By Akram Al Ariss

In order to win points in the global search for talents, companies had better create a human resources policy that is attractive to self-initiated expatriates. Akram Al Ariss, research professor at Toulouse Business School, has carried out a review of scientific research on this important subject.

The scale of international migrations has been steadily increasing for many years: from 214 million in 2010, the number of people living outside their country of origin has risen to 232 million and may well increase again by 96 million people between now and 2050 according to United Nations estimates. Until now, the potential use of highly skilled talents from this population by organizations has not been paid much attention by researchers. The human resource management literature on this topic refers to these talents as ‘self-initiated expatriates’. Therefore, we use this term in the rest of this article.

A talent pool of self-initiated expatriates

Highly skilled talents who undertake an international mobility are a pool of human resources that could give host countries and companies a competitive edge in the global war for talents. This is especially the case with regard to self-initiated expatriates (SIEs) made up of individuals who have chosen to move of their own free will, and who are often highly qualified and experienced, with a rich linguistic and cultural background. But dipping into this pool first requires identifying, recruiting, developing, and retaining them as staff while satisfying their ambitions. In order to do so, companies need to devise and implement a specially-tailored Human Resources strategy.

This is particularly important for companies which are expanding internationally. For cost reasons, the classic pattern of expatriation of their employees with concomitant salary bonuses and various other benefits, has been replaced in the past few years by a more economical, “local plus” model, in which the employee resigns in order to be rehired under a local contract, with much less favorable conditions. But this system, which generates frustration and understandably dents staff motivation, often leads to a swift resignation, and is counterproductive. In reality, rather than the employee, it is the company that ends up losing in the long term: the saving is only illusory, since the “local plus” strategy creates a detrimental turnover of employees, leading to a brain drain in the company and damages its image in the eyes of potential expatriate candidates. The recruitment of self-initiated expatriates is undoubtedly an interesting way out of this impasse. Since they are already expatriates for non-professional reasons, they will more readily accept to work at local market conditions.

Removing obstacles to their professional integration

The question actually applies to every business: how to target and reach those with high added value individuals? One answer could be by simply taking into account their specific needs. The situation varies according to their experience as well as their countries of origin and host countries. Nevertheless, studies have shown that SIEs face a number of barriers and obstacles that limit their opportunities for integration in their host organizations and societies. Among the most commonly cited, we find the immigration policies of states, particularly regarding visas and work permits, recognition or not of qualifications and professional experience, barriers related to language proficiency and communication codes and, more insidiously, discrimination and stereotypes of all kinds. These difficulties are also exacerbated when it comes to women, who nowadays make up one out of two self-initiated expatriates. A company’s first responsibility is to recognize these obstacles and then help self-initiated expatriates to find a way round or overcome them in order to facilitate recruitment and enable them to find jobs matching their skills.

A differentiated HR strategy

Human resource (HR) managers’ strategy plays an essential role in two specific ways: through adapting their organizational recruitment and selection procedures, on the one hand, and through providing cultural training and development opportunities to these self-initiated expatriates, on the other. In terms of recruitment, HR practices must adapt to this expatriate population, not only to avoid excluding it (for example by neglecting its preferred communication channels or requiring local professional experience that, by definition, it cannot have), but also to attract it (for example by not restricting the job offer to a technical description of the proposed job but giving in addition general information on life opportunities linked to the job). For the company, the main benefit of this proactive and differentiated approach is not to miss out on this highly skilled labor.

The second priority is to encourage them to stay with the company by facilitating their integration and cultural adaptation. Research cannot provide a comprehensive and definitive answer as to why an SIE remains in a job, especially as these reasons may vary from country to country. However, HR management should strive to understand the motivating factors in order to implement appropriate development and retention solutions.

These are only a few indicators from research results. The development of a relevant HR strategy tailored for self-initiated expatriates is essential in any case. Of course, whatever happens, it’s a win-win policy for expatriates themselves, for whom the choice of mobility is then crowned with success, but equally for companies who manage to attract the best candidates, thus giving them a decisive advantage in global competition. Indeed, the international workforce is a source of diversity, creativity and innovation. The winning companies will be those that are capable of looking beyond the various stereotypes, discrimination and obstacles, in order to tap into this worldwide flow of human resources.


This article written by Akram Al Ariss and articles on “self-initiated expatriation and migration in management literature,” co-authored with Marian Crowley-Henry (Department of Management, National University of Ireland Maynooth), published in Career Development International (2013); “Human resource management of international migrants: current theories and future research”, co-authored with Chun Guo (Department of Management, Sacred Heart University, Fairfiels, CT, USA), published in The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 2015.

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In writing the two articles referenced above, Akram Al Ariss and his two co-authors conducted a systematic review of the scientific research conducted on the subject of self-initiated expatriation.