Expatriate contact with a local host: an intervention to increase social support

One of the ways in which a local host can contribute to successful In Touch with the Dutchexpatriate assignments is through offering social support. Does a local host offer social support? And what types of support do they offer? This is the final blog post about the academic articles that have been published about my PhD research In Touch with the Dutch.

A local host offers social support
Thirty-three expats were put in touch with a local host for a period of nine months, and they were compared to 32 expats without host (read more about In Touch with the Dutch). They undertook all kinds of activities together, from going for drinks or dinner to a Spanish cooking workshop. We investigated the amount and types of social support they received through questionnaires as well as interviews and diaries. The study showed that expatriates with a host received significantly more social support from host nationals than did those without a host.

Types of support
A local host can offer social support in several ways. First of all, it was for many expats a way to meet Dutch people:

It has helped us because we have found it difficult to meet Dutch people socially outside my husband’s work. We are on friendly terms with our neighbours, but that is really just saying hello in the street. [P4Q3]

At the start of the contact, a local host can offer informational support for settling in the new country and understanding the new culture. Also, the host can accompany the expatriate to all kinds of activities, thereby offering social companionship.

It gave me an opportunity to socialise and share some plans to see people at the weekends. It has taken a long time to settle in and we haven’t made a lot of friends yet. [E43Q2]

After a while, when the contact is established and has deepened, a host can also offer emotional support.

At one point I was feeling concerned about mysocial-support work and I talked openly with them about it. They provided me with some websites that might be helpful – and listened when I needed to talk. [E45Q2]

Although the fourth type of social support, instrumental support, might be more often offered when the contact is well established (e.g. loaning something or offering to help out in a stressful situation), small scale offers such as translating a letter written in the foreign language could also occur early on.

We met so that I could become a typical Dutch woman, that is, buying a bike – here that’s a real sign of integration. [E40DW4]

A local host as a way to support expatriates

Many authors have pointed out the need for organisations to promote contact of their expatriate employees with host nationals. Expatriates received a significant amount of social support through the contact with their local host – whether emotional, informational, or instrumental support, or simply social companionship. Organisations can use a local host or buddy-system as a tool to support expatriates in dealing with the challenges posed by living and working in a foreign country, to enable them to perform well at their jobs.


Van Bakel, M.S., Van Oudenhoven, J.P. & Gerritsen, M. (in press) Impact of a local host on social support received by expatriates. Human Resource Development International

Photo by Ondřej Lipár via Flickr.

Global leadership recruitment and development: A Danish case

This spring one of my students in Change Management, Ioannis Zisopoulos, wrote a very interesting Master thesis about global leader selection and development in five Danish MNCs (1). Here are some of his findings.

What is a global leader?
One of the interesting findings is that the Danish MNCs do not label global leaders as ‘global leaders’, defining them simply as ‘leaders’. Although these leaders function in a more international context than others, no specific leadership programs are created for them. The question is whether this goes for MNCs in other countries as well, or whether this is something specifically Danish. Ioannis suggests in his thesis that it might be related to Danish culture with its emphasis on equality. It is certainly possible that Danish MNCs are hesitant to label leaders as ‘global’, thereby setting them apart from the other leaders. Whether this is true or not, it could be a good thing anyway to develop ‘normal’ leadership programs to encompass global aspects as well, since more and more leaders are nowadays working internationally, and will need to be able to deal with this added complexity.

When do organisations ‘buy’ or ‘make’ global leadDannebrog (Jacob Boetter)ers?
The thesis’ main focus lay with the decision of the organisation to ‘buy or make’ global leaders. In other words, when does an organisation decide to develop someone from inside the organisation, and when to recruit someone from the outside? When reading his thesis, the key aspect seems to be the availability of human capital: Does the company have the right person in-house to fulfil this global leadership position at this moment in time? If that is not the case, then the company will look elsewhere.

What influences the ‘buy vs. make’ decision?
In general, the companies preferred to develop an internal candidate – because they are already part of the organisation and are more likely to fit the company’s vision and culture – but there is simply not always time for that. Other factors that influence the choice between recruitment and development are whether the company is doing well – which influences how much money is available for employee development – and organisational culture. For example, one of the interviewed companies has a people-oriented culture which emphasizes the development of employees. Such companies are more likely to develop their own global leaders than to recruit from outside the organisation.

What do you think – is the fact that the Danes don’t label global leaders as such something typically Danish? Or have you seen this in other countries as well?


(1) Zisopoulos, I. (2016). Organizational perspectives on Global Leadership recruitment and development. A study of Danish MNCs. Master thesis in Change Management, University of Southern Denmark.

Image of the Danish flag by Jacob Bøtter, via Flickr.

Learning Danish: Finding out what works for you

There are many resources for learning a language, but I think everyone needs to figure out what works for them. There was someone in my language class who swore by this app which helped him learn words by repeating them every day. That worked well for him, but it wouldn’t for me. I think everyone has to find their own way in which to learn the language – and here is what worked for me…

Language school
I have been learning Danish both at language school and in the ‘real world’. One of the great things here in Denmark is that language school is actually free. Imagine what a difference that makes for people who would like to learn the language – especially a language that is only spoken in a small country of 5.5 million people. Although language school has helped a lot, I still prefer to learn the language in real life situations, because that’s where it’s relevant and so much more fun to learn. So instead of writing a fictional e-mail to a friend about some topic suggested by the language school, I wrote e-mails to actual Ugens ord og udtrykDanish friends, and then sent them off. To fluer med et smæk! (two birds with one stone)

Expression of the week’
A Dutch friend of mine gave me this idea; she did this with a foreign colleague of her. Every week, she would teach her a typical Dutch expression – it could be a saying, but also just a way of saying things. So I put a paper on my office door, inviting my colleagues to contribute an ‘expression of the week’. That was a lot of fun, because they came up with fun and interesting expressions that are actually used in everyday life. I think sayings are the fun part of learning a language!

The magic of Harry Potter
And then there is Harry Potter… Having read the books in English several times, I am very familiar with the story. This means that I could read the book in Danish without having to look up every single word – I could often guess what something meant. This was a great help, because starting to read in a new language can be very difficult and a bit tedious. I didn’t find the books that are specifically written for new language learners that interesting, and the books that I would like to read take ages because I would have to look up every single word. It might be a bit of an unorthodox way of learning a language, but it works for me!

I am curious to hear about your ways of learning a language. What has worked for you?

Highlights from the European Academy of Management (2016)

Early June I attended the European Academy of Management in Paris. While Paris was covered by an unmovable grey sky and the Seine was slowly rising to new heights, we were up to our ears in a very interesting Expatriate Management Track – one of the standing tracks of this conference, organized by prof. Jan Selmer. As usual, I’d like to share some of my highlights with you here.

The people around the expat
I was happy to see that quite a few of the papers touchedSocial network 2 upon social network aspects of expatriation. It is important to take the role of the people surrounding the expat into account when figuring out how to help expatriates adjust and perform better. One of the papers focused on the limitations of building an informal social network for expats in Korea (1). Similar to the Chinese who have guanxi, the Koreans have Yongo which are immutable ties that are mainly based on education, family ties, and regional origin. The advice to expats is to invest in ties with host nationals who have Yongo, because it is (nearly) impossible for expats to build Yongo themselves. Two other papers focused on ethnic identity confirmation in China (2) and the emotional support network of repatriates (3). And then, of course, there was my own paper, an overview of the empirical literature focusing on the interactions between expats and locals (4).

How to measure expatriate adjustment?
Those who do research on expatriate adjustment are uMeasuring tape (Ben Watkin)ndoubtedly familiar with Black’s model of general, interaction, and work adjustment (5). This 14-item instrument has been extensively used in International HRM but it has also been criticized on a conceptual level, for example in terms of the choice of the items (6). The presentation by Kubovcikova now highlighted some measurement issues with the scale itself (7). It goes too far to explain her findings in this post (and I’m also not completely sure I understand the statistical details…) but it looks like there could be better ways to measure expatriate adjustment. An example is the 35-item instrument recently developed by Hippler and colleagues (8), which could turn out to be a good alternative.

High sensitivity in expatriation
I was also interested to see the topic of Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS) pop up in expatriation (9). There has been quite a lot of attention for ‘high sensitivity’ from a psychological viewpoint (10), so an interesting question is how this trait relates to the expatriate experience. There could be positive effects because high SPS-expats might be better able to adapt to the new environment, also through connecting with host nationals, but there might also be negative effects where the high-SPS expats get more easily overwhelmed by all the new stimuli while living abroad. The study (9) showed that the ‘dark side’ might have more influence than the positive aspects of being an SPS.

I don’t think this means that you should not move abroad when you are highly sensitive, but that you should be aware that you might be impacted more by the stress that usually accompanies a move abroad. Organisations can also support their high SPS-expatriates, for example through providing ways to withdraw from all these new stimuli (e.g. a single office or the possibility to work from home). This would be an interesting topic for future research.

Image of the social network by Chris Potter, and the measuring tape by Ben Watkin via Flickr.


(1) Horak, S. & Yang, I. (2016). Affective Networks, Informal Ties and the Limits of Expatriate Effectiveness. Paper presented at European Academy of Management, Paris, France.

(2) Fan, S., Cregan, C., Harzing, A-W. & Köhler, T. (2016). The Benefits of Being Understood: The Role of Ethnic Identity Confirmation in Expatriate-Local Employee Interactions. Paper presented at the European Academy of Management, Paris, France. This paper was the winner of the JGM Best Paper Award of the Expatriation Track.

(3) Van Gorp, L., Boros, S., Bracke, P. & Stevens, P. (2016). An Exploratory Study of Corporate Repatriates’ Emotional Support Network and Their Acculturation Orientation Upon Return to Their Home Country. Paper presented at the European Academy of Management, Paris, France.

(4) Van Bakel, M.S. (2016). It takes two to tango: It takes two to tango: A review of the empirical research on expatriate-local interactions. Paper presented at the European Academy of Management, Paris, France. This paper was second runner up in the JGM Best Paper Award of the Expatriation Track.

(5) Black, J. S. (1988). Work role transitions: A study of American expatriate managers in Japan. Journal of International Business Studies, 19, 277- 294, and Black, J. S., & Stephens, G. K. (1989). The influence of the spouse on American expatriate adjustment and intent to stay in Pacific Rim overseas assignments. Journal of Management, 15(4), 529-544.

(6) Hippler, T. (2006). Another scandal in Bohemia? A look back on how we measure expatriate adjustment. In M. J. Morley, N. Heraty, & D. G. Collings (Eds.), New Directions in Expatriate Research (pp. 64-93). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

(7) Kubovcikova, A. & Hippler, T. (2016). Measurement Equivalence of the Three-Dimensional Adjustment Scale Across Cultures and Expatriate Types. Paper presented at the European Academy of Management, Paris, France.

(8) Hippler, T., Caligiuri, P. M., Johnson, J. E., & Baytalskaya, N. (2014). The development and validation of a theory-based expatriate adjustment scale. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 25(14 ), 1938-1959.

(9) Andresen, M., Goldmann, P. & Bergdolt, F. (2016) Antecedents of expatriates’ turnover intention: The role of sensory processing sensitivity, and well- being. Paper presented at the European Academy of Management, Paris, France.

(10) E.g. Aron, E. (1996) The highly sensitive person: How to thrive when the world overwhelms you. New York: Broadway Books. and Aron, E. and Aron, A. 1997. “Sensory-processing sensitivity and its relation to introversion and emotionality.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73: 345-368.

Learning Danish: The bumpy road to fluency

The past 2.5 years I have been learning Danish. Once I knew I was moving to Denmark, I downloaded one of those apps that help you learn some words. I remember how I was replaying the sound of skildpadde (‘turtle’) again and again to determine what kind of sound it was the Danes finished that word with. I decided it was an ‘L’. It turns out it was still a ‘d’, but more on that in another post. That was when I first got an idea of some of the bumps in the road to Danish fluency.

Linguistic distance
And then I have it relatively easy, coming from a country with a language that is very similar to Danish. Like with German, there are quite a few words that are similar, and many more words that are recognizable if you know the patterns. There are also similarities with regard to grammar. That helps a lot. But imagine how tough it is for my Chinese friend!

Why can I still not understand you?!
I’ve heard many foreigners sigh that they have such trouble understanding Danish. I have already talked a bit about the difficulty of understanding spoken Danish in earlier blog posts. This has Bump in the roadbeen the main bump in my road towards learning Danish. The head start I get by being Dutch did not help me at all when trying to understand Danish. It was just so frustrating to hear this blur of words and not being able to even distinguish the words, let alone decipher their meaning.

The world upside-down
So I actually speak (much) better Danish than I understand, which was also quite frustrating because I get into these situations where I am actually able to speak quite a bit of Danish, but then be completely at a loss when they answer me in their normal (incredibly fast and slightly swallowed) way. I might have brought it on myself by not having a television – and hence not watching Danish TV – but I also blame it on the ‘muddy’ way in which Danes pronounce their language… (according to Danish linguist Ruben Schachtenhaufen!)

Keep on going…
So I sometimes did feel like I would never understand spoken Danish, but now I’m starting to feel better about it. I’m now in the fifth module at language school, so I’m not there yet. But my listening skills are starting to catch up, and I can have long conversations in Danish (though not about too complex topics such as politics, and only with one person at a time!). It is funny how you can have the feeling that you are not progressing at all, yet then all of a sudden make a jump and realise you just had a four hour conversation with a friend about many different topics!

Photo by Doug Haslam via Flickr.

Highlights from the Families in Global Transition conference

This year the Families in Global Transition conference moved across the pond for the first time. Since it now took place in Amsterdam, I was very happy I could finally join in what became a very moving conference, with many personal stories being shared. Here, I share some of my highlights of this conference.

Families in Global Transition
As the name of the conference shows, it was all about families who, at some point, have been living abroad. Many of the speakers and attendees were expats this very moment, or had been living abroad at some point in their lives. Many were ATCKs (adult third culture kids) – having spent a significant amount of their developmental years abroad. This is what unified many of the FIGT participants – this shared history of moving across cultures as a kid. And they have many stories to tell…

The need for “adding empathy back in”
One of the (many) highlights was the keynote speech by Christopher O’Shaughnessy, who emphasized the importance for bringing more empathy to a world that is currently very vulnerable. More and more people are lonely – and that has a devastating effect on their health. Through his own stories, he brought home the importance that even a small gesture can have great effects – simply talking for a few minutes with someone who is ‘on the outside’ can help a great deal. It can make a huge difference for that person, as O’Shaughnessy showed in his story, but also for the world. As Dutch terrorism expert Beatrice de Graaf stated*, one of the best ways to undermine terrorism is an open and inclusive society. And we can do something about this, since we have the experience of being on the outside when moving to a new country. O’Shaughnessy: “We can add empathy back in”. This message was echoed by Ruth van Reken’s keynote on the second day: “We are players in the field, we have been living it, and can bring things to share”.

Connecting with ‘home’
A key theme in my research is connecting with those around you, partiJournalscularly host nationals, since there can be many great things that can come out of it. But it is also important to keep in touch with those we leave behind. Especially if you are moving from country to country, your family ‘back home’ might gradually drift away. One idea that I really liked was the circle journal, which travels between, for example, grandparents and their grandchildren. Each chronicles their daily life for a while, complete with pictures, and then sends it to the other. I thought that could be a great way to keep in touch, and a tangible memory to boot. Another recommendation for those who are away from ‘home’ (whatever that may be) for a long time, is to keep investing in learning the native language, even if the children don’t need it on assignment. Children might decide to go ‘home’ at some point and study there, and they will have an easier time to feel ‘at home’ if they at least speak the language fluently.


Photo of the journals by Barry Silver, via Flickr.

The importance of relationship quality: Maximizing the impact of expatriate contact with a local host

When putting expats in touch with a local host, does the quality of tIn Touch with the Dutchhe contact matter? Does this need to surpass a certain threshold for the contact to contribute to an expat assignment? Can contact with a local host also have a negative impact? This is the topic of this blog post, based on my most recent academic publication about my Ph.D. research In Touch with the Dutch.

Contact with a local host
Thirty-three expats were put in touch with a local host for a period of nine months, and they were compared to 32 expats without host (read more about In Touch with the Dutch). They undertook all kinds of activities together, from going for drinks or dinner to a Spanish cooking workshop. The participants assessed the quality of the contact on a scale of 1 (lowest) to 10 (highest). This divided the group into two subgroups: two thirds who were very happy with the contact (7 or higher) and one third for whom the contact did not really work out; they only met once or twice.

The importance of relationship quality
After examining the effect of contact with a local host onThermometer (Acid Pix) adjustment, performance, intercultural competence, and social support, we turned to the role that the quality of the contact played. It will come as no surprise that the quality of the contact between an expatriate and a local host is indeed important. The results suggest a linear relationship: the higher the quality of the contact, the more benefit the expat got out of it. This means that also those who only met their host once or twice benefited to some extent from the contact. In any case, they were not negatively affected. The expats with high quality contact, however, benefited most.

Implications for practice
Our study shows contact with a local host is a low-risk HR intervention with many benefits for expats. With little effort, organisations can use this intervention to support their expats. Implementing a system in which expats are put in touch with a local host mostly demands time and effort. Because of its voluntary basis and the fact that it takes place outside of work, the program is not costly; although this depends, of course, on how the system is designed. A crucial aspect is to promote the quality of the contact between the expat and their local host. Would you like to know more about that could be done? Then read more about how to develop a high quality relationship between expats and their local host.


Van Bakel, M.S., Gerritsen, M. & Van Oudenhoven, J.P. (2016). The importance of relationship quality: Maximizing the impact of expatriate contact with a local host. Thunderbird International Business Review, 58 (1), pp. 3-97 (see also Publications).

Photo of the thermometer by Acid Pix via Flickr.

Expat research highlights from the European Academy of Management

Last week I attended the European Academy of Management, where a lot of interesting research on expats was presented. I would like to share some of my highlights.

Supporting expats
One of the findings that struck me in thSupporte presentation of Mila Lazarova and her colleagues (1) was that they found that 66% of the expats want a contact in the new destination to help them settle in. This emphasizes the need for local support, one possibility being contact with a local host. The fact that it is not easy to make contact with locals in many countries was mentioned in a few other papers as well, such as Salamin’s paper about expats in Switzerland (2). More research into this topic is needed so that we can help expatriates break out of the expat bubble and benefit from contact with locals.

Other types of expats: LGBT and single female expats
Recently a call was made for research on other groups and domains within IHRM. Some of this was present at EURAM with regard to diLGBTfferent types of expats, for example in the paper of Salamin (2), who did a study of the work-life challenges of single female expatriates in Switzerland. Another good example is the paper of McNulty and McPhail (3), who presented their findings about LGBT expatriates in (for them) dangerous locations. They argue that it is important to take this group of expatriates into account, and know how to support them, if we want to enlarge the pool of potential expats. This is very important for organisations to be able to select the right person for the job.

Communication – a low hanging fruit?
Another emerging area of interest is communication with expats. Lazarova (1) mentioned that ‘it is often small things that trip you up’. There is support in the first two weeks of the assignment, and then the company ‘disappears’. My own paper (4) also looked at communication issues; we looked at how important adequate informatioLow hanging fruitn before and after arrival in the host country was for self-initiated expatriates to adjust and want to stay with the organization, in our case a hospital in the Netherlands. In a sense, this is a low-hanging fruit, especially for organisations that do not have the large budgets that multinationals have, because you don’t need enormous budgets to invest in giving foreign employees the information that they need. And that starts before they even arrive.


The following papers were all presented at the European Academy of Management 2015:

(1) Mila Lazarova, Monica Semeniuk and Yvonne McNulty: “When the wheels are falling off behind closed doors: Expatriate family narratives of the successful moveable family.”

(2) Xavier Salamin: “Specific work-life issues of single and childless female expatriates. An exploratory study in the Swiss context.”

(3) Yvonne McNulty and Ruth McPhail: “Lies, duplicity and fake second bedrooms: A study of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) expatriates’ experiences in dangerous locations.”

(4) Marian van Bakel and Torben Andersen: “Picking a low hanging fruit: Informing self-initiated expatriates in the healthcare sector before and after their arrival.”

Images of ‘support’ by www.gotcredit.com, LGBT by Purple Sherbet Photography, the low hanging fruit by Michael Coghlan.

The future of International Human Resource Management

Recently I had the pleasure to attend Panel Global Conference on IHRM (2015)the 2nd Global Conference on International Human Resource Management at Penn State University in State College. In this post I would like to talk about some of the opportunities and challenges for the IHRM field that were highlighted during the closing session of the conference*.

What is the relevance of our research?
While it seems very obvious that the research that we do should be relevant, the question is – for whom is it relevant? The panel pointed out the increased value that is being placed on the link between academic research and the ‘real world’. Case in point is the Research Excellence Framework in the UK, which now includes impact of research beyond academia – comprising 20% of the assessment which determines research funding. I fully agree that the relevance of our research for practice is very important (see Bridging Theory and Practice). The panel also discussed the importance of keeping an eye on what is happening in HR practice; and then it is for us, academics, to determine whether there is really something of value in it, or whether it is just a passing fad.

Going beyond ‘WEIRD’?
The field of International Human Resource Management has been very much focused on expatriates, and on one specific type: the Western company-sponsored expatriate who is sent to a developing country. The panel suggested that we should diversify our research to include different regions, and directions in which expatriates are sent – for example,WEIRD more and more Asian expatriates come to Europe. In that sense, you could say that our discipline suffers from the same problem psychologists have: their findings are often ‘weird’ (coming from Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic countries) and, therefore, not necessarily applicable to the rest of the world.

Other potential research areas
Other fruitful research areas could be different types of organisations than the typical multinational enterprise, for example non-governmental organisations and small and medium sized enterprises. We could also look at international organisations which depend on volunteers – an example is Young SIETAR, which is an international organisation with members in many different countries, who organise events such as an annual congress and regular webinars. These dynamics remain largely unexplored.

Thanks to the Center for International Human Resource Studies for a wonderful conference, and to the panel for this food for thought!

* The panel of expert academics were: Lisbeth Claus (Willamette University, USA), Torben Andersen (University of Southern Denmark), Michael Morley (University of Limerick, Ireland), and Miguel Olivas-Luján (Clarion University, USA). The panel was chaired by Chris Brewster (Henley Business School, UK). Photo of the panel: courtesy of CIHRS.

Update: A summary of the discussion during this panel session has now been provided on the CIHR website – read more here.

Postcrossing – a vintage ad from Russia

Time for another Postcrossing blog post – this time the theme is traditional Russian footwear! This is one of the things I like about my little Postcrossing project of learning more about cultures through the postcards I get from random users in the world – it is always a surprise where the next postcard is coming from, and what it is about!

Nadya writes that her postcard is a vintage Russian galoshesad of galoshes, which were very popular in Russia (USSR) in the last century. They are now mostly worn in villages and have disappeared elsewhere. As I can’t read Russian, I can’t really determine whether the ad is for galoshes (a rubber overshoe) or for valenki – traditional Russian footwear which can be worn with galoshes but are made of wool felt and not waterproof. They are less and less worn because of their association with ‘rustic dress’ but also because winters in Central Russia turned softer and wetter, so there was more need for waterproof footwear (1). This is a nice example of how the environment – in this case the climate – influences culture and their symbols!

So if anybody can read the ad, let me know what it says!


(1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valenki

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