Supporting minority expatriate diversity

There is a strong business case for widening expatriate diversity, yet we know very little about how minority ethnic, religious, disabled and older assignees can be supported. Dr Sue Shortland explains.

Illustration of a group of people, showing diversity
Increasing attention is being paid to the diversity of expatriate workforces as organisations seek to capitalise on their human resource capabilities. A diverse workforce brings the ability to respond more closely to customer requirements while also indicating the moral and ethical stance taken by employers. This is true not only in the domestic employment context but also in global mobility.Much has been written over the past several decades on increasing expatriate gender diversity. And recently considerable research literature has begun to emerge into the deployment of LGBT assignees. But interestingly - and somewhat surprisingly - other minority groups appear to have been largely ignored.

Race and ethnicity

The expatriate literature tends to focus on nationality. This is difficult for those trying to understand expatriate diversity because race and ethnicity provide unique demographic data. Racial characteristics are visible (for instance, skin colour); ethnicity includes cultural, linguistic, and religious features. Having data on nationality does not tell us about these characteristics and how they are perceived and supported within the host country.Research shows that when local people provide support to international assignees this aids their adjustment. If expatriates come from a distinct racial and/or ethnic group they are immediately identifiable as foreigners in the host location; support from local people can depend upon how their racial/ethnic group is perceived. Even when expatriates share the same racial/ethnic profiles as their hosts, and so would be expected to be welcomed as part of the same group, research shows that local acceptance can still be difficult to achieve due to the limited time that expatriates will be living within that community.Expatriates are most likely to be successful if they can demonstrate flexibility, cultural sensitivity, and tolerance of ambiguity to deal with the different cultural environment. Minority racial/ethnic assignees may be assisted via extra preparatory training and organisational support in-post thereby aiding adjustment.

Religion and belief

The literature that addresses diversity in a global context indicates that inclusion of religion and belief within diversity interventions can be particularly challenging for employers. Yet surprisingly, there is little to be found in expatriate research that assists employers to support religious minorities on assignment.Where religion is discussed, the key focus is on how understanding and respect for host country nationals’ religious beliefs provides cultural intelligence, assists with building working relationships with locals, and acts as an inter-cultural competency. More research is needed to understand how religious minorities can best be supported on assignment.

Disability

Turning to disability, we know almost nothing about how this aspect of expatriate diversity is supported through employer policy and process on selection, deployment and in the host country. Physical accessibility is an area that employers can address locally through practical interventions such as providing ramps for assignees/family members in the workplace/living accommodation and mental health issues may be supported via counselling and employee assistance programmes. Far more research though is needed to understand how disability can be supported to assist in widening expatriate diversity.

Age

Around 70% of assignees are aged 30-49. In recent years, there is evidence that organisations are expanding the numbers of younger people in the 20-29 age group being deployed across the globe. This is particularly so in firms focusing on international mobility as part of their talent development strategy.Older employees, however, seem to gain only a small share of expatriate roles. This might be due to their potentially higher cost given that reward packages can be more generous for senior-graded people. This does not explain though why older workers are not selected when they are employed in less highly remunerated roles.Research indicates that older expatriates can be more successful in managerial and supervisory roles. For instance, in Asian cultures age is associated with wisdom and expertise. Older expatriates may therefore fare well in their assignments leading to positive assignment outcomes. Given that many industrialised economies have aging societies, this suggests that organizations are cutting themselves off from a source of significant expatriate talent.

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