According to Ghauri, Strange and Cooke (2021), the global business environment has improved awareness of sustainability as a ‘new reality’. Furthermore, addressing the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in a corporate context is becoming increasingly popular (Liou & Rao-Nicholson, 2021; Montiel, Cuervo-Cazurra, Park, Antolín-López, & Husted, 2021; van Tulder, Rodrigues, Mirza, & Sexsmith, 2021). Although “sustainable” and “green” global mobility are widely discussed concepts, they have not yet been widely integrated into sustainable expatriate management.
However, due to its nature, expatriate management is exposed to various societal and environmental issues that are forcing the field to move towards more sustainability-oriented practices. This implies that decision- and policy-makers should revisit the overall global philosophy, including policies and practices. Therefore, stakeholders should reevaluate topics like business trip policies, health, and equality, as well as other facets of the international assignment cycle (Fan, Zhu, Huang, & Kumar, 2021). Consequently, in this paper, we will outline how practitioners can rethink expatriate management using a sustainable development lens and how this shift in perspective provides fertile ground to redesign the expatriate life cycle.
Inspired by the “strong sustainability” or embedded systems view (Giddings, Hopwood, & O’Brien, 2002), we define sustainable expatriate management as any employee-related cross-border (work) activity, which, by its design, considers planetary and societal boundaries and acknowledges the embeddedness of economic impacts within this larger framework (see Figure 1 for clarification).
Theoretical Framework: Sustainable Development Goals
According to Finaccord’s (2019) latest research, in 2017, there were 66.2 million expatriates working abroad globally, and forecasts for 2021 expect 87.5 million in total. Therefore, this topic affects a relatively large amount of people moving across borders. Nowadays, increasing environmental, social, and economic crises are challenging global business practices. According to the World Economic Forum Global Risks Report, the risks that are most likely and will have the most impact are predominantly environmental risks (e.g., climate action failure, human environmental damage, biodiversity loss, natural degradation, extreme weather, natural resources crises) (World Economic Forum, 2022). These are expected to affect multinational enterprises’ (MNEs) activities on a global scale.
As the complex, or so-called wicked, problems of our time are interconnected, it is crucial to avoid a siloed perspective of these risk categories. Therefore, we provide a holistic, SDG-focused perspective that addresses the question of how MNEs’ business practices need to be remodeled to become more resilient. We view business sustainability in terms of environmental, social, and economic systems and consequently apply the UN Sustainable Development Goals “wedding cake” framework (Stockholm Resilience Centre, 2018). This model implies that the environmental, social, and economic layers are interdependent, as well as their respective sublevel SDGs, as indicated in Figure 2.
Based on Figure 2, the biosphere/environment represents the foundation of economies and societies and, therefore, the general context in which all other SDGs must be placed. Society cannot survive without the environment, which is why society must pay attention to resources and the preservation of habitats. Such a conceptualization adopts an integrated and interconnected view of social, economic, and ecological development to ensure the future viability of the planet and its living species.
Three Layers of Sustainability in Expatriate Management: Identifying Blind Spots
Based on a systematic literature review of 238 articles clustered according to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and their respective layers, environment/biosphere, society, and economy, it is evident that research in this field has been increasing in recent years. Furthermore, it shows that the expatriate management literature is dominated by social issues (80%), followed by economic literature (19%), and work that focuses on the environment/biosphere (1%) (Ommen, Schmitz, & Karlshaus, 2022). Considering that expatriate management is a part of international HRM literature, it is unsurprising that the social category dominates; however given the growing importance of the climate crisis discourse, it is surprising that this has not yet been addressed in research and practice.
This social literature is dominated by articles addressing SDG 5 “Gender Equality” and SDG 3 “Good Health and Well-being” as well as limited literature focused on SDG 16 “Peace, Justice, Strong Institutions”. In the economic category, the literature most often addresses SDG 10 “Reduced Inequalities” and SDG 8 “Decent Work and Economic Growth”, followed by SDG 17 “Partnership for the Goals” as an overarching category. Finally, the ecological category is only represented in one article addressing SDG 13 “Climate Action”, which has only recently been published (Ommen et al., 2022) (see Table 1 for an overview).
What Is Material for Sustainability in Expatriate Management?
In the sustainability reporting discourse, understanding materiality (i.e., identifying elements of utmost importance to a company’s sustainability challenges) has become increasingly important as part of the international ESG factors: environment, society, and governance. Furthermore, organizations attribute different levels of importance to specific environmental or social factors based on the sectors they operate in.
Considering the essential or material topics, MNEs need to first reduce or avoid their negative impacts (e.g., CO2 emissions etc.) and also increase their positive impacts (e.g., fostering intercultural ties). By doing so, MNEs can significantly reduce the respective risks to which they are exposed.
The emission of greenhouse gases (GHG) is among expatriate management’s negative material environmental impacts, due to flights, shipments, hotel stays, and local transportation (SDG 13). These also include water and land use due to construction activities (SDG 6, 15), and waste management that should be reconsidered from an environmental perspective.
From a social perspective, negative impacts on equal opportunities can be caused by disparities in pay and promotion opportunities (SDG 5), working conditions, and health issues related to increasing travel activities and continuous readjustment (SDG 3). Furthermore, expatriates working in hostile environments or dangerous locations need adequate protection mechanisms and respective codes of conduct (SDG 16). Finally, integration into local communities during long-term stays might become relevant for some expatriates and their families (SDG 11).
From an economic perspective, a positive impact could be generated by supporting the local economy (SDG 8). However, negative impacts can arise through unequal opportunities because of the different treatment of expatriates and locals (SDG 10). To reduce this, companies should ensure responsible local consumption and circular use of respective household appliances or furniture in apartments (SDG 12).
In sum, MNEs should consider the following Sustainable Development Goals to reduce their negative impact and increase their positive impact:
Environmental: SDG 13 Climate Action
Social: SDG 3 Good Health and Well-being, SDG 5 Gender Equality, SDG 16 Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions, SDG 11 Sustainable Cities and Communities
Economic: SDG 8 Decent Work and Economic Growth, SDG 10 Reduced Inequalities, SDG 12 Responsible Consumption and Production
Sustainable Expatriate Management: Actionable Recommendations
The above discussion suggests that companies can derive a specific prioritized agenda. Inspired by the SDG Compass (Global Reporting Initiative, United Nations Global Compact, & WBCSD, 2015), we advance these considerations by sharing how MNEs can best address the SDGs in sustainable expatriate management. For an overview of selected ideas for each of the SDGs, please also see Table 2.
First, each of the material topics needs to be evaluated for each company. Certain topics may be more or less relevant in a corporate context, depending on the respective sector. Taking the example of GHG emissions (SDG 13), most emissions come from consultants on regular short-term assignments or business commuting trips if the company is in the service delivery sector. Therefore, these emissions play a more significant role for the company.
In terms of gender equality (SDG 5), a company should first investigate the share of women in their overall assignee population, including management positions. Based on a materiality matrix approach, respective stakeholders should evaluate their priorities alongside considering the judgment of material topics to attain a holistic perspective. By taking this approach for all topics associated with each SDG, MNEs can prioritize different materiality topics.
Setting Strategic Goals
To transform international assignments at the company level, MNEs need strategic concepts, including tools, to impact the defined materiality topics discussed above. There are different levers available to create change, including international assignment policy, processes, and culture. A policy can be designed so that assignees are nudged to not take air shipments, which cause significant GHG emissions (SDG 13). Further, by working with stakeholders across the supply chain, MNEs should implement key performance indicators (KPIs) to reduce negative impacts. To be effective, these should align with scientific facts and goals, such as the Paris Agreement’s target of limiting warming to 1.5°C.
Integrating the Goals
After defining their strategy and goals, MNEs should next address their implementation needs. This should particularly consider the sustainable consumption of mobility-related benefits (SDG 12), where there may need to be a mindset shift. Therefore, in the preparation phase, assignees need to be made aware of their choices. To do this effectively, departments taking care of international assignments may need to be trained on related topics while they consult assignees. Besides policy changes, MNEs should also implement profound changes, for example in terms of gender equality (SDG 5). Managers should be aware of equal selection principles and provide women with support mechanisms to ensure equity if they become the main caregiver for their children.
Measuring and Evaluating
Finally, MNEs need to track whether the implemented measures have been effective. This means measuring an international assignment program’s GHG emissions (SDG 13), environmental impact, gender share (SDG 5), and other measures. If the result does not meet the initial targets, the previous phases (strategy development, implementation) should be analyzed to see if adjustments are necessary. To better integrate the respective measurement indicators with those already existing in the corporate context, the SDG Compass website provides respective input categorized by SDG: https://sdgcompass.org/business-indicators/.
Although there is awareness of pressing contemporary challenges in the field of expatriate management, action is still needed to decrease the negative impact on society, the economy, and the environment. Many concepts aim to address sustainability across borders. However, research has not yet produced a hands-on and integrated SDG framework for expatriate management. In this work, we aim to inspire and motivate practitioners to take action and further their sustainability ambitions. Although our paper is labeled rethinking expatriate management, the challenges outlined equally apply to inpatriates, repatriates, and other forms of cross-border assignments.
Companies need to be more aware of the environmental and social impacts of their programs and need to monitor processes to increase transparency across their vast service portfolios and associated supply chains. This is not only necessary because of sustainability but also to comply with legislative requirements (e.g., EU Taxonomy). However, corporate departments dealing with international assignments are not facing these challenges alone. They need to form partnerships (SDG 17) and collaborate with their vendors and internal stakeholders (enabling functions, corporate sustainability, procurements, etc.) to drive the much-needed change toward sustainable development.
About the Authors
Marina A. Schmitz serves as a Researcher and Lecturer at the Coca-Cola Chair of Sustainable Development at IEDC-Bled School of Management in Bled, Slovenia as well as CSR Expert/Senior Consultant at Polymundo AG in Heilbronn, Germany. She has worked as a Lecturer, Research Associate, and Project Manager at the Center for Advanced Sustainable Management (CASM) at the CBS International Business School in Cologne and the Chair of HRM and Asian Business at University of Goettingen.
Enno Ommen is working in Bayer AG’s Sustainability Excellence Office at CropScience Division. He had previously worked in the area of Global Mobility for about 10 years, which equipped him with profound knowledge in the field of expatriate management. He studied International Business (BA) at CBS International Business School and International Human Resource Management (MSc) at Manchester Business School. Further, as one of Bayer AG’s Sustainability Champions, Enno is supporting the sustainable transformation of the company.
Anja Karlshaus studied at the University of Cologne, Santa Clara University (USA), and the European Business School. In 2009, she took over the HRM professorship at CBS International Business School, later assumed the role of dean of the Business Administration faculty, before being appointed president. Moreover, she was previously employed at Dresdner Bank, Allianz and Commerzbank – being now member of various committees (Chamber of Industry and Commerce, City of Cologne, State of NRW). She researches sustainability, diversity, and agile HR.