Managing expatriates’ identity: subtle desire, big impact

[Guest post by my former PhD student and co-author Shea Fan. In this post Shea highlights the key findings of her exciting work on ethnic identity and expatriation.]

We take our identities (i.e. gender, race and ethnicity) to work every day. Which identity do we prefer to emphasize at the workplace? And which identity do our colleagues choose to stress? Such subtle identity perceptions at work not only affect employees’ well-being, but can also have a big impact for organizations.

In order to reveal identity perception and its impact in an international management context, we conducted a series of studies. Specifically, we focused on the issue of ethnic identity similarity or difference between expatriates and host country employees in multinational corporations (MNCs). Based on ethnicity, we categorized expatriates into two groups: those who share an ethnicity with locals (e.g. Chinese-British expatriates vs. Chinese local employees) and those who do not (e.g. Caucasian British expatriates). The traditional wisdom predicts that ethnic similarity encourages interpersonal interactions. Thus, ethnically similar expatriates are supposed to be a preferred choice for international assignments over ethnically different expatriates. However, this view does not take people’s subjective view towards their ethnic identity into consideration. What if ethnically similar expatriates do not want to stress their ethnic identity at work?

The identity desire

Having our identities confirmed by others is a fundamental human desire. For example, if we believe that we are intelligent, we also want others to see us as intelligent. If we want to stress our professional identity and downplay our ethnic identity at work, we want others to support our identity view too. The concept of “ethnic identity confirmation (EIC)” captures the identity agreement we achieve with others. Unfortunately, an identity confirmation does not occur every time when we interact with others. If Chinese-British expatriates want to highlight their professional identity and view their ethnic identity as not particularly important at work, but local employees prefer to focus on the expatriates’ ethnic identity, then the expatriates suffer from a lack of ethnic identity confirmation.

Expatriates’ identity desire, trust and knowledge acquisition

Based on a survey of 256 expatriates (ethnic Chinese and non-Chinese expatriates) and their local colleagues in overseas units of MNCs in China, we found that ethnic identity confirmation matters for all expatriates regardless of whether or not they share an identity with local employees. All expatriates believed that they received more information from local colleagues who confirmed their personal ethnic identity view.

However, we also reveal a difference between these two types of expatriates. For ethnically similar expatriates, an additional factor, namely trustworthiness, played a role. They perceived local employees who confirmed their ethnic identity as more trustworthy than others who failed to do so and subsequently believe they received more information from this type of local employees.

  • Fan, S.X.; Cregan, C.; Harzing, A.W.; Kӧhler, T. (2018) The benefits of being understood: The role of ethnic identity confirmation in expatriate-local employee interactions, Human Resource Management, vol. 57, no. 1, pp. 327-339.  Available online... - Publisher's version (read for free) - Related blog post

Local employees’ identity desire and willingness to share knowledge

If identity confirmation is a fundamental human desire, do local employees also want to have their ethnic identity confirmed? How does it affect their relationships with ethnically similar expatriates? We were interested in this type of expatriates because the shared ethnicity can make ethnic identity salient, and subsequently more sensitive to both parties.

We conducted two experiments to test how ethnic identity confirmation affects local employees. Over 300 hundred Chinese employees who worked for MNCs in China participated in this research. Findings from both experiments show that local employees perceived ethnically similar expatriates who confirm their ethnic identity self-view to be more trustworthy than those who did not confirm their identity; they were also more willing to share knowledge with the former.

  • Fan, S.X.; Harzing, A.W. (2017) Host country employees' ethnic identity confirmation: Evidence from interactions with ethnically similar expatriates, Journal of World Business, vol. 52, no. 5, pp. 640-652. Available online... - Publisher's version (free access!)

Double-edged sword of ethnic similarity

In contrast to the traditional wisdom, which proclaims that ethnic similarity facilitates trust, our findings show that trust does not occur naturally because of ethnic similarity. Sharing an ethnicity with local employees could be a double-edged sword for expatriates. Our research identified the condition in which ethnic similarity generates positive social outcomes, namely ethnic identity confirmation. If identity confirmation can be achieved between ethnically similar expatriates and local employees, it can facilitate trust building and encourages knowledge transfer. However, if it cannot be achieved, ethnic similarity might lose its power.

Our research advocates MNCs providing tailored support to different types of expatriates because expatriates face different identity challenges and have different identity benefits. For example, although identity difference might generate interpersonal distance and conflicts, local employees might well hold lower expectations towards ethnically different expatriates and are thus likely to be more tolerant to their differences and mistakes. In contrast, ethnically similar expatriates need to consciously manage locals’ expectations in order to realize the benefits of similarity.

A detailed discussion of the relevance of our research to MNC management has been published in:

  • Zhang, L.; Harzing A.W.; Fan, X. (2018). Chapter 6: The Double-edged sword of ethnic similarity in Managing Expatriates in China: A Language and Identity Perspective, London: Palgrave. More about this book... - Related blog post

The antecedents and consequences of ethnic identity confirmation

To facilitate a deeper understanding of ethnic identity confirmation, we identified its antecedents and consequences in the context of interactions between ethnically similar expatriates and local employees in a conceptual article.

If identity confirmation does not occur naturally, expatriates need to persuade local employees to change their views in order to achieve the confirmation through identity negotiation. However, expatriates’ opportunity to succeed in the negotiation is likely to be influenced by both the host country culture and their personal abilities. Cultures that are high in collectivism and tightness leave less room for expatriates to pursue personal identity goals over the collective identity. Similarly, expatriates who have insufficient identity knowledge and low identity management skills are less likely to be successful in achieving confirmation through identity negotiation.

Furthermore, a lack of ethnic identity confirmation can generate negative effects on expatriate-local interactions at three levels. At the personal level, it can affect expatriates’ psychological and interaction adjustment. At the interpersonal level, it can affect local employees’ support toward expatriates, specifically providing less information, and less emotional and instrumental support. Finally, it can also affect local employees’ well-being.

  • Fan, S.X.; Harzing, A.W.; Kӧhler, T. (2018) How you see me, how you don't: Ethnic Identity Self-verification in Interactions between Local Subsidiary Employees and Ethnically Similar Expatriates, International Journal of Human Resource Management, Available online... - Publisher's version (free access for first 50 downloads)

Drop me a line

More and more, people have opportunities to emigrate from their country of origin for shorter or longer periods of time. When they return to their home country, either because of personal or work reasons, they face identity challenges. Do you have a similar research interest? Do you research how identity affects our interactions in general? I would love to learn from your research. If you would like to contact me, please drop me a line. For a complete list of my research, please visit my ORCID profile