Self-initiated expatriates (SIE)

Are FELOs the same as self-initiated expatriates (SIEs)?

The phenomenon of foreign executives in local organisations (FELOs) is frequently viewed as a form of self-initiated expatriation (SIE). However, research on FELOs is more specific and focused than the loosely defined SIE construct. It focuses on managerial, international and cross-cultural aspects of workplace research by investigating a particular group of (a) individuals at the managerial level, (b) positions in local organisations rather than subsidiaries of foreign multinationals, and (c) affiliations involving significant cultural distance.

In contrast, the broader SIE construct was established to describe a wide variety of non-organisational forms of expatriation, given that “every year thousands of young people head overseas for a prolonged period of travel, work, and tourism” (Inkson, Arthur, Pringle & Barry, 1997: 358). Studies of SIEs include nurses in Saudi Arabia (Bozionelos, 2009), academics teaching in Northern Europe, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates (Froese, 2012; Richardson & Mallon, 2005; Selmer & Lauring, 2010, 2011, 2012), young travellers that work abroad for overseas experience (Inkson, et al., 1997; Inkson & Myers, 2003; Myers & Pringle, 2005; Peltokorpi & Froese, 2009), contract workers from neighbouring countries in Singapore (Lee, 2005), and Finnish engineering union members in fear of unemployment that seek jobs in other European countries (Suutari & Brewster, 2000). Geographical and cultural distance is also very limited in many of the workplaces described in SIE studies, and Suutari and Brewster (2000) therefore use the expression self-initiated foreign experience (SFE) in neighbouring countries, rather than self-initiated overseas experience in culturally and geographically distant countries, noting that “almost everyone can work in other countries without crossing a sea” (Suutari & Brewster, 2000: 435).

As the SIE construct has been positioned in a variety of different ways, there are probably too many sub-groups for a single SIE construct and a lack of data about each. Most SIEs are not working in a managerial capacity, and in a migration literature context, many would probably be referred to as ‘guest workers’. Cultural distance, ‘foreignness’ and ex patria contexts are often minimal. A meta-analysis of samples in studies utilising the SIE construct indicates that only very few individuals in these studies have all the defining characteristics of FELOs (work at executive level, in local organisations, in distant countries), and that the SIE construct is therefore too loosely defined to describe the FELO phenomenon.

A more comprehensive discussion of differences to other forms of expatriation is provided in a Journal of Global Mobility article.



Bozionelos, N. (2009). Expatriation outside the boundaries of the multinational corporation: A study with expatriate nurses in Saudi Arabia. Human Resource Management, 48(1), 111-134.

Froese, F. J. (2012). Motivation and adjustment of self-initiated expatriates: the case of expatriate academics in South Korea. International Journal of Human Resource Management, 23(6), 1095-1112.

Inkson, K., Arthur, M. B., Pringle, J., & Barry, S. (1997). Expatriate Assignment Versus Overseas Experience: Contrasting Models of International Human Resource Development. Journal of World Business, 32(4), 351-368.

Inkson, K., & Myers, B. A. (2003). “The big OE”: self-directed travel and career development. Career Development International, 8(4), 170-181.

Lee, C. H. (2005). A study of underemployment among self-initiated expatriates. Journal of World Business, 40(2), 172-187.

Peltokorpi, V., & Froese, F. J. (2009). Organizational expatriates and self-initiated expatriates: Who adjusts better to work and life in Japan? International Journal of Human Resource Management, 20(5), 1096-1112.

Richardson, J., & Mallon, M. (2005). Career interrupted? The case of the self-directed expatriate. Journal of World Business, 40(4), 409-420.

Selmer, J., & Lauring, J. (2010). Self-initiated academic expatriates: Inherent demographics and reasons to expatriate. European Management Review, 7(3), 169-179.

Selmer, J., & Lauring, J. (2011). Acquired demographics and reasons to relocate among self-initiated expatriates. International Journal of Human Resource Management, 22(10), 2055-2070.

Selmer, J., & Lauring, J. (2012). Reasons to expatriate and work outcomes of self-initiated expatriates. Personnel Review, 41(5), 665-684.

Suutari, V., & Brewster, C. (2000). Making their own way: International experience through self-Initiated foreign assignments. Journal of World Business, 35(4), 417-436.

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