The benefits of being understood

Introducing Shea Fan's work on the role of ethnic identity confirmation in the relationship between expatriates and host country employees in China


Smooth interactions between local employees and expatriates are crucial in creating a positive and effective work climate in MNC subsidiaries. A while ago I blogged about the role of host language in this respect, announcing a paper in Journal of World Business by one of my recent PhD students Linn Zhang. Today, I am proud to announce a second paper on the same theme by another one of my talented students: Shea Fan.

Shea's piece in the Conversation: Understanding identity is the key to succeeding in China is also worth reading as it outlines the key issues in lay language.


In this article, we propose that the concept of ethnic identity confirmation (EIC), the level of agreement between how expatriates view the importance of their own ethnic identity and how local employees view the importance of expatriates’ ethnic identity, can explain why expatriates who are ethnically similar to host country employees are sometimes less effective than expected when working overseas. Multinationals often choose ethnically similar expatriates for assignments, assuming these expatriates can more effectively acquire knowledge from local employees. Thus, understanding the specific challenges that endanger the realization of this potential is crucial.

Our survey, administered to a sample of 128 expatriate-local employee dyads working in China, reveals that both ethnically similar and ethnically different expatriates acquire more local knowledge when EIC is high. However, the association between ethnic (dis)similarity and knowledge acquisition is direct for ethnically different expatriates, whereas for ethnically similar expatriates it is indirect via their perception of local employees’ trustworthiness. We discuss this study’s important implications and provide recommendations for multinationals on how to provide tailored support to expatriates who face different identity challenges.

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