What Are the Implications of Being Compelled to Expatriate?

In today’s business environment, globality is a term referring to modernity, opportunities, prosperity, and is almost a necessity when speaking about market competitiveness. Hence, organizations and recruitment agencies alike are looking for globally minded people, and highly value and promote international experience. Moreover, sooner than later career paths that entail various international assignments will be ‘a must’ for attaining leadership positions in multinational corporations .  The question however is whether the global workforce is open to such mobility?

Willing or compelled to go abroad?

At first sight, there seems to be a common assumption that organizational eagerness to use international assignments is consistent with individuals’ willingness. Indeed, findings of an Ipsos Global @dvisor poll conducted in 2012 show that one quarter (25%) of employees in 24 countries are ready to make an international move, while another 45 % of current global employees strongly agree that they could be convinced to take an international assignment if some extra incentives were provided. Hence, the numbers suggest that around 70% of employees globally may potentially accept expatriation.

However, a recent study by researchers from the University of Miami (2012) argues that there is a difference between willing to go abroad and being persuaded to go abroad. Specifically, they investigate the motives of initially reluctant employees to agree to relocate, and the impact of their initial reluctance on the assignment outcomes.

The impact of being persuaded

The interview data with 30 international assignees showed that half of the interviewees have experienced direct or indirect pressures to go, thus feeling compelled to accept the assignment. In line with the study’s initial assumptions, the data analysis identified some contrasting views between employees who felt compelled to go abroad and those who did not.

Individuals that were initially reluctant to relocate reported accepting the assignment for the sake of their careers, meaning that turning down an assignment might have hindered their career prospects, as well as rationalized such decisions with promotion prospects and higher incentives proposed by organizations in order to persuade them. In other words, the research showed that resistance of compelled assignees tends to crumble under pressures that appeal to the individuals’ self-interest and are instrumentally based rather than normative.

Pinto and colleagues (2012) also found that the way the expatriation decision was taken influenced perceived assignment outcomes. In general, the data analysis indicated that compelled expatriates reported more adjustment difficulties and less satisfaction with the assignment. Compared to non-compelled assignees, they also seemed more willing to give up in the face of difficulties, withdraw from the assignment earlier, and showed more restraint for the prospects of accepting another assignment or recommending it to someone else.

All in all, the study results imply that lacking conviction to accept an international assignment or feeling persuaded by tempting extrinsic motivation schemes provided by the organization is not without consequences. As reported, being compelled potentially affects in-country adjustment, general satisfaction with the assignment and withdrawal intentions. Hence, these consequences are not favorable, neither for the organization nor for the employee.

Practical Implications

Based on these results a couple of important implications can be derived:

  • First, it appears that pressing an employee ‘too hard’ to accept international assignment may be detrimental to individuals and employers. Organizations should try to replace ‘an offer he/she cannot reject’ by providing a context that matches the goals and expectations of both parties, which they are willing to fulfill through the assignment. Plainly speaking, employees should have a genuine interest to go abroad based on their intrinsic motivation.
  • Second, when dealing with reluctant employees, organizations should be more flexible in their global staffing and global mobility options. For example, organizations could look for self-assigned individuals for the expatriation projects, and find alternative developing and challenging career path options for employees reluctant to expatriate. Alternative forms of mobility should also be explored. For instance business travel, virtual teams and short-term assignments could still bring value to the organization, while potentially being attractive to reluctant employees.

Further reading:

Luísa H. Pinto, Carlos Cabral-Cardoso & William B. Werther Jr. (2012). Compelled to go abroad? Motives and outcomes of international assignments.  International Journal of Human Resource Management, 23, 11, 2295-2314.

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