How to Best Help Employees Work Abroad

Topic(s): job performance, job satisfaction, motivation, stress
Publication: Academy of Management Journal
Article: Newcomers Abroad: Expatriate adaption during early phases of International assignments.
Authors: B.M. Firth, G. Chen, B.L. Kirkman, K. Kim
Reviewed by: Andrew Morris

Organizations are increasingly sending employees on international assignments. This can have many benefits for these organizations, and can be exciting for the individual. But not everyone proves successful in integrating into foreign cultures, which affects their work and can ultimately lead to major losses for organizations.

This research study (Firth, Chen, Kirkman, & Kim, 2013) looked at the relationship between work adjustment and performance. Interestingly, the researchers cite various authors who say that very little research has been done to examine expatriate experiences over time.


The researchers highlighted motivation and stress-related states as being important in the process of adjustment. Cross-cultural motivation (being able to adapt to other cultures, as well as taking an active interest in their customs) and psychological empowerment (including feelings of competence, freedom and purpose) were identified as being particularly important for high initial adjustment.

Psychological empowerment has a unique impact on motivation, helping expats adjust quicker. Highly motivated individuals seek out social support, are more proactive at work, and consequently show better initial coping skills and overall performance. But despite high initial levels of work adjustment, this group can experience a decline over time. Research suggests that this is because the workers recalibrate their efforts in line with their experiences.


Higher levels of early work adjustment have various outcomes over time, depending on other factors such as experiencing challenge or hindrance stressors. These stressors reflect work conditions. But– as the name suggests– the challenge stressors are more positive, providing better outcomes (such as promotions or raises), which garner greater engagement and performance. Challenge stressors can actually help maintain high levels of adjustment over time.

Hindrance stressors such as work-related conflict or organizational unfairness, on the other hand, can derail and stifle an employee’s efforts at growth and achievement. Coping with such stressors takes away resources necessary for adjustment and high performance.


For organizations sending employees abroad, these findings could be very beneficial. The results lend support to the idea of screening individuals for high cross-cultural motivation and psychological empowerment levels, which were some of the indicators for high work adjustment abilities. These findings could also help organizations target and improve these aspects within individuals chosen for international assignments so that they are empowered before they even begin working abroad.

This study can aid in the development of programs for those already working abroad to help them reach and maintain satisfactory levels of adjustment, and also help raise managers’ awareness to maintain initial motivation levels and perhaps re-design work tasks where necessary so as to lessen the influence of hindrance stressors.