Self-initiated expatriates are happier while staying abroad than company-initiated expatriates? Some evidence.

In my previous Fact or Fiction entry  I asked whether ‘Self-initiated expatriates would be happier while staying abroad than company-initiated expatriates’.

Here is some evidence:

The statement that self-initiated expatriates are happier while staying abroad than company-initiated expatriates is not a fact.

There is no clear research evidence that would show stronger feelings of happiness, also defined as subjective well-being, of voluntary transferees compared to company-assigned transferees.

However, quite a few studies have looked at the differences between these two types of expatriation and report some interesting findings.

For example, in 2010 Biemann and Andresen reported that self-initiated expatriates (SE) differ from assigned expatriates (AE) mainly on their attitudes on mobility and career issues. Namely, SEs have higher organizational mobility and their career patterns imply more frequent changes of employers. Moreover, SEs start their international careers at a younger age, expect more benefits from international experience and their career orientation remains more stable with age than for AEs. In contrast to these differences, this study found career success and satisfaction to be equal for both groups. As career success and satisfaction are linked to subjective well-being, these findings provide no support to the above statement.

Another study carried out by Peltokorpi and Froese (2009) focused on cross-cultural adjustment of SEs and AEs. Based on a sample of 179 expatriates in Japan, researchers found that SEs are better adjusted to general aspects of their host country and have better interactions with host-country nationals than AEs. The authors attribute the difference to SEs’ higher motivation and interest in a foreign country, as their country choice is personal and voluntary, as well as possible previous interactions with foreign country nationals. Although the study did not explicitly measure well-being, it is possible that higher levels of cross-cultural adjustment of SEs result in increased subjective well-being.

In sum, although there is no clear evidence for one group’s higher well-being over the other, there is enough evidence for differences between self-initiated and company-initiated expatriates. Earlier research (e.g. Inkson et al., 1997; Suutari & Brewster, 2000) has already highlighted the importance of separating these types of expatriation as such initial variables as motives for going abroad, repatriation arrangements and compensation packages differed. Further research is needed to indicate if these differences lead also to differences in subjective well-being.


Biemann, T., & Andresen, M. (2010). Self-initiated foreign work experience versus expatriate assignment: A distinct group of international careerists? Journal of Managerial Psychology, 25, 430-448.

Inkson, K., Pringle, J., Arthur, M.B., & Barry, S. (1997). Expatriate Assignment versus OverSIEas Experience: Contrasting Models of International Human Resource Development. Journal of World Business, 32(4), 351-368.

Peltokorpi, V., & Froese, F.J. (2009). Organizational expatriates and self-initiated expatriates: Who adjusts better to work and life in Japan? International Journal of Human Resource Management, 20(5), 1095-1111.

Suutari, V. and Brewster, C. (2000). Making Your Own Way: Self-Initiated Foreign Assignments in Contrast to Organisational Expatriation. Journal of World Business, 35 (4), 417-436.

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