Self-initiated Expatriates: To Be Minded, Not Just Mined

20 March, 2020

By Conor Harty, Harty Virtual HR (Ireland)

The development of remote leadership as Multinational Corporations developed globally over the past 50 years relied heavily on the use of assigned expatriate (AE) managers, often driving an ethnocentric approach to corporate cultural development in overseas subsidiaries.  Culturally adjusted AEs provide valuable leadership and leave a positive legacy, but it is recognised that they are an expensive leadership resource.  Furthermore, AE assignments have a failure rate associated with unsatisfactory job and host-country adjustment, as well as a higher turnover rate driven by a sense of career interruption and difficulties with post-assignment repatriation. 

There is now a growing body of research on professionals who personally decide to expatriate – those who do so without the support of an employer – the body of mobile professional talent known as self-initiated expatriates (SIEs).  Free movement of labour, a principle of the EU 27, has played a part in this, but so too has the emergence of a pool of highly skilled professional talent from the BRIC nations in the past 20 years.  These professionals move country for personal as well as career goals; but information technology has made them accessible and they also respond to approaches for career opportunities.  Branding by countries and major cities therein, usually a combination of sectoral excellence and quality of life opportunities, is now an imperative to attract this talent.  Similarly, SIEs own social networks build clusters in cities and a critical mass of attraction can occur. 

The initial attraction challenge is not taken for granted, but organisations need to embrace SIEs and commit to organisational support to both on-board them effectively and retain them.  This is a significant and equally important challenge. 

Unlike SIEs, AEs participate in programmes to assist with adjustment.  Pre-departure programmes are helpful with work adjustment but effective cultural host country adjustment is best supported by programmes and actions post arrival.  The adjustment process for SIEs starts when they arrive in the host country.  On-boarding, by which employees become comfortable with their job content and learn the company culture, is an essential activity for retention, if only because it signposts deeper career development commitment on the part of the hiring organisation.  SIEs look for this commitment as underemployment and perceived underemployment has emerged as a driver of turnover. 

Organisations who wish to attract and retain SIEs must also fully acquire expertise in global diversity and build cultural awareness in their organisation, not relying on this adjustment to be the sole responsibility of the SIE.  Reliance on the immediate supervisor’s ability to facilitate adjustment with the norms of the host country is not sufficient.  In fact, dedicated mentors with high cultural intelligence are far more effective in assisting with adjustment to host country nationals and the cultural environment outside of work. 

SIEs view their expatriation as an exciting opportunity combining life experience with career development in parallel.  They usually lack personal anchors in a host county so unfulfilled work expectations may not be ignored and the mobility that sent them abroad may be reignited, resulting in turnover.  They represent a valuable pool of talent but one that will respond in kind if an organisation fails to understand their adjustment needs in a host country.  Therefore, diversity and inclusion leadership is crucial to project and ensure a positive experience which maximises opportunity for organisations and employees.  This leadership requires equal effort across all aspects of adjustment to attract and retain international, mobile professionals and build an employer brand.

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