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Managing expats: When do we (subconsciously) try to remove diversity?

Author: Signe Biering Nielsen

It is unfortunate that Danish companies spend millions on hiring expats while wasting opportunities to use expats’ diversity to their own benefit when i.a. seeking to innovate and internationalize further. In addition, companies (unwittingly) make it difficult for the expat to fit in – and therefore more likely for them to leave the company prematurely. One of the culprits is corporate culture – which is not so easily changed. But do not despair. We can help you do something about it.


Expats are employed because of management skills or specialized knowledge, to complement knowledge and skills already present. At the same time, many companies overlook the fact that the same expats have an extra gear – a gear that would be very useful for a number of Danish companies. Expats have a cross-cultural background and international outlook, and they have the ability to inspire innovation. They therefore potentially constitute an in-house innovation force. They can help generate a new kind of internationalization – within the organization’s own framework.

But being cross-cultural and representing new ideas naturally challenges corporate culture. And corporate culture is characterized by a powerful, institution-preserving primordial force with an inherent tendency to encounter differentness with strong resistance. It does not tolerate diversity well and prefers to integrate and align whenever possible. Slowly but surely, the ability of expats to rethink, challenge, contribute, broaden will be whittled away. Unless management and core staff are very aware of what is at stake. Therefore, corporate culture should only be ignored at your own peril. Change of company culture is possible – but only if done with respect, very consciously and with patience.

This phenomenon from organizational culture could be compared to the phenomenon of the Pygmalion project: Even though we are attracted to someone who is different, we have an unspoken desire to change him or her over time – in the direction of ourselves.

You might recognize it from your group of friends. Years ago she was fun – and dressed in quirky clothes. After a couple of years of marriage, she changed — and after ten years, she looks like … him. In practical clothing and with a growing interest in golf.

In the workplace, too, we are shaped from day one. For good and for bad. In the case of expats, you hire them in order to obtain their knowledge – and their diversity. Both the diversity evident from the resume. And the inherent: the different experience and network, the cultural background, the skewed logic, the new way of addressing collaboration and generating ideas.

The value of hiring an expat far exceeds the sum of the professional knowledge they have with them. It involves an ability to contribute and challenge business-as-usual – highly needed in a rapidly evolving and unpredictable world. And yet it is tempting to try to change them. Because it makes for an easier work environment. And corporate culture strongly favors ease in cooperation.

The Pygmalion effect is not indispensable. But as a leader, you must pay close attention to the power of the corporate culture – the tendency to change what is different. Otherwise, you risk losing the effect of hiring an expat, or maybe lose the expat him- or herself.

You must challenge your own and your company’s tendency to integrate expats instead of respecting their diversity. The first step is to spot Pygmalion at work. It can be difficult – and we would like to help out. We could start by looking at the corporate culture to see whether you are able to energize all competencies inherent in your expats.