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International mobility: get ready for your return!

Like all good things, moving abroad also has an end. While researchers generally prepare well for their departure, the same cannot be said for their return, which remains a delicate phase because it involves certain psychological mechanisms, as Jean Pautrot, President of the Conseil Magellan de l'International, explains [1].

Director of Mobility for EDF Services until 2009, President of the Cercle Magellan de l'International since 2005, not to mention your time spent coaching expatriates, you are an expert and above all a great fan of international mobility issues! During our first meeting, you explained to me that there were different types of expatriation and that the question of return did not concern everyone. Who is confronted with this question?

"The return of expatriates is a priority for corporate expatriates who have left their country of origin for a limited period, as mentioned in their mobility contract. The return is a family issue. It concerns the employee, but also his/her spouse and children. It is important to discuss it as a family."


We can therefore say that doctors who spend a part of their career abroad also fall into this category. As a coach, how do you explain the difficulty expatriates have in managing their return?

"The difficulties of the return are not anticipated by the expatriate and are ignored in their new environment. How can you imagine that it is difficult to return home? Yet this is a process that affects all nationalities: the culture of origin does not explain the phenomenon. It is in fact a cultural readjustment like the one experienced at departure. We speak of reverse culture shock.

The return is played out from the start. When the motivations for leaving are toxic, for example, to escape from the heaviness of one's country, a stifling family, or bureaucratic management, nothing will have changed upon return. The expatriate must then confront a reality that he or she had fled.

The expatriate has changed, and so has their country. The experience of another culture allows them to judge their own culture.

The expatriate feels like a stranger at home: abroad, in their host community, they attract attention because they are different. In their home country, they are no different, and feel the indifference of their compatriots."


You have just mentioned the different feelings of the expatriate once again confronted with his or her culture of origin. So, there are emotional and psychological aspects related to the return. Can you explain how this works?

"The return involves losses: of status, autonomy, remuneration and lifestyle.

These losses trigger a mourning mechanism with its five characteristic phases:

  • Denial: the expatriate does not realize the extent of the shock of returning
  • Anger: they are annoyed by certain features of their culture of origin
  • Bargaining: the expatriate recounts the experience to relive it, not to share it
  • Sadness: the expatriate is discouraged, sometimes depressed
  • Acceptance: they make new plans (here and now)

The phases of reverse culture shock are the same as those of grief: enthusiasm, disorientation, discouragement, acceptance. "


What advice would you give to expatriates on how to successfully return home, both professionally and personally?

"The haggling phase is difficult for friends and family. It is also a handicap in professional life. A recruiter is looking for skills, but the expatriate often recounts his experience in anecdotal form. They insist on the context. However, the Director of the Bordeaux subsidiary will be more easily convinced of his ability to manage the Lille subsidiary than the Director of the Beijing subsidiary. In the second case, the contexts are different, and experience is more difficult to equate with competence. The challenge for the expatriate is the translation of his or her experience into transferable skills. 

The return is therefore a transition: the construction of a future requires the deconstruction of the past. This deconstruction means moving from immediate experience to memory, avoiding nostalgia. Crossing a lake is a concrete example of transition. To reach the other shore, one must accept to move away from the shore from which one started. "


These words were collected following Jean Pautrot's participation in the European seminar "Encouraging creativity and innovation through researcher mobility: strategies and good practices", which took place on June 3 and 4, 2013 in Paris.


[1]. Founded in 1998, the Magellan Circle is a professional exchange and information network for international HR directors and managers. More than 200 international companies are members.