Business Expatriates – Getting the Definition Right

Chris Brewster and Yvonne McNulty outline the importance of clear definitions in expatriate management research.

iStock-519709012-NYC-pin-mapResearching and teaching expatriation is not easy. Nor is the practical process of managing expatriates. One of the major problems is that the evidence we have as scholars points in various directions. We believe that at least one of the reasons why is that many of the researchers in the field of expatriate management fail to define their terms clearly. Indeed, having reviewed some of the most cited texts on expatriation, we find that a large majority of them do not define the topic at all and simply assume that the meanings of ‘expatriate’ is obvious. The consequence is that researchers have been working with different populations and hence produce different results. Meta-analyses, where the papers with these rather different assumptions are combined, merely exacerbates the problem and usually ends up noting that there are no clear answers.

For researchers, this is frustrating; and it probably helps to explain why our findings are generally ignored by practitioners.

The fact is that the world is becoming more and more international. Increasing numbers of kids and young adults have experienced international travel, and want more. The number of migrants in the world continues to increase. The number of organisations operating internationally increases every year. Managing an international workforce becomes ever more complicated. But sloppy thinking and a failure to specify who we are researching and the requisite boundary conditions means that our research fails to come up with results that reflect the reality that expatriates face and that their managers have to cope with.

Researchers have been working with different populations
and hence produce different results

In Chapter 2 of our new Handbook, entitled ‘The concept of business expatriates’, our immediate task has been to progress towards construct clarity: to be clear about who we are researching. That, in turn, will allow us to be clearer about the boundaries around ‘expatriates’ and the difference between them and other internationally mobile people (such as students and retired people), as well as the overlaps with other categories of workers (such as migrants and frequent travellers). We recognise, of course, that these boundaries are fungible – people move between categories and may be in several categories (expatriates and frequent travellers, for example). For us, that simply emphasises the need to get our definitions right: if we confuse these categories our findings become confused.

In Chapter 2, we see a number of key criteria that define our topic:

  • Expatriates are people who move from one country to another, thus they reside in a country that is different from the country whose passport they carry. That distinguishes them from people who do jobs with international responsibilities (perhaps via the internet) but stay at home.
  • Expatriates are people who move from one country to another with the intention and expectation of only being there for a temporary period of a number of months or years (and will, therefore, typically take their immediate family with them when they do so). That distinguishes them from migrants who move to another country with the intention of staying there. Expatriates may stay on in a foreign country and become migrants and migrants may end up going back to their own country within a short period, but the intention is what matters.
  • Business expatriates are people who go to these countries to work. That distinguishes them from students who are studying abroad and retired people who go abroad to get a better climate or to stretch their pensions. While all of these people may be of interest to human geographers, economists and other social scientists, for management scholars we need to be bit more stringent: if they are not working, they do not fall under the purview of international human resource management. Again, students may stay on to work and retired people may get jobs in the new country, but until they do they are not business expatriates.
  • Business expatriates are people who work lawfully. That distinguishes them from international gangs of criminals (from trafficked women or slaves), from illegal immigrants, and from backpackers engaged in ‘cash only’ jobs that avoids them appearing ‘on the books’.


The Research Handbook of Expatriates edited by Yvonne McNulty and Jan Selmer is out now.

Read Chapter 2: The concept of business expatriates, by Yvonne McNulty and Chris Brewster free on Elgaronline


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