Expanding the boundaries of research on global employee families

Margaret Shaffer (Lubar School of Business, University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA)
Mina Westman (Department of Organizational Behaviour, Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv, Israel)

Journal of Global Mobility

ISSN: 2049-8799

Publication date: 8 June 2015


Shaffer, M. and Westman, M. (2015), "Expanding the boundaries of research on global employee families", Journal of Global Mobility, Vol. 3 No. 2. https://doi.org/10.1108/JGM-03-2015-0010

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Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Expanding the boundaries of research on global employee families

Article Type: Editorial From: Journal of Global Mobility, Volume 3, Issue 2.

1. Introduction

Although a fairly substantial body of research has developed with respect to global employee families (see Lazarova et al., 2010), most of this literature has focused on expatriates. Despite the prevalence of various alternative forms of global employment (e.g. short-term assignees and frequent international business travellers (IBTs)), relative to expatriate families, we know very little about the family experiences of these other types of global employees (Mayerhofer et al., 2004; Shaffer et al., 2012; Suutari and Brewster, 2000; Tharenou, 2005; Westman, 2004). In contrast with expatriate families, most other global employee families do not relocate to a foreign country. Nevertheless, the global roles and responsibilities of employees, especially those who travel frequently to other countries, may disrupt their family lives. In particular, the physical separation of employees and families may result in increased stress for all family members.

Most of the research on global families has tended to focus on one of two issues: the willingness of expatriates to accept an international assignment and the adjustment of the expatriate. Other important issues, such as the interplay between global work and co-located as well as geographically dispersed families, have been neglected. Research is needed to identify spousal (e.g. personality and career orientation) and family characteristics (e.g. number and age of children, family functioning) that affect the stress of being on an international assignment or physically separated for weeks or months at a time. Adding to the challenges of trying to balance the competing demands of global work and families, organizational support practices and policies are usually for expatriates only; other forms of global employees are often left to fend for themselves.

The purpose of this Special Issue on global employee families is to expand the conceptual and methodological boundaries of research in this area to enhance our understanding of the family experiences of the growing diverse portfolio of global employees. In the next section, we highlight the key contributions of the five papers included in this Special Issue. We then summarize some of the commonalities and differences across the papers and offer some suggestions for future research.

2. Papers in this Special Issue

The papers in this Special Issue are conceptually and methodologically diverse. Grounded in a variety of theoretical frameworks, such as Hobfoll’s Conservation of Resources (COR) theory, embeddedness, and relational demography, the research focuses on different outcomes, including adjustment, work-family conflict (WFC), and negative consequences such as divorce. Methodologically, the studies represent both qualitative and quantitative approaches to research and the samples include diverse forms of global employees (i.e. corporate and self-initiated expatriates, IBTs, and rotational assignees) from a variety of world regions (i.e. Europe, the Far East, and North America). They also target diverse family structures (i.e. dual career families, single earner families, and families with and without children).

The first paper, “Till stress do us part: the causes and consequences of expatriate divorce” by Yvonne McNulty, adopts a qualitative approach to explore the “lived experiences” in relation to the causes and consequences of expatriate divorce. Based on a sample of 38 respondents (13 face-to-face interviews and 25 online surveys), she identifies two main reasons for expatriate divorce: polarized process – a core issue in the marriage that existed before the assignment (e.g. alcoholism, mental problems); and polarized behaviour as a result of a negative influence of the expatriate culture. She also focuses on short- and long-term outcomes of international assignments. This study is groundbreaking in that it is the first to systematically investigate the dissolution of the expatriate family unit.

The second paper, “Keeping the family side ticking along: an exploratory study of the work-family interface in the experiences of rotational assignees and frequent business travellers” by Charlotte Baker and Sylwia Ciuk, focuses on the impact of rotational assignment and IBT on the work-family interface. Using mini-structural interviews with 20 global employees (ten IBTs and ten rotators), most of whom were European and working in England, she found that travellers and rotators perceived four major work arrangements as an important influence on their work-family interface: time spent away; unpredictable work schedule; limited control and limited organizational support. While informal support was highly valued by both groups, IBTs seemed to benefit from support more than rotational assignees. Consequently, this research highlights the importance of organizational support for non-traditional forms of global employees.

Continuing with the theme of the work-family interface, the third paper is “Work-family conflict faced by international business travellers: do gender and parental status make a difference?” by Liisa Mäkelä, Barbara Bergbom, Kati Saarenpää, and Vesa Suutari. Using COR theory, they examine the direct and moderating effect of gender and parental status on the relationship between duration of IBTs and WFC. With data from 1,366 male and female Finnish international business travellers, they found that the duration of international business trips, parenthood, and gender had direct and interactive (two-way and three-way) effects on WFC. For example, they found differences between male and female IBTs, with mothers experiencing lower levels of WFC than fathers. Furthermore, they detected a three-way interaction involving duration of travel, parental status, and gender. Specifically, for women, the number of travel days was related to WFC for parents but not for those without children. For men, the number of travel days and being a parent were both positively related to WFC, but these were not interactive effects. This study underscores the intertwining complexities of work and family responsibilities.

The fourth paper, “Burden or support? The influence of partner nationality on expatriate cross-cultural adjustment” by Samuel Davies, Albert Kraeh, and Fabian Froese, draws on a relational demography perspective to consider the influence of the nationality of expatriates’ partners on expatriates’ cross-cultural adjustment. With data from 299 academic expatriates (considered self-initiated expatriates) living and working in Japan, Korea, and Singapore, they found that the partners’ nationality did not have a direct effect on expatriates’ cross-cultural adjustment. However, they did identify differences in cross-cultural adjustment stemming from the interactive effects of partner nationality and length of stay in the host country. Thus, expatriates with host country national partners reported greater levels of cross-cultural adjustment over time than did expatriates with third country national partners; expatriates with home country partners did not experience any increase in cross-cultural adjustment over time. This study represents a first step in clarifying the relationship between partner nationality and expatriate cross-cultural adjustment.

The fifth paper, “International adjustment of female vs male business expatriates: a replication study in Switzerland” by Xavier Salamin and Eric Davoine, compares the cross-cultural adjustment of male and female corporate expatriates working in Switzerland. With survey data from 152 male and female expatriates who filled questionnaires, they found that female expatriates had higher interaction and work adjustment than male expatriates. However, no significant differences were found between males and females in terms of general adjustment. The authors offer some intriguing potential explanations that provide a foundation for future research in this area. For example it is possible that the cultural norms of Switzerland affect women’s expatriate experience. Switzerland is a country with high equality between males and females and provides several solutions to balance professional and private spheres. Furthermore, there is an openness of the Swiss working environment to women. They also consider implications regarding expatriate families led by women.

3. Contributions and future research

The five papers in this Special Issue are very innovative in that that they offer insights about issues that have seldom been investigated. The two main topics, adjustment and the work-family interface, are related in that this relationship can be bi-directional – adjustment may affect the work-family interface and the work-family interface may affect adjustment. Another important issue has to do with short-term vs long-term outcomes. As corporate and self-initiated international assignments tend to be long term, it is important to look at the whole process and how problems that lead to certain outcomes unfold and possibly spiral into even worse outcomes such as divorce. The studies also highlight the importance of investigating the families of different forms of global employees.

Methodologically, the papers in this issue contribute to research on global families by using different kinds of samples both in terms of countries targeted as well as family structures (e.g. traditional and non-traditional families). The studies showed that these factors had an important impact on results (e.g. Swiss and Finnish samples where equality between men and women is high; differences between parents and families or individuals without children). Research also showed that gender differences are usually related to other demographic variables (e.g. host country culture and parenthood) and are not gender driven per se.

The papers included in this Special Issue on global families provide a strong foundation for future research in this area. The two qualitative studies demonstrate how important it is to continue with this kind of research to gain a richer understanding of global families and to begin to unravel the processes whereby partners/families influence the success of the assignment. As always, however, there continues to be a need for more longitudinal studies. Conceptually the research included here demonstrates the importance of using different theoretical perspectives, and we encourage future researchers to consider integrating theories to examine more complex models of global families. Possible areas of enquiry are to further clarify gender differences across different forms of adjustment as well as to look at interactions involving gender and other demographic variables such as marital status parenting, etc. We also encourage more work that examines both the positive and negative influences of families on a broader spectrum of global employees

While much progress has been made in understanding expatriate families, organizations, expatriates, and family members seem to continue to underestimate the familial challenges associated with international assignments. Based on the five papers in this Special Issue, it is clear that familial challenges are not confined to expatriates and the issues go beyond those of assignment willingness and adjustment.

The authors would like to thank the following reviewers for their dedicated and constructive reviews of the manuscripts submitted to this Special Issue: Je’Anna Lea Abbott, Barbara Beham, Chris Brewster, Yi-Ying Chang, Shoshi Chen, Yu-Ping Chen, David Collings, Mihaela Dimitrova, Jaya Earnest, Doris Hanappi, Yu-Shan Hsu, Janice Joplin, Hélène Langiner, Dianne Murphy, Melinda Muir, Joyce Osland, Julia Richardson, Raija Salomaa, Rosalie Tung, and Michelle Wallace.

Professor Margaret Shaffer- Lubar School of Business, University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA, and

Dr Mina Westman - Department of Organizational Behaviour, Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv, Israel


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Shaffer, M.A., Kraimer, M.L., Chen, Y.-P. and Bolino, M.C. (2012), “Choices, challenges and career consequences of global employment experiences: a review and future agenda”, Journal of Management, Vol. 38 No. 4, pp. 1282-1327

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Tharenou, P. (2005), “International work in domestic jobs: an individual explanation”, International Journal of Human Resource Management, Vol. 16 No. 4, pp. 475-496

Westman, M. (2004), “Strategies for coping with business trips: a qualitative exploratory study”, International Journal of Stress Management, Vol. 11 No. 2, pp. 167-176

Corresponding author

Professor Margaret Shaffer can be contacted at: mailto:shafferm@uwm.edu