) to be critical to their business after the fact. Expatriated volunteers, too, often occupy worker roles, and the small amount of recent research on the matter suggests that the reentry phase of international assignment is more critical than the expatriation phase itself (see Black). In sum, relevant research suggests that reentry needs to be an issue of the utmost priority for sojourning individuals as well as people who manage the reentry transition of sojourners (see Martin). Of course, this encompasses numerous kinds of workers who are returned from international assignment (see Szkudlarek). Theory suggests that a number of things affect psychological wellbeing, social readjustment, and cultural identity amongst returning individuals. New forms of communication have the potential to affect all of these areas and more (see Cox), but first they will have to receive greater attention.

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Mateo Pimentel lives on the Mexican-US border. You can follow him on Twitter @mateo_pimentel.

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