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Do three years make a difference? An updated review and analysis of self-initiated expatriation

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Self-initiated expatriates (SIEs) were initially described by Inkson et al. (J World Bus 32:351–368, 1997) as individuals who move abroad on their own volition, with personal funding, oriented towards development and career goals. After almost two decades of research, it is imperative to review the knowledge that has been developed and identify future areas of intervention. Doherty (Int J Manag Rev 15:447–469, 2013. doi:10.1111/ijmr.12005) initiated the review and this paper aims to update it and explore some unapproached aspects. Five different data bases were targeted and searched for peer-reviewed articles published in English, between 1997 and 2014, which recognized self-initiated expatriation as a distinguished form of mobility and used this terminology in the title and/or keywords list. A total of 94 articles met these inclusion criteria, 45 of which were published between 2012 and 2014. By systematically analyzing them, it was observed a surpassing growth in the number of published articles in the last 3 years. This signalizes an increase of the academic interest in studying the SIEs all over the world, involving bidirectional moves between developed and developing countries. The constructs identified by Doherty (2013) at the three different levels (micro, meso and macro) continued to be explored, using qualitative or quantitative approaches. Besides this, a multi-informant approach has been adopted in some studies, while others focused on concept clarification, taking into consideration some of Doherty’s (2013) suggestions for future research. Three years of research made an enormous contribution to the development of knowledge about SIEs, but some aspects can be further explored; hence they are identified and thoroughly discussed.

International mobility has received much attention in recent academic work. Several mobility patterns were identified and self-initiated expatriation is among the most studied ones, despite its relatively new recognition as an individualized form of mobility. More precisely, in 1997, Inkson et al. were the first authors who distinguished self-initiated expatriates from assigned expatriates, mainly based on the fact that they move abroad on their own volition, by personal funding, oriented towards personal goals and without any organizational support. Having this in mind, other authors (e.g. Suutari and Brewster 2000; Jokinen et al. 2008) manifested their interest in knowing more about these individuals, and research has gained pace over the last 17 years. Initially individuals studied under the banner of SIEs have included samples of university alumni and volunteers (Inkson et al. 1997), and it gradually involved more skilled/educated individuals moving on their own volition (e.g. graduate engineers: Suutari and Brewster 2000; managers and professionals: Suutari and Taka 2004; academics: Richardson 2006). After almost two decades of research, we consider that it is necessary to systematize all the developed knowledge and identify future areas of research. Therefore, we aimed to conduct an integrative literature review following Cooper’s (1998) five stage framework (Table 1).

Table 1 Stages of integrative review proposed by Cooper (1998)

Stage 1: Formulate the research problem

The research area of self-initiated expatriation is constantly evolving and in order to facilitate coherence in the development of future research, literature reviews should be conducted. They are very useful in clearly presenting existing research and identifying possible areas of future intervention. Doherty (2013) initiated this literature review, focusing on the research conducted between 1997 and 2011. However, due to the constant evolution of self-initiated expatriation research and the increase in the number of people living abroad, we consider that it is pertinent to conduct a new literature review which may update the previously conducted one. More specifically, the aims of our integrative literature review are two folded. First, we aim to compare and contrast the systematized research conducted between 1997 and 2011 with the research which has been carried out over the past 3 years (2012–2014). Second, regarding future areas of research, we aim to determine to what extend Doherty’s (2013) suggestions were met during the second research period and identify what else can be researched.

Stage 2: Collect data

In order to reach the proposed aims, data were gathered by a series of searches undertaken using the following databases: PsycINFO, Web of Science, Emerald, ABI inform (Proquest) and Business Complete. “Self-initiated expatriat” was used as a keyword in the topic field, accompanied by the wildcard ‘*’, in order to assure that all the possible combinations of the keyword (e.g. self-initiated expatriates, self-initiated expatriation) were obtained. Once extracted, overlapping articles among the different databases were excluded, and the remaining articles were screened in order to guarantee that they specifically used the terminology of “self-initiated expatriation” as a distinguished form of mobility, appearing in the title and/or keywords list. At the same time, we checked for the document type, restricting it to peer-reviewed articles, in order to enhance quality control. English was the chosen language for the articles published between 1997 and 2014. We chose to limit the data of publication to these 17 years, in order to gather the articles reviewed by Doherty (2013) from 1997 until 2011 and the new ones published between 2012 and 2014.

Stage 3: Evaluate data

For the 1997–2011 period, the retrieved articles were doubled checked in order to make sure that they corresponded to the ones found by Doherty (2013). In addition, for the 2012–2014 period, the articles were screened according to the predefined inclusion/exclusion criteria. As a result of this, twelve publications were excluded (three dissertations, one guest editorial article, three articles which did not address self-initiated expatriates independently, one conference abstract, two articles written in Portuguese, a corrigendum paper and an article which was published twice, in a special and normal issue). The final list offers a total of 94 articles, 45 of which were published between 2012 and 2014.

Stage 4: Analyze and interpret data

Data were analyzed using Doherty’s (2013) method of systematization; hence the selected articles were reviewed under four categories: study focus, methods, findings/stated contributions and identified gaps/areas for future research (“Appendix” presents a summary of this review).

Comparing the research conducted between 1997 and 2011 versus 2012–2014

The reviewed articles were compared in terms of the research context, methodological approach and studied variables/constructs. In addition, since Doherty (2013) left some suggestions for future research, we explored the extent to which they were met during the second research period (2012–2014).

Research context

The research on self-initiated expatriation started in Australia and New Zealand (Inkson et al. 1997), which were either home or host countries. In other words, the sample of this study comprised SIEs who relocated to Australia/New Zealand but it also included SIEs from Australia and New Zealand who relocated to other countries, such as the United Kingdom. Subsequently, research on self-initiated expatriation extended to some other host countries in Europe (e.g. France and Germany: Crowley-Henry 2007) and a limited number of countries in the Middle East (e.g. Saudi Arabia: Bhuian et al. 2001; Bozionelos 2009) and Asia (e.g. Japan: Peltokorpi 2008). During the period of 2012–2014, an increased number of studies have ranged across SIEs who relocated to Asia (e.g. China: Lauring and Selmer 2014; Muir et al. 2014; Selmer and Lauring 2014b; South Korea: Froese 2012; Macau: Lo et al. 2012; Japan: Froese and Peltokorpi 2013), Middle East (Saudi Arabia: Alshammari 2012; Qatar: Scurry et al. 2013) and Europe (Denmark: Bjerregaard 2014; Germany: Cao et al. 2013). In addition, a limited number of studies were conducted in North and South American countries (e.g. USA: Farndale et al. 2014; Canada: Richardson and McKenna 2014; Brasil: von Borell de Araujo et al. 2014). In terms of the studied SIEs’ move between home and host country, it can be observed that it mostly occurs between developed countries (e.g. New Zealand-Belgium: Ellis 2012), followed by developing to developed ones (e.g. China-Germany: Cao et al. 2013) and very few take place between developed to developing countries (e.g. USA-Brazil: von Borell de Araujo et al. 2014).

Methodological approaches

Both qualitative and quantitative approaches are methodological strategies used to study the self-initiated expatriation phenomenon. During the first period of time (1997–2011), studies mainly targeted the individuals who undertook this mobility pattern, while over the past 3 years (2012–2014) a multi-informant perspective was adopted, involving the perspective of the host country nationals (e.g. Ellis 2012), SIEs’ supervisors (e.g. Showail et al. 2013) or spouses (e.g. Bjerregaard 2014), as a complement to SIEs’ view regarding a determinant issue. The number of quantitative and qualitative studies which were conducted is almost equal during both time periods. However, longitudinal studies prevailed only in the first period (e.g. Hudson and Inkson 2006).

An inequality can be observed in the number of studies where a literature review was conducted. During the period of 2012–2014, 10 literature reviews were conducted, which corresponds to more than twice the number of literature reviews conducted in the previous period. It is important to mention that although the methodology coincided, the purpose and ultimate result of the literature reviews differed.

For example, two of the four literature reviews conducted during the first period, focused on the theoretical exploration of gender issues in SIE (Tharenou 2010) and HR implications of SIEs’ adjustment (Howe-Walsh and Schyns 2010), while the other two reviewed the existing literature with the aim of identifying alternative forms of international workers (McKenna and Richardson 2007) and developing a conceptual understanding of SIEs’ careers (Tams and Arthur 2007). These two topics along with the mere systematization of the conducted research were further explored in the ten literature reviews conducted during the past three years (2012–2014).

More precisely, the literature reviews conducted by Cao et al. (2012) and Whitman and Isakovic (2012) focused on developing a conceptual framework with propositions predicting career success for SIEs and the influence of personality and stress management on SIEs’ and AEs’ international experience success. This comparison between SIEs, AEs and other forms of mobility, along with the conceptual clarification of what it means to be a SIE was explored in six more reviews. Cerdin and Selmer (2014) provided a definition of who is a SIE based on four mutually satisfied criteria: self-initiated international relocation, regular employment, intentions of a temporary stay and skilled/professional qualifications. In addition, Tharenou (2013) identified several conditions where SIEs can be a suitable replacement of AEs (e.g. technical and middle/lower management positions), while Shaffer et al. (2012), Al Ariss and Crowley-Henry (2013), Doherty et al. (2013) elaborated a profile of SIEs based on different aspects (e.g. country of origin, gender, period of international mobility) which were contrasted with migrants, AEs, short term assignees, flexpatriates, international students and international business travelers. In order to simplify the reading of the criteria distinguishing the different mobility groups, Andresen et al. (2014) proposed a decision tree.

Studied variables/constructs

According to Doherty (2013), the produced knowledge about SIEs can be organized at three levels of analysis: micro, meso and macro. At the micro level, the variables involved concern the individual characteristics and experiences of SIEs (e.g. demography, motivational drivers, individual characteristics, adjustment, career anchors), while the meso-level variables involve work-related experiences of SIEs (e.g. performance measures, career development, organizational context). The third level of analysis takes into consideration the home and host context, focusing on variables associated with human capital and the talent flow magnitude.

By taking this information into consideration, first we present some empirical studies which compared SIEs to AEs in terms of variables situated at the three levels of analysis, with the micro and meso levels prevailing. Afterwards, the empirical studies which focused predominantly or solely on SIEs will be described in terms of the studied variables and encountered results at each one of the three levels.

It is important to mention that all the empirical studies conducted between 1997 and 2014, which were specifically targeted at SIEs and AEs are systematized in Table 2. Most of these studies (8/11) were conducted during the first period of time (1997–2011) and the variable/constructs explored are similar to the ones studied in the second period of time (2012–2014). Regarding the encountered results, several similarities and differences were encountered between SIEs and AEs on each one of the nine explored variables.

Table 2 Results from studies comparing SIEs and AEs

Micro, meso and macro level research comparing SIEs and AEs

The similarities between SIEs and AEs are focused on individual characteristics, career and adjustment. In terms of individual characteristics, Froese and Peltokorpi (2013) found out that the studied expatriates (SIEs and AEs) who were living and working in Tokyo, scored high on the multicultural personality questionnaire, in terms of open-mindedness, cultural empathy and social initiative. At the same time, the career capital of the Finish expatriates (SIEs and AEs) studied by Jokinen et al. (2008) was similar in terms of the knowing how (explicit work-related knowledge required for performance) and knowing why (motivation and identification with the work world) dimensions, while the lifestyle anchor was the most valued one by the French expatriates who participated in the study conducted by Cerdin and Le Pargneux (2010). Additionally, the SIEs and AEs in Brazil (von Borell de Araujo et al. 2014) faced similar challenges to adjustment, concerning legal (obtaining visa, paying taxes) and practical aspects (renting a house, contracting for utilities).

However, SIEs differ from AEs in the way they overcome these challenges and adjust to the host country. More precisely, SIEs are less critical than AEs, and more willing to emulate typical host country behaviors for resolving adjustment problems (von Borell de Araujo et al. 2014). This might be one of the reasons why several studies consider SIEs to adjust more easily, along with the fact that they are more predisposed to interact with local populations and understand better the host country’s language and culture (Sargent 2002; Peltokorpi and Froese 2009; Froese and Peltokorpi 2013). The motivational driver can be another reason for SIEs’ adjustment being easier than AEs’, since SIEs move abroad on their own volition, while AEs are chosen by the employer (Suutari and Brewster 2000). Most often, SIEs choose the host country, and are more likely to move from peripheral to economically advanced countries, where conditions offer greater economic prospects. This does not happen with AEs, who can move to less developed countries, supporting the company subsidiary which is located there (Peiperl et al. 2014; Froese and Peltokorpi 2013). Therefore, AEs are more likely to occupy high organizational level/managerial positions and have broader and more challenging (i.e. high level responsibilities) roles than SIEs, with stimulating salary and compensation packages (Inkson et al. 1997; Suutari and Brewster 2000). In addition, AEs tend to have more international experience of working abroad than SIEs (Froese and Peltokorpi 2013). In comparison to SIEs, they also tend to be older, predominately male, married and usually accompanied by spouses who do not work abroad (Suutari and Brewster 2000; Peiperl et al. 2014). It is important to mention that these demographic differences were not found in the study conducted by Froese and Peltokorpi (2013); hence they should be carefully interpreted.

Micro level research

The first variables explored at an individual level reflect the interest of identifying who the SIEs are and what makes them move abroad. The individual characteristics of SIEs were exclusively explored during the first period of time, suggesting that they can be characterized as self-reliant, autonomous and individualistic (Inkson et al. 1997; Sullivan and Arthur 2006). Additionally, six studies conducted during the first period 1997–2011, identified several reasons which make SIEs undertake an international mobility (Table 3).

Table 3 Comparing micro level research between two research periods (1997–2011 vs. 2012–2014)

This variable continued to receive great attention in the second time period (2012–2014), with a particular interest in directly identifying the key stimuli factors in moving abroad for specific populations, determining the influence of motivational factors on other variables and testing the previously encountered results.

For example, Froese (2012) identified that the motivational drivers of SIEs in South Korea consist of poor labor markets in home countries versus attractive job conditions in the host countries, and a desire for international experience. Similarly, the Syrian SIEs studied by Beitin (2012) identified motivational factors related with the home (escape from the military service mandate) and host countries (possibility of advancing in education and careers). This similarity in the motivational drivers among two different populations sparked some interest in identifying if there is a relationship between motives, mobility patterns and demographics. Thorn et al. (2013) grouped the identified motives in six different categories: cultural and travel opportunities, career, economics, affiliations, political environment and quality of life. The influence of these motives on the mobility pattern showed that the desire for cultural and travel opportunities is the best predictor for mobility cessation and developmental level in the host country, while career motives predicted mobility duration.

Lauring et al. (2014) proposed another grouping order for the motivational drivers, by taking into consideration the extent to which they relate to work (career and financial reasons) or are more tourism-oriented (seeking and escape reasons). These latter motivations are strongest among SIE academics who are young, non-married and originally from a non-EU country. The SIEs from a non-EU country moving to the EU are motivated by financial and seeking motivations. According to Selmer and Lauring (2012), these motivations would fit under the refugee or mercenary categorization of motivational drivers, based on the behavioral intentions and outcome control matrix. This matrix takes into consideration affective and evaluative behavioral intentions along with the easiness or difficulty of SIEs’ outcome control. Therefore, by combining these four dimensions, the equivalent number of categories emerges, indicating that SIEs can be classified as a refugee (motivated by life change and escape reasons), a mercenary (motivated by financial incentives), an explorer (motivated by a desire for adventure and travelling) or an architect (motivated by career considerations).

This categorization was initially proposed by Richardson and McKenna (2002), and its empirical proof and effect on work outcomes (work performance, work effectiveness and job satisfaction) was tested by Selmer and Lauring (2012). The categorization of SIEs’ reasons to expatriate was partially confirmed, since the participants in this study considered that what influenced their decision to expatriate was mainly the desire for adventure, financial gains and career opportunities. Therefore, they did not identify as much with the refugee reason which refers to the escape from previous life situations. However, this was the best predictor for work outcomes. A strong negative association was found between the refugee reasons to expatriate and the three work outcomes, namely work performance, work effectiveness and job satisfaction. Selmer and Lauring (2012) considered this a striking finding, because one may speculate that refugee reasons to relocate result in negative work outcomes. Nonetheless, they argue that the interpretation of these results may not be straightforward, since the studied group of SIEs was not homogeneous and SIEs who relocated from developing countries to developed ones might have escaped from undesirable living conditions in their home countries; hence relocated more by necessity than by choice. Consequently, these SIEs may have experienced discrimination in the organizational context of developed countries, due to ethnic traits such as language, religion or clothing habits, just as other studies pointed out (e.g. Al Ariss 2010; Al Ariss and Özbilgin 2010). Regarding the mercenary reasons to expatriate, Selmer and Lauring (2012) did not identify any relations with the work outcomes. This may indicate that financial reasons are not as important for SIEs as they might be for AEs (Richardson and Mallon 2005). On the other hand, just as predicted, the explorer reasons to expatriate are strongly related to job satisfaction, while architect reasons facilitate work performance and work effectiveness.

Besides motives’ effect on work outcomes, demographical variables were also explored during both time periods. More specifically, the relationship between gender, marital status and job performance was studied during both time periods and similar results were encountered. Selmer and Lauring (2011a) along with Lauring and Selmer (2014) identified that married SIEs have better job performance than unmarried SIEs. However, the results found by these authors differ regarding gender. On the one hand, Selmer and Lauring (2011a) identified that the positive relationship between marital status and job performance was not moderated by gender. Also, when gender was entered alone in the moderation model, it did not result in any significant effect on the job performance. On the other hand, Lauring and Selmer (2014) determined that female SIEs have better job performance than male SIEs. Also, married SIEs have better job performance and are more satisfied with their job than unmarried SIEs.

The influence of gender was further explored exclusively during the first time period, through an association with the motivational drivers. The results indicate that when comparing men with women in terms of their willingness to go abroad, women are more affected by family/relationships and less motivated by financial gain and life change (Myers and Pringle 2005; Tharenou 2008; Selmer and Lauring 2010). In addition, women chose less risky and more secure environments, which offer them international career opportunities (Myers and Pringle 2005).

During the second period of time, researchers devoted a lot of attention to SIEs’ careers, with the aim of characterizing careers and identifying what type of career contributes the most to a successful international experience. In order to characterize the SIEs’ careers, four different patterns were identified and a new metaphor was proposed to describe career development. The chosen metaphor was a river, referring to “high or low starts, different tributaries (opportunities and challenges) flowing in and out of the career river at different stages; some rivers growing large, while others fading away and perhaps then following and growing again along a different path” (Crowley-Henry 2012, p. 134). In addition, the four patterns identified by Muir et al. (2014) were reinventors (reinvent self and career), reinvigorators (adapt the existent possessed skills to the new working environment), reversers (unable to pursue the desired career path, since it has stalled or gone backwards) and rejecters (overwhelmed by the challenges faced in the work context). In order to identify what type of career contributes the most to a successful international experience, Cerdin and Le Pargneux (2014) used three variables that characterize an individual’s internal career: protean career attitude, boundaryless career attitude and careerist orientation. Results indicated that the success of international mobility, in terms of job satisfaction, career satisfaction and intentions to leave, was best explained by a careerist orientation.

However, besides career orientation, there are other variables which can predict SIEs’ international mobility success, such as cross-cultural adjustment. During both time periods, researchers attempted to determine the factors which positively and negatively contributed to SIEs’ adjustment in the host country. The results are inconclusive with respect to the influence of previous international experience and language proficiency, since either positive, negative or no effects on SIEs’ adjustment were found (Peltokorpi 2008; Alshammari 2012; Isakovic and Whitman 2013). But, it is well known that culture novelty (unfamiliar host country culture or a high degree of difference between the host and home country’s cultures) influences SIEs’ adjustment negatively, while the personality trait, cultural empathy has a positive influence (Peltokorpi 2008; Isakovic and Whitman 2013).

Mal-adjustment or even lack of adjustment have been reported as prompting factors of early repatriation among AEs (Bhaskar-Shrinivas et al. 2005), while family and social connections have a great impact on SIEs’ intentions to stay or return (Richardson and McKenna 2006; Schoepp and Forstenlechner 2010). In addition, by relating the motivational drivers to SIEs’ repatriation, Thorn et al. (2013) found out that the desire for culture and travel opportunities was the best predictor of mobility cessation, while career motives predicted duration of mobility and cultural distance between home and host country.

Meso level research

Organizational environments have grown accustomed to receiving AEs from different countries, who are sent by the employers to accomplish a job or organizational goal, during a specific period of time. However, due to the rapid pace of globalization, an increase in the range of global populations could be observed. Therefore, besides the corporate expatriates (AEs) there are other types of mobility patterns involved in the global labor market, such as SIEs. Much of the research conducted during the first period (1997–2011), focused on SIEs’ behavior in the corporate environment, exploring aspects related to the recruitment process, talent management and repatriation (Table 4).

Table 4 Comparing meso level research between two research periods (1997–2011 vs. 2012–2014)

During the second period, talent management and repatriation continued to receive much of researchers’ attention. In terms of the strategic management of SIEs, new insights were proposed regarding their performance management preferences, work adjustment and effectiveness. When compared with the host country nationals, whose preferences incorporate professional and distant relationships, SIEs’ performance management preferences in Belgium include goal-setting, performance measurement and appraisal, as well as a performance-based pay component (Ellis 2012). These results reinforce the ones encountered in the first period, in terms of the income motivator to work (Bhuian et al. 2001). At the same time, the preference for goal-setting is further explained by taking into consideration the negative relationship which exists between role ambiguity and job performance. In fact, SIEs prefer to know exactly what behavior is expected from them; otherwise their performance is not at its highest potential. Nonetheless, the relationship between role ambiguity and job performance is mediated by organizational identification, and moderated by information seeking and perceived organizational support (Showail et al. 2013).

Perceived organizational support along with supervisory support, role discretion and role conflict, were the job context factors which explained SIEs’ job satisfaction better than self-efficacy belief or status of expatriation (Supangco and Mayhofer 2014). Moreover, when comparing SIEs in the public sector with SIEs in the private sector, it was observed that SIEs in the public sector presented a higher degree of performance and effectiveness than SIEs in the private sector (Lauring and Selmer 2013).

In terms of repatriation intentions, intentions to stay in the host country were explored in an innovative way, by directly linking them with organizational aspects. In other words, while in the first period (1997–2011), family, social relations and host/home country push–pull factors, were explored, Cao et al. (2014) focused on perceived organizational support. They determined that the intention to stay in the host country was positively related to perceived organizational support. However, the inverse relationship occurred when SIEs had a large career network of home country nationals in the host country. This result is congruent with the findings of Richardson and McKenna (2006), lending support to the claim that social networks play an important role in SIEs’ international relocation experiences. In addition, several factors positively predict for pre-migration adaptation, such as previous international work experience, perceived organizational prestige, satisfaction with time, information and assistance to prepare for relocation and quality contact with host country nationals during recruitment (Yijälä et al. 2012).

Macro level research

During the first research period (1997–2011), SIEs emerged and were soon recognized as a potential resource in the rapidly growing global economy. Carr et al. (2005), pointed out the creation of virtual networks where SIEs could share their experience and expertise with home country nationals, as one way of SIEs benefiting organizations and home countries. In addition, SIEs were considered to be a valuable asset for organizations since they are present and contribute to the global economic workforce, possessing skills, knowledge and abilities which position them advantageously in international employment contexts. This is greatly due to the fact that they are intrinsically motivated to move abroad without any organizational support, which distinguishes them from the AEs. Several studies compared SIEs to AEs, and although SIEs are seen as a potential asset for organizations, there is lack of empirical data on the flow, scope and magnitude of self-initiated expatriation. In other words, SIEs are difficult to locate and there is little evidence of how organizations acquire SIEs and which skills contribute the most to the organizational context. Therefore, it was suggested that a contribution to the macro level research on SIEs would be the exploration of the individual-organizational relationship.

Much of the macro level research conducted during the second research period (2012–2014) focused on filling some of the gaps identified in the previous research period. Specifically, Tharenou (2013) focused on the identification of the situations where SIEs could replace AEs (e.g. roles requiring cross-cultural and host location specific competencies), while the home and host country relationships were a priority in several studies. For example Lo et al. (2012), identified that host country organization embeddedness mediates the relationship between home country community embeddedness and SIEs’ turnover intentions. In addition, Yijälä et al. (2012) determined that SIEs’ European identification mediated the relationship between previous international work experience and organizational identification. An increase in the cross-border mobility of highly skilled individuals is observed during this period, but precise data on the intra-European mobility are limited because these assignments do not necessarily require a work permit. Therefore, just as pointed out by Doherty (2013), the development of standardized instruments to measure the scope and magnitude of self-initiated expatriation, remains a suggestions for future research.

Suggestions for future research

After analyzing all the articles published during the first research period (1997–2011), Doherty (2013) identified some aspects which could be explored in upcoming studies. During the second research period (2012–2014), almost half of these suggestions were actually taken into consideration, as it can be observed in Table 5.

Table 5 The proposed future research suggestions by Doherty (2013) and the extent they were met during the 2012–2014 period

As suggested by Doherty, Cao et al. (2014) explored some facets of employment (e.g. career satisfaction, perceived organizational support) associated with SIEs’ intention to stay in the host country. Regarding the utility of SIEs to corporations and meso-level issues, Tharenou (2013) explored the situations where SIEs could replace AEs. As a complementary perspective, managers’ perceptions were included in a study that tested the relation between role ambiguity, organization identification and job performance (Showail et al. 2013). The influence of individual career capital on SIEs’ international mobility success was explored in a study conducted by Cerdin and Le Pargneux (2014).

Stage 5: Evaluate the state of knowledge of the phenomenon and present future directions for research

By directly answering the question presented in the title of this article, it can be affirmed that 3 years make a lot of difference. While updating and synthesizing the literature review of the published articles on the self-initiated expatriation topic from 2012 until the end of 2014, we observed a massive interest and exponential growth in this topic. This bourgeoning interest in the topic of self-initiated expatriation can be related to the statistical data provided by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ Population Division (2011), which accounts for 214 million individuals living and working outside their country of origin in 2010. This represents an increase of 58 million since 1990 and about 3 percent of the total world population. At the same time, SIEs are considered to be valuable individuals for international human resource management, benefiting organizations and economies (Dickmann and Baruch 2011). Therefore, academic scholars, businesses and policy-makers have been manifesting their interest in knowing more about these individuals living and working abroad on their own volition.

This affirmation is corroborated by the 45 peer-reviewed published articles over a period of 3 years (2012–2014), which is almost equal to the number of published works (49) during the preceding 14 years (1997–2011). By comparing the two research periods (1997–2011 vs. 2012–2014) in terms of the research context, we observed an expansion of the countries where research has been conducted. In other words, the research on SIEs started in Australia and New Zealand, involving some European countries and a limited number of countries from the Middle East and Asia. During the second research period, an effort was made to fill in the gap, by expanding the research on SIEs to the countries in which self-initiated expatiation was limitedly explored. Therefore, much of the research conducted during 2012–2014 ranged across SIEs in Asia, Middle East and Europe, while a limited number of studies were also conducted in North and South American countries. By analyzing the SIEs’ move between home and host countries, it could be observed that it mainly occurred between developed countries, followed by developing to developed ones, while very few took place from developed to developing countries. Future research could explore SIEs’ move between developed and developing countries, such as, but not limited to, the move from Portugal to Brazil or Angola, since the statistical data indicate that these two host countries are among the top destinations of the contemporary wave of Portuguese migration. In addition, in terms of cultural distance and adjustment these two countries are of potential interest since they were Portuguese colonies, and some cultural similarities might be explored in order to determine if they facilitate the SIEs’ adjustment process. More precisely, the results of several studies point out host country language proficiency as a predictor of SIEs’ adjustment. By taking into consideration that Portuguese is the official language of Portugal and Brazil, then an assumption could be made and further explored concerning a Portuguese SIE’ s facilitated adjustment process.

By taking into consideration the fact that cross-cultural adjustment is a process and not just a state, further longitudinal research is needed. This would greatly contribute to a thorough understanding of the past, present and future of SIEs’ international relocation experiences. In fact, during the second research period (2012–2014) a lack of longitudinal studies could be observed. The conducted studies focused on aspects related to the period before leaving the home country or after arriving in the host country, where participants were asked to think about current aspects or reflect back on their experience.

In order to obtain a more complete understanding of SIEs’ relocation experiences, the multi-informant perspective was introduced in some studies conducted during the second research period, where the spouses’, supervisors’ or host country nationals’ perspective was involved as a complement to SIEs’ view regarding a determinant issue. This complementary perspective is a very important asset of many studies and whenever possible it should be included in future SIE research. In addition, the pre-departure period, which includes expectations, family dynamics, personality and motivations, should be taken into consideration in future studies, since it seems to greatly impact the cross-cultural adjustment process and it has been rarely examined (an exception is Tabor and Milfont 2011).

Another aspect which could be further examined is the conceptual coherence of the SIE concept and its distinction from the other types of mobility patterns. So far, some of the conducted studies during the second research period reviewed the existing literature focused on SIEs. As a result of this, Cerdin and Selmer (2014) proposed four groups of screening questions related to the international relocation (e.g. Have you initiated your expatriation yourself?), regular employment (e.g. Do you have a regular job in the host country?), intention of a temporary stay in the host country (e.g. Was it your original intention to repatriate after a certain time?) and professional qualifications (e.g. Do you have skilled/professional qualifications?). These questions have to be affirmatively answered in order to consider an individual a SIE. Another way of determining if an individual is an SIE is by following the screening criteria proposed by Andresen et al. (2014). They proposed seven demarcation criteria which were claimed to be sufficient for plain differentiation between assigned expatriates, self-initiated expatriates and migrants. However, future research could empirically test these demarcation criteria, as well as the one proposed by Cerdin and Selmer (2014). The sample of such an empirical study should be carefully chosen, in order to guarantee that the different mobility groups (e.g. SIEs, AEs and skilled/unskilled migrants) can be compared. Therefore, some variables should be controlled, such as the participant’s host country and the time spent there. This would contribute to obtaining more precise results, contrary to what happened with some demographic data encountered during the two research periods. In other words, some studies indicate that SIEs are younger than AEs (e.g. Suutari and Brewster 2000; Peiperl et al. 2014) while others do not present any significant results regarding age, gender or marital status (e.g. Froese and Peltokorpi 2013). Most likely these discrepant results are due to the studies being conducted in different contexts, with distinct samples. Therefore, the profile of AEs or SIEs, using variables from the different levels of analysis (micro, meso and macro) should be carefully interpreted, since results across studies may not be cumulative.

Nonetheless, if SIEs would actually prove to be younger than AEs, we should not forget an important age related aspect that could be further explored. We are referring to emerging adults, i.e. individuals aged between 18 and 29 years, who may relocate as SIEs. According to Arnett (2000), during this period individuals prepare for adulthood by undergoing experimentation in love, work and worldview. Many may choose to move abroad in search for these experiences; hence it would be interesting to identify emerging adults’ relocation experiences as SIEs, in terms of their functioning in the new environment, while coping with the challenges associated with the developmental period they are undergoing.

By taking into account similarities and differences between the experiences of expatriates and other mobility groups, an additional aspect which could be explored in future research is expatriate identity. We consider that a more holistic approach to expatriate identity is lacking in the literature, and future studies should explore it because “expatriates who are able to negotiate their identities successfully within the host environment are able to manage the uncertainty associated with that environment more clearly” (Adams and van de Vijver 2015, p. 7).

Besides these suggestions for future research, it should be highlighted that, as mentioned in Table 5, some of the suggestions left by Doherty (2013) were not met so far during the second research period, and they can be taken into consideration in the forthcoming studies. Also, in the table in “Appendix” there is one column dedicated to the authors of some of the reviewed studies, who identified gaps and suggestions for future research. We consider that these are also important suggestions for the evolving knowledge in the area of self-initiated expatriation.


The identification of the met and unmet suggestions for future research can be seen as a contribution of this paper, since it presents, in a simple way, the conducted research and points out some possible areas of future research intervention. Another contribution of this paper is the updated literature review of the published articles on the self-initiated expatriation topic and systemization of the main findings. This enabled determining that research at different levels of analysis (micro, meso, macro) is rapidly growing and expanding to areas which were previously unexplored. There are new methodologies being used and new contexts chosen for the exploration of the SIE topic. This points out that SIE research is evolving. Although several authors attempted to define what constitutes SIEs and distinguished them from other mobility groups, it is crucial to empirically test the proposed scales. In doing so, sociological and psychological approaches may be adopted, since they are considered to be marginal in the expatriation field, which is dominated by business research (Dabic et al. 2013). Additionally, this rapidly evolving research area would greatly benefit from the conduction of a meta-analysis, since it would complement the present study. In other words, this study compared and contrasted the encountered results in two research periods, while a meta-analysis could combine all the encountered results, identifying patterns and relationships in them.


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Authors’ contributions

DF and MG conceived the design of this paper. DF acquired the data, analyzed and interpret it, drafted the manuscript and MG revised it critically for important intellectual content and gave the final approval of the submitted version. Both authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

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Correspondence to Diana Farcas.



See Table 6.

Table 6 A synthesis of the published studies (2012–2014) focusing on the SIE experience

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Farcas, D., Gonçalves, M. Do three years make a difference? An updated review and analysis of self-initiated expatriation. SpringerPlus 5, 1326 (2016) doi:10.1186/s40064-016-2991-x

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  • Self-initiated expatriation
  • Integrative review
  • Expatriates