Reverse Culture shock

Introducing the author: Frank de Ruiter, KLM. Until his retirement November 2008, Frank worked for KLM, Royal Dutch Airlines. He completed his nearly 41 years of service in various positionswithin the HR domain.As Director HR Field Organization he was responsible for personnel policies regarding expatriate staff and “top locals” (KLM high potentials of non-Dutch nationality). During his years of service Frank introduced repatriation assistance to returning Dutchmen as well as the regular relocation assistance to arriving non-Dutch staff.

What did you encounter in 1984, when you started as Director HR Field Organization?
At that time KLM had a team of expatriate managers in almost every country where it was flying to. The team consisted of a Head of Establishment, who was responsible for the sale of passage and freight, a Controller, a Station Manager and a Station Engineer. The policy regarding expatriate staff was rather primitive. A KLM staff member was “chosen” to be sent abroad based on his interest and his performance. It was never questioned whether he would be suitable for a foreign adventure. Only candidates for the post of Head of Establishment were invited for lunch with the Area Manager and were asked to bring their spouses. Frankly, the main objective was to assess whether the couple would be suitable to fulfil the socially required role of host and represent the company in that way. If successful, the couple could almost rely on a continued expatriate position for a very long time, unless they were called back to fill a major management function in the Netherlands. Once an expat, always an expat.
If you were selected for a position abroad you had to move on very short notice, there was never much time for preparation. The move would be arranged by KLM, but usually it would take a long time before your household goods were at the destination. All the while the family “camped” in a hotel. Children were parachuted at an international school with almost no preparation.
It was not surprising that a considerable number of postings went wrong. Expatriates or expat partners who didn’t fit into the culture of the country to which they were sent, expat partners who could not cope with the “empty” existence, children who could not adapt to their new environment.

What were the main improvements at that time?
There were 3 areas of attention selected:

  1. We changed the candidate selection criteria for positions abroad. Not only the candidate but also the partner and children would now be assessed on their coping ability for deployment abroad in general and in the country of destination in particular. This has ensured that the number of failed postings was reduced.
  2. We would offer employees and their partners a course dedicated to the culture of the country of destination, even if this was a (West) European country. Courses were, with our help, developed by the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT), an institute that in the very beginning only offered a course on Indonesian culture. This very measure helped staff to prepare for the manner of doing business and dealing with staff in the country of destination. The partner was better prepared for her role as “manager” of the household. Intensive language courses were also expanded. In particular, Spanish, French, Italian and German. The courses were usually not taken at Regina Coeli (“The Nuns”) but preferably somewhere in the language area itself and immediately prior to the start of the function.
  3. We decided to also guide and assist Dutch expatriates who returned to the Netherlands, usually after a prolonged stay abroad. In the interviews we had with returning expatriates and their partners, it was observed regularly that the KLM as a company guided and assisted you well when you went abroad but returning home was never seen as a challenge. Even though you were returning to your home country, you would really have to find your way again. Try to adapt back to the Dutch way of life and find your way through the mazes, the rules and regulations. The returning home service we provided through a relocation company was much appreciated for years by most expats.

Does KLM still provide this service?
No, unfortunately it has stopped for several reasons. First, there are virtually no more “career or long term expats” within KLM. Although it is still important for your career to have experienced a foreign posting, the time abroad is significantly shortened and therefore the degree of alienation is a lot less. If you are now sent abroad, the home is generally held and temporarily rented out. Even in some cases, the partner will stay in the Netherlands and the couple will have a split family situation allowing the partner to hold on to his/her work and the children to remain in their own school.
Secondly, internet allows the availability of information anywhere at any time. You can prepare yourself thoroughly, before moving back. Services and goods can be purchased online and many municipalities have a digital counter. Through satellite and internet you can stay informed about what’s happening in the Netherlands. Although you should never underestimate the impact of a foreign posting on the person life, there is no more real alienation from the home country.
And last, there is an economic reason why we decided to take out this type of service.

Would you recommend other companies to offer repatriation service to their staff?
Yes I would, especially for organizations that still have career expats who are continuously working abroad it is very valuable. Expatriate families really appreciate any help in preparing for a return to the Netherlands. Having a reliable person on the other end makes all the practical hassle a lot easier. And yes, almost everything is available on the internet but still finding it is not always easy and can you really rely of the information? Modern repatriation service should have all the characteristics of this day and age: fast, direct and digital, yet personal and modular. A combination of screened digital information, Skype and email contact to prepare for the move and upon arrival in the Netherlands an encounter with the consultant to welcome them back home on behalf of the company: a powerful tool to let your staff know that they are important to you as an employer!