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Expat research highlights from the European Academy of Management

Last week I attended the European Academy of Management, where a lot of interesting research on expats was presented. I would like to share some of my highlights.

Supporting expats
One of the findings that struck me in thSupporte presentation of Mila Lazarova and her colleagues (1) was that they found that 66% of the expats want a contact in the new destination to help them settle in. This emphasizes the need for local support, one possibility being contact with a local host. The fact that it is not easy to make contact with locals in many countries was mentioned in a few other papers as well, such as Salamin’s paper about expats in Switzerland (2). More research into this topic is needed so that we can help expatriates break out of the expat bubble and benefit from contact with locals.

Other types of expats: LGBT and single female expats
Recently a call was made for research on other groups and domains within IHRM. Some of this was present at EURAM with regard to diLGBTfferent types of expats, for example in the paper of Salamin (2), who did a study of the work-life challenges of single female expatriates in Switzerland. Another good example is the paper of McNulty and McPhail (3), who presented their findings about LGBT expatriates in (for them) dangerous locations. They argue that it is important to take this group of expatriates into account, and know how to support them, if we want to enlarge the pool of potential expats. This is very important for organisations to be able to select the right person for the job.

Communication – a low hanging fruit?
Another emerging area of interest is communication with expats. Lazarova (1) mentioned that ‘it is often small things that trip you up’. There is support in the first two weeks of the assignment, and then the company ‘disappears’. My own paper (4) also looked at communication issues; we looked at how important adequate informatioLow hanging fruitn before and after arrival in the host country was for self-initiated expatriates to adjust and want to stay with the organization, in our case a hospital in the Netherlands. In a sense, this is a low-hanging fruit, especially for organisations that do not have the large budgets that multinationals have, because you don’t need enormous budgets to invest in giving foreign employees the information that they need. And that starts before they even arrive.


The following papers were all presented at the European Academy of Management 2015:

(1) Mila Lazarova, Monica Semeniuk and Yvonne McNulty: “When the wheels are falling off behind closed doors: Expatriate family narratives of the successful moveable family.”

(2) Xavier Salamin: “Specific work-life issues of single and childless female expatriates. An exploratory study in the Swiss context.”

(3) Yvonne McNulty and Ruth McPhail: “Lies, duplicity and fake second bedrooms: A study of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) expatriates’ experiences in dangerous locations.”

(4) Marian van Bakel and Torben Andersen: “Picking a low hanging fruit: Informing self-initiated expatriates in the healthcare sector before and after their arrival.”

Images of ‘support’ by, LGBT by Purple Sherbet Photography, the low hanging fruit by Michael Coghlan.

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The future of International Human Resource Management

Recently I had the pleasure to attend Panel Global Conference on IHRM (2015)the 2nd Global Conference on International Human Resource Management at Penn State University in State College. In this post I would like to talk about some of the opportunities and challenges for the IHRM field that were highlighted during the closing session of the conference*.

What is the relevance of our research?
While it seems very obvious that the research that we do should be relevant, the question is – for whom is it relevant? The panel pointed out the increased value that is being placed on the link between academic research and the ‘real world’. Case in point is the Research Excellence Framework in the UK, which now includes impact of research beyond academia – comprising 20% of the assessment which determines research funding. I fully agree that the relevance of our research for practice is very important (see Bridging Theory and Practice). The panel also discussed the importance of keeping an eye on what is happening in HR practice; and then it is for us, academics, to determine whether there is really something of value in it, or whether it is just a passing fad.

Going beyond ‘WEIRD’?
The field of International Human Resource Management has been very much focused on expatriates, and on one specific type: the Western company-sponsored expatriate who is sent to a developing country. The panel suggested that we should diversify our research to include different regions, and directions in which expatriates are sent – for example,WEIRD more and more Asian expatriates come to Europe. In that sense, you could say that our discipline suffers from the same problem psychologists have: their findings are often ‘weird’ (coming from Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic countries) and, therefore, not necessarily applicable to the rest of the world.

Other potential research areas
Other fruitful research areas could be different types of organisations than the typical multinational enterprise, for example non-governmental organisations and small and medium sized enterprises. We could also look at international organisations which depend on volunteers – an example is Young SIETAR, which is an international organisation with members in many different countries, who organise events such as an annual congress and regular webinars. These dynamics remain largely unexplored.

Thanks to the Center for International Human Resource Studies for a wonderful conference, and to the panel for this food for thought!

* The panel of expert academics were: Lisbeth Claus (Willamette University, USA), Torben Andersen (University of Southern Denmark), Michael Morley (University of Limerick, Ireland), and Miguel Olivas-Luján (Clarion University, USA). The panel was chaired by Chris Brewster (Henley Business School, UK). Photo of the panel: courtesy of CIHRS.

Update: A summary of the discussion during this panel session has now been provided on the CIHR website – read more here.

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Postcrossing – a vintage ad from Russia

Time for another Postcrossing blog post – this time the theme is traditional Russian footwear! This is one of the things I like about my little Postcrossing project of learning more about cultures through the postcards I get from random users in the world – it is always a surprise where the next postcard is coming from, and what it is about!

Nadya writes that her postcard is a vintage Russian galoshesad of galoshes, which were very popular in Russia (USSR) in the last century. They are now mostly worn in villages and have disappeared elsewhere. As I can’t read Russian, I can’t really determine whether the ad is for galoshes (a rubber overshoe) or for valenki – traditional Russian footwear which can be worn with galoshes but are made of wool felt and not waterproof. They are less and less worn because of their association with ‘rustic dress’ but also because winters in Central Russia turned softer and wetter, so there was more need for waterproof footwear (1). This is a nice example of how the environment – in this case the climate – influences culture and their symbols!

So if anybody can read the ad, let me know what it says!



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Developing a high quality intercultural relationship: expatriates and their local host

In my Ph.D. thesis In Touch with the Dutch I looked In Touch with the Dutchat the impact of a local host on the success of the expatriate assignment. My first research question focused on the impact of a local host on adjustment, performance, intercultural competence and social support. Secondly, I examined the impact of the quality of the contact between expats and local hosts – are those with higher quality contact better off? Thirdly, I focused on how high quality contact between participants was created. That is the topic of this blog post*.

Importance of contact quality
The quality of the contact with the local host was important for the benefits that the expats got out of the contact: the higher the quality of the contact, the more benefits were derived. Happily, about two third of the expats developed high quality contact with their host; they rated the contact a 7 or higher on a scale of 1-10. But why did certain participants hit it off, and others didn’t? What caused these expats to really enjoy the contact with their host?

What helped the development of the contact?
I found nine factors that influenced the development of the contact:

  1. Similarities: Do participants have something in common on which they can base the relationship? In this study, we matched participants based on similarities in age, location and family situation.
  2. Motivation: To what extent are the participants motivated to make the contact work? Are they willing to make an effort to meet even if it is difficult to find a time, or if they do not live very close to each other?
  3. Benefits: Do the expats benefit from the contact? Various benefits were found in terms of help with adjustment, offers of social support and other benefits such as enriching contact or a different perspective.
  4. Anxiety: To what extent are participants anxious about the first meeting or their language skills? This could hinder the development of the contact.
  5. Expectations: Do participants have similar expectations about the contact, for example about who should take the initiative? In quite a few cases the initiative lay more with the local host, who found this regrettable. This can slow down the development of the contact.
  6. Busy schedules: How busy are the Scheduleparticipants? Both expats and hosts lead busy lives, which doesn’t always make it easier to make appointments.
  7. Suboptimal timing: Is the contact with the local host established at the right time for the expat? The expats had been in the Netherlands only for maximum one year when they joined the project, yet two of them expressed that they would have preferred the contact to take place earlier than only after 7 or 8 months because they felt they did not need as much anymore.
  8. Communication breakdown: Is there any communication breakdown between participants, either on a technical or a personal level? Sometimes e-mails do not arrive, or life events (e.g. birth of a baby) occur which can disrupt the contact.
  9. Cultural differences: In some cases, cultural differences hindered the development of the contact. One example was a different tradition with regard to who takes the initiative to contact the other after the birth of a baby. This disrupted the contact in one case because both parties were waiting for the other to take the first step.

Key factors
From looking at the cases with the four highest and Thermometer (Acid Pix)the four lowest contact quality it became clear that three factors were more important than others: similarities, motivation and benefits. These are important factors because they help overcome some of the barriers. If there is a ‘click’, people really want to make an effort, and they get something out of the contact, it does not matter as much that there may be an age difference or that they do not live very close to each other.

Putting expats in touch with a local host can be a good way to support expats during their international assignment. The nine factors mentioned above shed light on how you can stimulate the quality of the contact between expats and their local host. This is important because the higher the quality of the contact, the more benefits for the expats.

* This blog post is a summary of the third academic article that has appeared about my PhD thesis, in March 2015 in the Journal of Global Mobility.


Van Bakel, M.S., Van Oudenhoven, J.P. & Gerritsen, M. (2015). Developing a high quality intercultural relationship: expatriates and their local host. Journal of Global Mobility, 3(1), pp. 25-45 (see Publications to read the article (post-print)).

Photo of the schedule by Photosteve101 and of the thermometer by Acid Pix, both via Flickr.

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Active learning: how to engage students in your lectures

Last week I attended a course oSDU logon ‘Interactive Lecturing’ at the University of Southern Denmark. I am preparing an elective course for our two MA-programs in Change Management and Global Marketing and Innovation here at SDU campus Slagelse, and I thought this course might be good input for how to make my classes as attractive as possible!

Active learning
Our university would like to stimulate active learning on the part of the student as much as possible. Active learning is about engaging students in the learning process, have them “do meaningful learning activities and think about what they are doing” (1), rather than passively sit in the classroom and Classroom (andresmh)receive information. But of course, that is not
always easy. For the teachers, because it might be out of their comfort zone, but also for the students, who have to be actively engaged with what is offered in class. Research has shown, however, that although students expect traditional formal lectures, they actually prefer to be taught by interactive lectures and group-based activities (2).

How to stimulate active learning?
The course gave a helpful overview of several ways in which you can stimulate the level of interactivity in a lecture, ranging from student response systems to “think-pair-share” to the flipped classroom. While the flipped classroom requires you to rethink your teaching and plan sessions very differently, interactive lecturing can also be as simple as encouraging students to make meaningful notes for example through having them fill out a pro and con grid of the topic you are talking about. I was also very interested to hear more about student response systems which make it possible to pose all kinds of questions to your students. They answer online and these answers are collectively (and anonymously) displayed on your screen. This can be a good way to assess the knowledge of the students and keep them engaged during a lecture. Possible systems to use are and

“The greatest enemy of understanding is coverage”
In the end, education is all about getting students to understand what they have been taught. Yet many students don’t really understand most of what they’ve been taught, according to Howard Gardner, an AmericanKnowledge (by Ian Muttoo) developmental psychologist (3). They are not able to apply the knowledge that they learned to a different setting. One of his famous quotes is “The greatest enemy of understanding is coverage”. His advice is not to try to cover everything but to engage the students more deeply in one topic so that they can think about in many different ways and apply it in different settings. He also suggests that teachers should offer ‘multiple entry points’ to the topic, because not everyone learns in the same way or finds the same thing interesting. Enough food for thought when preparing my classes!


(1) Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93 (3), 223-231 \

(2) Sander, P., Stevenson, K., King, M., and Coates, D. (2000). University students’ expectations and teaching. Studies in Higher Education, 25 (3), 309-323

(3) Brandt, Ron (1993). On Teaching for Understanding: A Conversation with Howard Gardner, 50 (7), 4-7

Photo of a classroom by andresmh and photo of a detail of the Pool of Knowledge at Living Arts Park, Mississauga, Canada, by Ian Muttoo, via Flickr.

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Learning Danish: ’No cow on the ice?’

Some say that Danish is one of the moCow (by la vaca vegetariana)st difficult languages to learn. While I think that also depends on what your native language is (it is a lot more difficult for my Chinese friend than for me), research shows that Danish was the most difficult native language to learn out of the following seven languages: Danish, Swedish, Dutch, French, American English, Croatian and Galician (1). It basically takes Danish children longer to really master the language.

Too many vowels
Written Danish is not the issue – it’s all about the pronunciation. As I noted in my blog post One Year in Denmark, the Danes leave out many of the consonants and have up to 45 ways to pronounce their vocals. That is what Dorthe Bleses, a linguist at the Center for Child Language at the University of Southern Denmark who carried out the above mentioned cross-cultural comparison of how children learn to speak their native language, pinpoints as the ‘problem’ with Danish. These many ways to pronounce vowels and the swallowing of consonants makes it much more difficult to distinguish between words. That’s exactly what makes it difficult for me to understand conversations, especially between Danes. They just go too fast!

Is that a song from a warm country?
While I’m still wrestling with understanding the Danes, I did find a different way which has greatly enhanced my joy in language learning: Word of the Week. I posted a paper on my office door to learn a bit more of everyday Danish – expressions that are used, ways of saying things, commoDannebrog (Jacob Boetter)n replies etc. That has led to many interesting conversations with my colleagues about expressions that they use. I now learned that there is no cow on the ice in Denmark if there is no problem (ingen ko på isen!), that people can ask you if you have rats in your head if you say something crazy (har du rotter på loftet?), and that students offer many songs from warm countries to explain why they were unable to hand in an assignment on time (de kommer med en sang fra de varme lande). I think expressions and sayings are a very beautiful (and telling) part of a language, and it is great fun to get into that. And I think it is a great way to really learn the language. Do try this at home!

(1) The Danish language’s irritable vowel syndrome, The Copenhagen Post, May 2011

Photo of the cow by la vaca vegetariana and photo of the Danish flag by Jacob Bøtter (via Flickr).

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