How you see me, How you don't

Does ethnic similarity help or hinder in the relationship between expats and locals: a conceptual framework based on self-verification theory

Smooth interactions between local employees and expatriates are crucial in creating a positive and effective work climate in MNC subsidiaries. In 2016, I posted about a paper in Human Resource Management by one of my talented PhD students: Shea Fan, based on survey data with dyads of expatriates and local employees. Entitled the Benefits of Being Understood, it illustrated the double-edged sword for overseas Chinese expatriates of sharing an ethnicity with local Chinese employees. This post became one of the ten most read posts in my first year of blogging, so it is clear that there is a lot of interest in this topic.

A second article based on experimental data collection with Chinese host country employees was published in the Journal of World Business. Today, I am proud to announce a third paper, accepted for the International Journal of Human Resource Management, that provides a generalized conceptual framework on the role of ethnic similarity in the interactions between expatriates and local subsidiary employees, drawing on self-categorization and self-verification theory.

  • Fan, S.X.; Harzing, A.W.; Kӧhler, T. (2020) 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, vol 31(19): 2407-2433. Available online... - Publisher's version (free access for first 50 downloads) - Related blog post

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.


Multinational corporations often assign expatriates who share an ethnicity with host country employees (termed ethnically similar expatriates) to work on international assignments. Although sharing an ethnicity with local employees can be an advantage, it also creates a unique identity challenge. In this article, we develop the argument that ethnic similarity might in fact threaten expatriate-local employee interactions if the two parties hold divergent views towards the importance of expatriates’ ethnic identity in their interactions. Drawing on self-verification theory, we explain why people desire to achieve congruence between how they view their own identity and how others view this identity.

Subsequently, we identify key cultural and personal constraints affecting expatriates’ efforts to achieve ethnic identity self-verification. We also illustrate how unfulfilled ethnic identity self-verification affects ethnically similar expatriates, local employees and their interactions. Our study, thus, introduces a new angle to understand expatriate-local employee interactions and advances self-verification research by demonstrating the challenges in achieving ethnic identity self-verification when two social parties share an ethnicity.

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