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Global Mobility: Essential Best Practices

Is the term ‘expatriate’ appropriate to describe our contemporary global workforce?

CaptureqqIn the 21st Century, it is time to change our terminology when talking about global work patterns. As organisations become increasingly globalised, they need to strive for more cosmopolitan practices. Reframing the ways in which we talk about a global workforce is one simple best practice in beginning to achieve this.

In a European context in global mobility management, the term expatriate has become subject to some debate with recent newspaper articles acting as a discussion point in thinking about what distinguishes the ‘expatriate’ from ‘immigrant.’

In its technical definition in global mobility ‘expatriate’ confers two meanings. First, it means an employee on a secondment i.e. it doesn’t refer to someone who is migrating permanently, but is someone who intends to return. Second, it refers to a type of compensation package. Yet, the term expatriate is used more widely than this, and, often in ways that work to discriminate. For example, some people use the term expatriate to refer to white immigrants. Others use it to highlight immigrants who are wealthy and privileged. This is why expatriation is often seen to be reminiscent of the colonial era, complete with images of someone leisurely sipping their gin and tonic by the pool at sunset. The term expatriate is therefore no longer seen by some as appropriate for a globalized economy and workforce:

“We are more about globally mobile people, so I don’t think the term expat wouldn’t fit with our global brand. I mean it’s almost colonial”

(Interview Quote, Senior Global Mobility Manager).

My research has highlighted an organizational shift away from the term ‘expatriate.’ There are two reasons behind this shift:

    1. A decline in the traditional expatriate package;

As the traditional expatriate package is in decline and employees are paid on more local terms, multinational organizations are reframing the terminology they use to international assignment or secondment. Two factors have led to a decline in traditional expatriate packages:

    • The global recession which has resulted in multinational organizations needing to reduce costs to remain competitive.
    • International secondments becoming increasingly common and desirable as part of individual’s career trajectories.
  1. The shift in multinational organizations towards global mobility as part of talent management.

In reflection of a changing world economy, patterns of international assignments are becoming more global. We no longer see international assignments as individuals from the headquarters being sent to the subsidiaries, especially as international assignments become part of a training tool associated with talent management. This is reflected in a change of terminology in organisations from human resource management to global mobility management.

Some organisations therefore are already changing their terminology. Organisations need to ensure that the terminology they use in thinking about a global workforce is not exclusionary, reframing their ‘expatriate’ assignments to something more globally minded.

By Dr Sophie Cranston

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