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Road Home Hard After Working Overseas

Employment: Changes in attitude and workplace await employees returning from long assignments.


For George Fernandez, a senior manager at Deloitte & Touche, being sent overseas on a long-term assignment was part of his game plan to climb the executive ladder.

And so far many things have gone according to plan. During his 10 years with the professional services firm, Fernandez has done stints in Saudi Arabia, Belgium and Australia and is now a key executive in the international assignment services division in Los Angeles.

But what he hadn't factored into his scheme was enjoying the life of an expatriate so much that he dreaded coming home. During his last assignment in Sydney, which lasted 2 1/2 years, he had built strong business and social networks, plus he had fallen into a serious romance that created unexpected bonds in what was supposed to be a professional pit stop.

"I had attempted to stay, but because of the need for me in the U.S. and because of the way my career path was going, I had to come back. But it was difficult," said Fernandez, who has twice returned to visit Australia since moving home in December 1998. But the strains of maintaining a long-distance relationship took its toll and it ultimately ended.

"When you repatriate, you're shutting off your life as it is and that means the office where I worked, the places where I used to hang out with friends, that all goes away," he said. "You come back and have to reestablish . . . your social fabric again."

Sending employees on overseas assignments is routine for large companies that do business across borders. And a majority of these businesses provide some kind of cross-cultural training and relocation services to prepare workers and their families for living in a foreign place.

But companies that send employees on long-term overseas assignments must take special steps to help their expatriates successfully return to home base, or risk losing them. More than one-quarter of returning expatriates leave their company within two years to work someplace where they can better use their international experience, according to the Institute for International Human Resources.

The survey respondents complained that not only were they inadequately prepared to handle "reverse culture shock" after returning to a once-familiar place that now seemed very different, but they felt they were not given positions that utilized their broadened skills and knowledge.

While working abroad, an employee tends to view himself as a big fish in a little pond, said Robert Van Nice, a senior vice president at Hughes Electronics Corp. International Human Resources division. When working overseas an employee typically has to overcome a variety of challenges, and the experience usually changes the individual, both professionally and personally.

But upon returning home, the employee is often regarded on the same plane as everyone ese.

"For a company, [dealing with] the changes in the employee are really a challenge," Van Nice said.

It can be tricky and involves "expectation management," said Brad Stevens, a partner in Deloitte & Touche's international assignment services division.

"We don't want them to come back and think they are going to get a huge promotion because many times they are going to come back and get a job that is equal to what they had [overseas]," he said. What's more important, he says, is having a job lined up in which the "expat" feels he is valued and will be able to use his new skills.

That's why planning for the expatriate's return should begin before they accept an overseas assignment. Both the individual and the employer should discuss up front how the assignment will fit with the employee's long-range career goals and how the company will handle their return years later.

Charles Ferraro, who works in Northrop Grumman's International Aircraft unit, initially felt "out of the loop" when he returned in 1987 after three years in Madrid. A number of his cohorts had advanced ahead of him, he said, mostly by virtue of being at the home office when new positions were posted. Plus, colleagues that he considered his mentors had left the company.

And the company's business had also changed. Ferraro had been sent overseas to lay the groundwork for selling Northrop's F-20 fighter in foreign markets. But by the time he came home, Northrop had halted the F-20 program and was concentrating most of its efforts on domestic sales of its aircraft.

"The experience I thought I had gotten wasn't as salable when I got back," he recalled.

But Northrop recognized Ferraro's broadened skills and put him in positions that eventually led to his becoming chief financial officer of Northrop International Aircraft Co., a subsidiary based in Hawthorne.

And Ferraro also has taken on an unofficial role as mentor and guidance counselor to new Northrop expatriates. "Once you decide to send them, you need to support them. Then you have to support them while they're there and then you have to support them when they come back," he said.

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