Understanding and Supporting Black Expatriates’ Careers

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About the author: Ifedapo Adeleye is Associate Professor of the Practice and Faculty Director of the Master’s in Human Resources Management Program at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. You can contact him at ia359@georgetown.edu

The murder of an African American man — George Floyd — and the resurgence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement has led to a summer of racial reckoning in the United States and around the world, and brought the issue of systemic racism toward black people to the fore — again. This time seems different. Organizations are now making bold promises to increase diversity and intensify their efforts to foster black inclusion. Starbucks, the world’s largest coffeehouse chain, for example, made a commitment to double the number of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) in senior leadership roles to 30% by 2025. Such ambitious goals require identifying and nurturing Black talent, and should help organizations expand their talent pools and compete in a demanding business environment. In this article, we focus on Black expatriates, an often undervalued and underutilized talent pool. Black Expatriates? As Koutonin (2015) comments, the term ‘expatriates’ is often only used to describe white professionals, while BIPOC professionals (particularly those from low-status countries) are referred to as immigrants or highly skilled immigrants. But to be clear, there is a growing community of Black expatriates around the world — from Accra to Addis Ababa, Berlin to Beijing, São Paulo to San Francisco, and beyond.

Black expats face unique experiences and challenges, and there are now groups around the world devoted to supporting their careers (see, for example, The Black Expat, 2020). However, this is by no means a monolithic group: they come from high-status countries like the U.S. or low-status countries (and may be working in a country that formerly colonized their country of birth); many are highly educated and experienced professionals, while there are middle and early career professionals, too; they also have different career goals and motivations for going abroad. In this article, I develop a typology (see Figure 1) to better understand these differences, based on two dimensions: expat assignment sponsorship (assigned vs. self-initiated) and the degree of black-inclusiveness or friendliness in their host environments (low or high ). I then discuss the key issues and challenges these four internationally mobile employee groups — Greenhorns, Greyhounds, Black Stars and Black Panthers — face in building three forms of career capital: knowing-why (personal motivation); knowing-how (individual knowledge, skills and abilities); and knowing-whom (individual social capital) (Dickmann et al., 2018).

Self-Initiated Expatriates (SIEs): Greenhorns and Greyhounds
SIEs, lacking the critical support of a sponsoring organization, tend to face more significant challenges in securing gainful employment and advancing their careers. In general, they have well-developed knowing-why career capital before going abroad, and their knowing-whom and knowing-how capital develop considerably while living abroad (Dickmann et al., 2018). Since they already have international skills and knowledge or cross-border networks, organizations should ideally treat them as a valuable talent pool, like returned assigned expats. Multinationals can also engage them as third-country nationals as the trend towards reducing overreliance on parent-country expatriates continues (Doherty and Dickmann, 2013). In reality, however, there are barriers to leveraging SIE talent due to factors such as discriminatory talent management practices, particularly for Blacks from low-status countries. Organizations can do more to identify and nurture this relatively unsupported group.

Greenhorns can be described as escape expatriates, since most of them are looking for greener pastures abroad due to political, economic or social challenges in their (low-status) countries. They are usually first-time or inexperienced international travelers, and may have been recruited by local organizations or through international recruitment agencies that target lower-income countries. Like most SIEs, they tend to be less senior professionals, and their foreign stay could be shorter, due to legal/immigration restrictions in their host country, or because they plan to eventually move on to more inclusive environments or their home countries in the future. Like refugees and other disadvantaged groups, they usually face the harsh realities of unfamiliar labor market rules, identity threats, and status loss, and their career capital tends to be significantly devalued (Eggenhofer-Rehart et al., 2018). Hence, this group needs the most support to build their careers. While their knowing-why capital may already be developed, they may need support to develop knowing-whom and knowing-how capital. In addition to helping them understand local labor market rules and providing career enhancement programs, organizations can do a better job of valuing their international knowledge and skills; some of these professionals may be inclined to ‘cover’ or discount their international experiences because they think it is not relevant or that it would count against them. Talent management specialists need to encourage them to bring their whole selves and identities to work, and use competency-based methods in the recruitment and selection process.

These SIEs are go-getters in search of a better quality of life or black-friendly environments. They could be senior, middle or early career professionals, and may have secured jobs on their own or hired by local organizations through international recruitment. They usually plan a longer foreign stay, and may be recent graduates or beneficiaries of government-sponsored highly skilled immigration programs. Their knowing-why capital tends to be developed before moving abroad, but they may need organizational support to gain knowing-whom and knowing-how capital. Since their new environment is inclusive and fosters career growth, professionals are likely planning to build their lives and families there. For organizations like Starbucks with ambitious BIPOC recruitment goals, this group offers a reliable and cost-effective talent pool; they may also be a good (future) third-country expat pool, since they have already gained international working experience. Considering the fact that they do not receive strong support like their assigned expat counterparts, organizations can support these SIEs by providing career enhancement initiatives, including coaching (Salomaa, 2018).

Assigned Expatriates (AEs): Black Stars and Black Panthers
One obstacle hindering Black professionals’ career advancement is the lack of access to international assignments; this is a big challenge given that many large (global) organizations make international experience a requirement for moving into senior leadership positions (Kowitt, 2020). This is not surprising, given that just over 40% of organizations in these recent surveys have diversity and inclusion objectives as part of their global mobility strategy, meaning that most of them do not prioritize hiring BIPOC and women expats (Kowitt, 2020). Organizations need to do more to sponsor and support black expatriates as the return on investments (ROI) on AEs tend to be relatively higher, as they learn more and gain more knowing-how, knowing-whom and knowing-why capital than SIEs (Dickmann et al., 2018).

Black Stars
These tend to be highly educated professionals sent by their organizations to work in a foreign location that is less Black inclusive. They are usually on shorter or limited-term assignments. While they tend to be high-potential talent with a track record of performance, they still need support from their organizations since they are operating in a stressful environment and could be subjected to microinequities and microaggressions in the workplace. Even if the organizational climate is inclusive, an unfavorable societal environment may negatively impact their personal and professional lives, as well as those of their accompanying family members. To maximize the ROI on sponsoring these AEs, organizations need to properly prepare them and their family to survive and thrive before they depart, and then provide coaching, mentoring, and career development support while they are on assignment. Organizational support is particularly important for first-time expats and expats from low-status countries, so that they can succeed and be willing to accept future international assignments. Another benefit of sponsoring and supporting this group is that if they can learn to apply and build their cross-cultural management skills in such challenging contexts, they can probably thrive in their home markets or anywhere. Organizations can also leverage them as diversity and inclusion ambassadors or agents to help managers and employees in their host countries better understand black professionals’ perspectives and experiences.

Black Panthers
These AEs are typically senior professionals with a strong performance track record, looking to optimize their careers and quality of life. Their foreign stay is usually for a limited period of time. Since their work and societal environments are Black-friendly, they might be willing to prolong their expat assignment or become local employees — particularly if they are from countries where opportunities for Black professionals’ advancement may be limited. American and European multinationals in particular can take advantage of this willing to embark on international assignments to expand their global and local talent pools. While this group is the most privileged of the four groups, they may still need some support from their organizations to develop their knowing-whom and knowing-how capital. Where feasible, organizations looking to develop their Black talent pipelines can also sponsor senior mid-level professionals who are not traditionally sent on international assignments, to help them build their skills and confidence, and prepare them for senior leadership positions in their home countries. Success brings its own challenges; if these professionals (and their families) grow and succeed abroad, their repatriation must be well-planned to ensure they appreciate the challenges of returning home, and that they find suitable positions that can leverage their newly gained skills and confidence.

Concluding Remarks
Be they greenhorns, greyhounds, black stars or black panthers, black expatriates have a lot to offer organizations. Now is the time for organizations to go beyond mere rhetoric, and take their corporate social justice responsibilities seriously. They need to start executing strategies to build black (expatriate) talent pipelines, foster a climate of (black) inclusion, and provide support to their black employees. These would play out in different ways in different organizations, industries and countries, but inaction should not be an option this time. I hope this article provides some useful tips and insights for senior leaders and talent management professionals looking to support their internationally mobile black employees. Since this is an exploratory piece, there is a need for empirical studies to test, validate and extend the typology. Researchers can also help by continuing to shed light on diversity, equity and inclusion practices in organizations, and offering evidence-based insights on how to better manage Black expats. We need to hear more from Black expatriates on what organizations can do to address their unique needs, preferences, and circumstances.

Dickmann, M., Suutari, V., Brewster, C., Mäkelä, L. Tanskanen, J. and Tornikoski, C. (2018). The career competencies of self-initiated and assigned expatriates: assessing the development of career capital over time. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 29, 6, 2353–2377.
Doherty N. and Dickmann M. (2013). Self-initiated and assigned expatriates: talent management and career considerations. In: Vaiman V., Haslberger A. (eds) Talent management of self-initiated expatriates. Palgrave Macmillan, London, pp 234–255.
Eggenhofer-Rehart, P. M., Latzke, M., Pernkopf, K., Zellhofer, D., Mayrhofer, W., and Steyrer, J. (2018). Refugees’ career capital welcome? Afghan and Syrian refugee job seekers in Austria. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 105, 31–45.
Koutonin, M. R. (2015). Why are White people expats when the rest of us are immigrants? The Guardian. Accessed online at: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2015/mar/13/white-people-expats-immigrants-migration
Kowitt, K. (2020). America’s Black brain drain: Why African-American professionals are moving abroad—and staying there. Fortune, August 10. Accessed online on at: https://fortune.com/2020/08/10/black-african-americans-leaving-us-moving-abroad-professionals-race-opportunity-careers/.
Salomaa R. (2018). Coaching of global careerists. In: Dickmann M., Suutari V., and Wurtz O. (eds) The Management of Global Careers. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, pp 91–116.
The Black Expat (2020). Why the Black Expat? Accessed online at: https://www.theblackexpat.com/.

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