Most employees used to have chiefly domestic careers in which, in the main, they did not carry out international, across-country work. The exceptions were the small number of employees, or “expatriates,” deployed by their organizations on assignments abroad. By contrast, many employees now carry out international work in their jobs, and their careers are more international in scope than they were previously. Examples include those who self-initiate relocating abroad for long-term work to develop careers abroad and those who carry out jobs at home that include substantial international work, including “global” managers who work from the home country overseeing work abroad.
Why Has There Been an Increase in International Careers?
Due to the globalization of industry, organizations now operate in an international environment that is highly competitive. To be competitive, organizations need to develop products and services for markets abroad in order to survive and prosper, or else they may fail or be taken over, perhaps by companies from abroad. The multinational enterprise (MNE) is the norm, and employees need to see their careers as international in scope. Organizations often have operations abroad to produce their own products and services, and there are also truly global companies that function as integrated or networked operations with global markets.
What Is an International Career?
What has this contemporary international work environment meant for individuals’ careers? A career is a pattern or sequence of jobs over a lengthy period of an employee’s life. An international career is one in which the employee performs a series of international jobs, or jobs including international work, over a long period of time. Because of the globalization of industry, an individual may have an international career chiefly with one organization or be mobile across organizations (a “boundaryless” international career), have a career that arises through organizational deployment or is self-initiated, or have a career that is domestically based or based abroad or both.
What Are the Different Types of International Careers?
Employees are involved in international careers in a number of different ways. First, employees can be deployed abroad by their organization to transfer the company culture and develop the organization, to transfer skills and fill positions abroad, to transfer knowledge, and to develop a cadre of international managers for the organization. The assignments may be short-term (a few months to up to a year), medium-term (e.g., one to three years), or long-term (over three years). The employee may carry out one assignment and return home or move from one international assignment to the next over the long term. Expatriates/assignees are usually parent-country nationals who reside abroad and are often the senior managers of the organizations’ operations abroad.
Second, organizations use host-country nationals (HCNs), citizens of the host country, in their operations abroad. Few HCNs run MNE operations abroad, though organizations at high international levels (e.g., global or transnational organizations) are more likely to use HCNs as senior managers than are organizations at low international levels.
Third, companies may use inpatriates who are host-country nationals and are moved to the parent company permanently or semipermanently for management and career development; to transfer the parent-company culture, expertise, and capability back to operations abroad on their return to senior-management roles abroad; or to bring international or global expertise, technologies, and perspectives into the parent company. Organizations seek to develop HCNs to manage their operations abroad by inpatriating managers and professionals to the parent country to develop their managerial skills and learn the parent-company and country culture.
Fourth, third-country nationals are from countries other than the parent-company country or the host country who are deployed to run operations abroad or to provide expertise and capability. They may form part of an expatriate pool of managers and professionals available worldwide or may work only for the company.
Fifth, domestic international jobs are jobs in the parent company that include international, across-country work. Much international work is performed from an international company’s domestic base. The manager or professional resides at home performing across-country work, often from headquarters. Domestic international work is performed at lower levels (e.g., professionals working in consulting firms, university lecturers using online materials to teach students abroad) through to the highest levels of the top-management team (TMT) and the chief executive officer (CEO). The across-country work is performed by travel (e.g., frequent flying), technology (phone, fax, e-mail, videoconferencing), visits (e.g., business trips of a week up to a month), and short residential stints abroad (e.g., for a month up to three months). The use of technology may be very high, resulting in virtual assignments in which the manager runs the operations abroad remotely by advanced technologies. Travel can be extensive as domestic international managers may be frequent fliers who are rarely at home. They may commute weekly or monthly to work abroad in their firm’s operations, reside abroad for regular intervals (e.g., during the week or the month), and come home at the end of the interval (on weekends, at the end of the month for a period) to reside with their families at home. Often the commute replaces expatriation to dangerous locations or occurs when the country is close to the home country or when the employee’s family will not relocate.
Sixth, there is a special group of domestic international jobs called global or transnational managers. Global managers work in MNEs, where they manage the work of an organization across the globe, often from headquarters. These individuals may be (a) global business managers developing work abroad and implementing the organization’s strategy across the globe in an integrated way, (b) worldwide functional managers operating in specialist areas to provide integration and consistency across the firm (e.g., in human resources, law, finance, accounting, information technology), or (c) country managers who run operations abroad in single countries from headquarters. The three types of managers are managed by the TMT.
Finally, there are skilled individuals who self-initiate relocating abroad for work, either having found jobs abroad before leaving or becoming employed once abroad. Many are young, recently graduated professionals. They are considered part of a country’s diaspora or population abroad, may leave to reside abroad long-term (e.g., over a year), and often intend to return home. They are not migrants relocating to other countries permanently based on economic hardship in their home countries, or refugees or asylum seekers or other groups escaping persecution or political problems. Individuals who self-initiate international careers are often a country’s skilled workers (e.g., professionals, tradespersons). They seek international work to test themselves against the best in the world, to advance their careers and succeed at an international level, to develop international expertise, and to experience adventure, excitement. and other cultures. Their home countries are often concerned at this “brain drain” and develop considerable initiatives to return their skilled nationals home (called “brain circulation”).
The seven types of international work are often related and can result in an employee’ developing an international career over the long term that combines these different types. For example, some employees, originally abroad for one assignment, pursue a series of company-deployed assignments abroad or self-initiate a series of jobs abroad, in one country, a region, or across regions. Some host-country nationals or parent-country nationals relocate to other countries to work as third-country nationals and become part of the expatriate labor pool used by MNEs worldwide. Managers and professionals who have gained high-level skills in international, across-country work early in their careers return home to move into domestic international jobs because of their international expertise and perspectives. International experience leads to career advancement in MNEs that require global and transnational expertise and perspectives for their operations at higher management levels and that find the expertise to be in short supply.
What Leads Individuals to Develop International Careers?
Taking the globalization of business and trade as the starting point that provides the opportunities, the factors that lead individuals to develop international careers are from both the individual, in terms of his or her predispositions, attitudes, cognitions, human capital, and demographic and life stage issues, and from the environment, in terms of the organization, the family, and the country of destination.
The influence of individual and environmental characteristics varies according to the type of international work. Some individuals self-initiate jobs abroad or international work in their domestic jobs and gain international careers through their own initiative. Others develop international careers at home or abroad because their organizations deploy them on assignments. Organizational factors have a major influence on an employee’s developing a domestic international career, because an individual’s acceptance of that type of position is easier to obtain than for an expatriate position where relocation is involved. By contrast, individual influences may be great when employees develop international careers by working abroad, because even when expatriation is at the employer’s behest, individuals and their families must agree to relocate.
Characteristics of individuals in terms of their predispositions, international attitudes, cognitions, human capital, and demographic and life stage factors affect their seeking or accepting careers abroad.
Predisposition plays a major role. Some individuals are willing movers with respect to relocating geographically for work. Employees who have positive attitudes to moving in general and are willing to relocate domestically for jobs are also more willing to relocate abroad for work. Employees who have a high willingness to relocate abroad for work long-term seek and actively search for work abroad and accept opportunities offered to them. The earlier willingness to relocate abroad for work explains later willingness and actual relocation abroad.
Employees’ international attitudes (i.e., their international orientation) can be relevant. Employees with high international orientations have positive attitudes toward other countries and cultures and seek cross-cultural experiences and development, and thus seek or accept jobs and careers abroad.
Cognitions, in terms of high self-efficacy and high outcome expectancies of international work, are proposed by social cognitive career theory (SCCT) to inform individuals’ decision making with respect to taking up international careers. SCCT proposes that the personal agency for living and working abroad, and thus the exercise of control, helps develop interest in an international career. Self-efficacy (“Can I do it?”) and outcome expectancies (“If I do it, what will happen?”) jointly give rise to interest in international careers. SCCT uses self-efficacy theory to explain its influence on the development of the individual’s career interests. People form enduring interests in activities in which they view themselves as self-efficacious and in which they anticipate positive outcomes, and the interests lead to career choice goals and actions, such as searching for a job abroad. Some individuals have high self-efficacy or confidence that they can work and live in countries with cultures different from their own or have a low preference for country ease, being more willing to work with, or in, culturally dissimilar or difficult countries than individuals with low self-efficacy or high preference for country ease.
If individuals do not believe there are positive outcomes from international work, they are not likely to take it up. SCCT uses expectancy theory to explain the influence of outcome expectancies on the development of an individual’s career interests. When individuals have high expectancies that they can gain positive outcomes from relocating abroad for work or carrying out international work in their domestic jobs, they are more willing to develop international careers abroad or at home, respectively. Individuals expect to gain cross-cultural experiences, personal and professional development, and particularly pay and career advancement and opportunities by taking up international work abroad or at home.
Human capital also helps individuals develop international careers. Based on human capital theory and the links of human capital investments to career development, human capital investments through gaining international experience and expertise pay off in gaining international careers (e.g., future international assignments or domestic international jobs). There are various ways of investing in human capital for international work, through (a) prior assignments abroad, trips abroad, or having lived abroad; (b) fluency in a foreign language(s); and (c) having a degree, including an international major. Individuals who have invested in such human capital are more likely to seek international work at home or abroad or be selected because of their ability and competencies for international work.
Demographic and life stage factors are also linked to taking up international careers. Younger employees are more willing than older employees to take up work abroad and to seek and accept opportunities, partly because they expect more positive outcomes and have fewer family barriers to relocating abroad for their careers.
By contrast, gender may not affect the development of international careers. On the whole, women are not less willing than men to relocate abroad for long-term work. Nonetheless, women are slightly less willing than men to relocate abroad long-term to culturally dissimilar countries. Moreover, some women may be reluctant to take up international careers because they have male partners with careers who exert the major power in family relocation decisions and are unwilling to relocate abroad for their partners’ work.
Environment affects the development of interests in international work, including the work and family environments. SCCT emphasizes that individuals’ environments provide opportunities, support, and barriers that affect the development of their career interests. Characteristics of their employing organizations (international level, international focus, management preferences) affect individuals’ developing an interest in international work abroad or at home, perhaps providing opportunities for employees to carry out international work and the human resource (HR) support to do so.
With respect to organizations’ international levels, MNEs need their parent company managers and professionals to accept deployment abroad to run the organization’s operations, manage start-ups, develop new business and partners abroad, and provide and transfer capability and specialized technical expertise. When organizations are starting up operations abroad, they are more likely to deploy parent-company expatriates to run the operations than to use HCNs. They train host country managers to take over operations once the operations are well established. Organizations at high international levels also provide opportunities to carry out international work in domestic jobs more than do organizations at low international levels.
Organizations that are increasing their international focus, seeking to expand globally to meet their business objectives, may encourage an interest in their employees in international work abroad or at home through providing opportunities, HR support, norms, and role models. Organizations seeking to increase their international focus provide the opportunity for their employees to carry out international work in their domestic jobs in order to grow the international business and for employees to relocate abroad once the organization has operations abroad.
During international relocation, HR support (e.g., training, relocation assistance, family assistance) can be more important to spouses/partners—who are concerned about securing a new job—than to employees themselves. HR support is also needed for employees to carry out domestic international jobs because of substantial barriers and difficulties (e.g., constant travel, time away from home, lack of integration with host-country nationals in the foreign operation, communication and cross-cultural difficulties, stress).
Management preferences affect how organizations staff international work. Managements with ethnocentric preferences use parent-country nationals (e.g., expatriates, domestic international managers) to run operations abroad and make little use of HCN managers except at lower levels. When management has geocentric preferences, carrying out international work is not based on nationality. Thus, parent-, host-, or third-country nationals can develop international careers by being selected for positions throughout the organization. Host- and third-country nationals can work in the parent country and so develop truly international careers.
The family is a major influence on relocating abroad and may provide another type of barrier. The family may also affect whether an individual takes up international work in a domestic job because of the disruption to family life caused by constant travel and the out-of-hours works necessitated by different time zones.
With respect to careers abroad, a partner/spouse, children (especially teenage children), a partner with a career, and a partner less willing to relocate abroad for the other person’s job reduce an individual’s willingness take up work abroad. Family structural theory emphasizes that the family is a system in a state of equilibrium. Considering taking or actually relocating on an international assignment causes pressures and forces within the family (e.g., the effects on children) and external to the family (e.g., the availability of employment for the spouse) that disrupts its equilibrium and thus affects the decision to relocate abroad.
The family system provides a barrier to relocating abroad in many instances, for those younger or older and with or without an immediate family involved in the relocation. However, employees are most likely to be influenced by family factors when they have children and when they have partners, especially when the partner has a career and is unwilling to relocate. There is greater anticipated disruption and actual disruption to the equilibrium of the family system from the employee’s relocating, usually reducing an individual’s interest in a career abroad.
The spouse has a particularly important effect. The lack of adjustment of the spouse is the largest contributor to the lack of adjustment of the employee when on assignment abroad. Moreover, when the spouse has a career, the employee is less interested in and is less likely to go abroad for work than when his or her partner does not have a career. Family power theory explains that the partner who makes the greatest financial contribution to the family’s resources has the greatest power over family relocation decisions. Hence, partners with careers have greater influence over family relocation decisions through their financial contributions than do partners without careers, resulting in less likelihood of the development of international careers by their spouses.
The family system is also a barrier to carrying out domestic international work, though less so than for expatriation abroad, due to time away from the family and the stress incurred. Domestic international jobs disrupt family and nonwork life, reducing the employee’s interest and participation in a domestic international career.
Country of the International Work
Finally, the destination country has an impact on relocating abroad for work. Employees are less willing to relocate abroad for work to developing or culturally dissimilar countries than to developed or culturally similar countries. From uncertainty reduction theory, we know there is greater disruption to established routines and thus greater uncertainty from considering or actually relocating to developing or culturally dissimilar countries, resulting in less interest in such locations.
What Are the Consequences of International Work?
The consequences of international work vary according to the type of international work, for example, whether the individual is a company-deployed expatriate, a host-country national or an inpatriate, or a domestic international worker. There are positive and negative consequences for individuals.
Because managers and professionals skilled in international work are in short supply, international experience can lead to an employee’s developing an international career. International experience leads to career advancement in MNEs, as they require global and transnational expertise and perspectives for their operations.
With respect to positive effects on career advancement, because there is a shortage of managers skilled in international work, having international experience results in managers’ gaining career opportunities and advancement, especially if they are willing to move between companies and adopt boundaryless careers. Expatriates gain advancement by relocating abroad to take up new international roles for their organizations. Once there, expatriates can be “poached” by competitors abroad, resulting in career opportunities and advancement. “Expatriate pools” exist abroad, and other organizations take advantage of them.
Expatriates on return home may rise in rank to become domestic international executives because they have international experience, expertise, and perspective. Having prior international assignments predicts holding a senior domestic international manager position, though not necessarily in the same company. Moreover, individuals who self-initiate relocation abroad to work are often sought by governments and employers to return home to senior roles because of their international experience and advanced expertise.
There are also opportunities for career advancement for HCN managers. Some organizations avoid expatriating their employees because of the substantial costs (e.g., allowances, relocation expenses, repatriation home) and problems (e.g., personal and family adjustment) involved. Instead, they run their operations abroad using HCN managers, third-country nationals, parent-country nationals already abroad in an expatriate pool, and domestic international managers from home. There are therefore opportunities for career advancement by HCN managers. HCNs may be inpatriated to headquarters for management development to take on more senior roles on their return abroad or to bring in needed global or international perspective or expertise, or they may be expatriated as third-country nationals to manage the organization’s operations in another country.
There are positive consequences of undertaking domestic international work because it can lead to advancement to senior levels in the company. Domestic international work enables the learning of international skills and expertise, which executives and CEOs of companies require in the global environment.
There are also negative effects from participation in international work, especially for mid- and long-term company-deployed expatriates, on pay and advancement, on premature return, and on labor turnover. On the negative side, companies localize the pay and conditions of expatriates to avoid the costs and problems of expatriation. Companies may deploy expatriates with no opportunity of return to the home host country. Because of the lack of support and unmet expectations, expatriates may prematurely return from their assignments or leave their employers while abroad.
There may also be negative effects of expatriation on career advancement within the organization. Expatriates are usually “out of sight, out of mind” and may be passed over for promotion. The largest career problem for company-deployed expatriates is repatriation. There is usually no job to come back to, or there is one at a lower level than the job abroad. The result is dissatisfaction and a lack of organizational commitment by expatriates and their families and the feeling that their international experience is not valued, resulting in intentions to leave the organization or actually leaving. However, the turnover may be to a higher-level job in another company because of the shortage of skilled international managers and executives.
Self-initiated expatriates abroad also find it difficult to gain positions on their return home that take advantage of their international expertise and perspectives. Hence, repatriates may again expatriate abroad after a short time to gain career opportunities.
Being a woman appears to be a disadvantage for career advancement through international work. A very low proportion of company-assigned international assignees are women. The reason may be that senior managers and executives are attracted to people similar to themselves. Because there are more men in these top-level decision-making positions, they may therefore select men more often than women for international assignments and domestic international jobs.
Such similarity attraction effects may also mean that parent-country executives are more likely to select parent-country nationals than HCNs to run their operations abroad. Host-country managers are unlikely to be selected outside of their countries or regions for more senior roles in an organization. Companies favor parent-company nationals or those from culturally similar countries for advancement to the most senior levels of the organization.
There are also negative consequences of participation in domestic international work. Employees in domestic international jobs often incur substantial stress through frequent travel; being away from the family, friends, and social life; working out-of-hours to match time zones abroad; not being integrated with host-country nationals abroad; and needing cross-cultural and communication skills, often for several cultures at once. Hence, those working in international domestic jobs may seek purely domestic jobs to avoid the stress incurred from the working conditions described.
Individuals are now more likely than ever to have international careers rather than purely domestic careers. International careers may occur domestically or abroad, may be bounded within one organization or boundaryless through mobility across organizations, or may be voluntarily developed by individuals who take advantage of opportunities that arise through the deployment by organizations of their own employees.
International careers may be developed in a number of ways: (a) through a series of assignments abroad, (b) through switching between assignments abroad and international work at home, (c) through carrying out a series of domestic international jobs, (d) through being part of an expatriate pool of workers from which MNEs recruit, and (e) through self-initiating relocation abroad for work and return home to capitalize on the experience and expertise gained abroad.
Challenges arise in international careers chiefly from the lack of jobs on return home; the adjustment and stress inherent in international work, including for the family; the labor turnover of internationally skilled employees; and the brain drain when skilled nationals relocate abroad for long-term work and do not return home. By contrast, there are also substantial advantages for career advancement from international work and for exciting, adventurous lives.
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