With 220 million people living abroad, we can’t get around the fact that we’re living and working in a globalized world. Not only multinationals are sending their employees abroad on expat assignments; more and more organisations internationalise because they find the skills and competences they need in international employees.
Through bridging theory and practice in my work, I would like to assist companies in this challenging and dynamic area, to help support international employees as well as possible so that they are enjoying life in the new country and are able to do their jobs well.
Many more mentoring relationships nowadays take place in an international context, often between individuals from different national cultures. This intercultural mentoring can bring along several extra challenges, such as cultural differences and language barriers. It is important to pay attention to the role of culture because it can influence expectations of the mentoring but also cause communication issues. Training can help reduce barriers to the development of the intercultural relationship, and should focus on understanding cultural differences, increasing communication skills of both parties and encouraging the setting of ground rules to enable open communication, and providing opportunities for the mentor to solicit feedback from the mentee.
Including HCNs as a key global talent category
Organisations should be aware of the various global talent categories within their organization that could benefit from a mentoring relationship. In our paper, we broaden the current narrow focus on traditional company-assigned expatriates to include HCNs – both as mentor and as mentee. We outline various mentoring roles of HCNs, inspired by the host country national liaison model, which may promote local adjustment and improve knowledge transfer. For example, upon arrival the HCN mentor can guide the expat through the initial challenges of country and organizational acclimatization by introducing him/her to colleagues, the local organization, and cultural norms. HCNs themselves should also not be forgotten when setting up mentoring programs, which can improve retention and build the organization’s professional and leadership talent pool. To successfully compete in the face of growing global competition, MNCs must be open to all employee sources in the attraction, development, and deployment of human talent, including HCNs.
Organizations that acknowledge the important role that HCN employees in the foreign subsidiary can play in MNC knowledge management should make sure HCNL role components are taken on by the HCNs surrounding the expatriate. At the very least, organizations should ensure that their expatriates are aware of the important liaison roles that HCNs can play, so that they can invest time and energy into soliciting HCNL support and building up the right local network. An attractive way to encourage this approach is to appoint one person as the HCNL – similar to a buddy or local host – and prepare that person for this role. It is also possible that HCNL roles can be taken on by several people, similar to a developmental network.
When expats1 move abroad, they leave behind a large part of their social network. They must create new social connections to make sure they get the support they need to deal with the cross-cultural transition. In this article in International Business Review with my co-author Annamaria Kubovcikova, we explored how expats get work information and emotional support. In this blog post, we summarize our main conclusions.
Characteristics of support providers
Many studies on expatriate social support distinguish between expats and HCNs as support providers, but this might not be the best classification. It could, after all, very well be that an expat who has lived in the country for a long time can also provide a lot of good information about the host country, and that the HCN who has lived abroad him/herself understands the challenges the expat might face. So how should we classify support providers? In our study, we looked at the level of valuable knowledge, accessibility and cost of interaction, as suggested by information seeking theory.
Status and similarity
We show that other support provider characteristics are relevant as well, for example the status of the potential support provider. In line with information seeking theory, expats find it harder to access higher status individuals; however, it is exactly these individuals who might have valuable work information to share. We also found that expats were less likely to interact with dissimilar others (e.g., HCNs), which influenced the amount of emotional support they received from them. This confirms previous findings that HCNs mainly seem to provide informational support – although this might be different when the relationship is more developed. In another article, I argue the importance of also taking the closeness a relationship into account, since this obviously may affect the emotional support given.
What can organisations do?
Organisations can help expats access potential higher status support providers by setting up mentoring. New expats could be matched with a senior manager in the organisation – regardless of their nationality – to make sure they get access to valuable informational and emotional support. Organisations should also consider how to facilitate contact between expats and dissimilar others who masy be able to support them. One way could be to match the expat with a local host or buddy, to stimulate a particular connection. If this local host is an HCN, they could fulfil one or more host country national liaison roles which can help expat adjustment and performance.
How do expats build a new social network?
It is surprising how little we actually know about how expats actually build a new social network. There is one conceptual article that suggests how expats build adjustment facilitating support ties, but there is hardly any empirical proof. In our study, we also did not find that expats specifically seek support from more knowledgeable others, calling into question the deliberateness of an expat’s actions when trying to build a new social network. So how does this then actually work? This is the focus of my current study – more to follow!
1 Our study looks at self-initiated expatriates (SIEs), defining them as “individuals who were born outside the country they currently reside in, and who have gained legal employment without the support of a parent organization” (p. 2 in our article).
One of the challenges an expat often faces when moving abroad is the local language. In a time when you are trying to settle into a new host country and culture learning a new language might seem too much of a challenge. And when you go to, say, Denmark or the Netherlands, many also assume that they actually don’t really need the language. Why go through the trouble?
If you want to make REAL friends and not only good acquaintances, then you have to have the language. If you want to win the heart of somebody, learn the language.
Speaking the language opens doors
And this is my experience as well. I have seen it both in the Netherlands and in Denmark that even though people are supposedly fluent in English, they prefer to speak their own language, especially in informal meetings – even if someone is present who doesn’t speak the language. So, if you want to be part of this social circle, better start learning the language! Even speaking a few words can open some doors – or get some laughs, as this Polish expat in France says:
I think that it shows that you are interested in their culture, in their country or whatever. This also opens doors for you. Because even if you don´t speak the language properly, even a little bit of the language opens a lot of doors. […] Even if your language is very bad, you can have a laugh from the others.
With 259 million immigrants worldwide , workplaces and societies are internationalising and more and more people need to be able to navigate this new reality – even when not living abroad themselves. This is especially relevant in the European context with its free movement of workers. In 2017, 8.8 million EU citizens worked in another EU country; this is an increase of 61% since 2007. This international flavour is permeating not only workplaces but society in general, and we need to develop the intercultural ‘competencies that societies and economies need, today and tomorrow’ .
Measuring intercultural competence: still a challenge
Many different ways of measuring (part of) intercultural competence have been designed  and are still being developed. Many of these approaches are quantitative in nature, but more qualitative approaches are starting to be introduced as well. The article by Vas Taras focuses on measurement approaches and instruments. A valid and reliable measurement of intercultural competencies is important for empirical research, yet also for business practice, for instance, when it comes to the selection of employees. The article I contributed to (by Richter et al.) focused on the newly developed extended version of the frequently used CQ scale. Our study shows that a more fine-grained measurement instrument can help theoretical advancement.
A bicultural background
Two articles in the special issue zoomed in on individuals with a bi-cultural background. First, the article by Szymanski and Ipek analyse creativity and leadership behaviour of football (soccer) players competing in the English Premier League. They show positive effects of a bi-cultural background, but they also introduce potential negative effects, such as the stress experienced by these individuals. Second, the article by de Waal and Born focused on Third Culture Kids. TCKs are people who, in the period between 0 and 18 years of age, have lived in another culture than the passport culture of their parents . The authors compare TCKs to their non-cross-cultural counterparts in terms of multicultural personality as well as intercultural competencies and examine the effect of these on their preferred leadership style.
Future research in intercultural competence
More research is always a good idea, especially on such an important topic as intercultural competence. For inspiration, researchers – especially the ones newer to the field – can turn to the article by Yari et al. which generates an excellent overview of the research landscape, and it draws the attention to potential areas for future research.
 United Nations (2017) International Migration Report, New York.
Last month, I attended Træfpunkt HR 2019 in Copenhagen, Denmark. Annually organized for nearly two decades by The Association of Danish HR Professionals, the exhibition displayed services from 150 companies and was attended by over 2000 HR and personnel professionals. As a student with a focus in Human Resources, I was interested to see what trends or themes I would encounter at one of the largest gatherings of human resource professionals in Denmark. Here are three topics that stood out to me.
Soft skills, creativity, and imagination as a competitive advantage
One of the first presentations I attended was a keynote address by Paolo Gallo. As an executive coach, author, and former chief human resources officer at the World Economic Forum in Geneva he had many insights into the future job market and the role of ethical leadership during the ‘4th Industrial Revolution’. Interestingly, Gallo pinpointed that while skills such as analytical thinking and innovation will continue to be in extremely high demand, soft skills and human-specific emotional intelligence traits such as compassion, team coordination, and creative critical problem solving will be the most sought-after humanistic skills in the future job market.
Gallo’s reasoning for this viewpoint is that while optimizable jobs and skills will begin to be filtered out of the human workforce by artificial intelligence, more refined humanistic capabilities such as imagination will come into demand to counterbalance these AI (artificial intelligence) processes. This shift has the potential to create an incredible opportunity for human resource managers as they will be responsible for identifying and developing employees who possess these skills and/or have the potential to learn these skills.
While it may be easy to view this concept simply as a future possibility, there is already rapid change in the growth of artificial intelligence implementation in workplaces. In 2018, the World Economic Forum Jobs Report stated that while 71% of total task hours (in WEF studied industries) were performed by humans, that average is expected to decrease to 58% by 2022 due directly to artificial intelligence processes being implemented. Also included in the report, the 2022 Skills Outlook listed analytical thinking, active learning, and creativity/originality as the top three ‘growing skills’ needed for future employment .
While it is impossible to know exactly what the future holds, Gallo may be on to something.
While exploring the different products and services presented at the event, I was interested to see the strong emphasis on innovative employee learning products. There were several companies that focused on customized learning games designed to develop employees’ knowledge and critical problem-solving skills. Although the concept of gamification can appear to mostly target training and development, there is research to show that while training and development are positively impacted by gamification, employee engagement can be equally, if not more so, positively impacted . It was fascinating to see this emergence of innovative gamification in the workplace and the competitive possibilities that can be explored with effective employee learning.
David Ulrich – Understanding the ‘value’ of Human Resources
Perhaps the most anticipated speaker of Træfpunkt 2019 was the renowned professor and author, Dr. David Ulrich. His presentation focused on how human resource departments create value for organizations. One of the most prominent concepts in his presentation was the importance of recognizing the proactive role that human resources must take in successfully adapting to external market conditions. “HR is not about HR, but value created for others” was a consistent reminder by Ulrich made to emphasize that by becoming an organization that succeeds in creating business value, organizational capabilities will grow, thereby growing employee well-being. Additionally, Ulrich very skillfully illustrated the importance of talent development within an organization and the value of creating balanced environments where individual talent is used effectively to drive team production while simultaneously developing individual skill sets.