Expat, Put Down that Burger!

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Familiarity, it turns out, breeds a lot more than contempt. It can make it a lot harder for an expat to settle into his new environment and hang on to his new job. “Familiarity in a new country isn't necessarily a good thing for expats,” explains CEIBS Assistant Professor of Management Emily David. “Our research has shown that if you live in a country that has familiar things from back home – your favourite cereal, that clothing brand you like – you will be less committed to the organization that hired you, unless they go the extra mile to help you assimilate.”

The results of the study by Prof. David and Prof. Sabrina Volpone at the University of New Mexico were presented at last year’s Academy of Management conference and is currently being prepared for publication. The paper is called “Pushing Expatriates out of their Comfort Zones: The Role of Organizational Cultural Intelligence.” The study is especially relevant in today’s highly globalized environment that sees large swathes of expats working around the globe. As the authors point out, “Given the high costs associated with the failure of international assignments, it is important to understand the environmental factors that contribute to expatriates’ intent to quit (ITQ).”

They studied 109 expats as they examined the impact that organizational cultural intelligence (OCQ) has on ITQ. According to Prof. David, the more expats are surrounded by things that remind them of home, the harder a company needs to work to keep them from walking away from the job abroad and going back home. The results are surprising as it is commonly thought that familiar items may help alleviate homesickness and make being away from home bearable.  “We find, counter-intuitively, that whenever you have perks or things that remind you of home, that’s when it’s really critical for the organization to train you in the new norms, to introduce you to more of the local people, to really embed you in the community, to make sure that you don’t leave early,” Prof. David explains.

Their findings may come in handy for organizations. According to a 1999 paper by Black & Gregersen, expatriate assignments are “probably the single largest expenditure most companies make on any one individual except for the CEO”. So it is important to get it right.

Davis and Volpone offer a solution, noting: “We predict that those employees working in highly familiar countries for organizations that are culturally savvy will reap both the comfort benefits of familiar goods as well as the embedding benefits of local exposure, resulting in the highest levels of commitment and lower subsequent ITQ… Focusing on both organizational variables (e.g., organizational CQ) and characteristics of the host-country (e.g., the availability of familiar people, places, and goods) is critical for organizations to help reduce expatriate ITQ.”

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