Integrating Newcomers: Studying the Socialization of Skilled Migrants

Quite often discussions about skilled migrants center on the receiving country’s reaction to the migrants, rather than the experiences of the migrants themselves. In this article from the Journal of Management, Phyllis Tharenou, vice president and executive dean of the College of Business, Government and Law of Flinders University, and Carol T. Kulik, a research professor of human resource management at the University of South Australia Business School, address this absence specifically in the academic management literature.

In “Skilled Migrants Employed in Developed, Mature Economies: From Newcomers to Organizational Insiders,” the pair examine both the socialization of skilled migrants on the job, and the methodology that has traditionally been used to study them. We asked Tharenou and Kulik some questions about their research; their answers appear under the paper’s abstract.

Migrants are a growing segment of the highly educated international workforce, and these skilled migrants (SMs) are critical to the growth of developed, mature economies. SMs frequently report negative workplace experiences antithetical to their integration, raising important questions about how organizations might help these host-country newcomers to transition to become organizational insiders. Our aim is to integrate a broad and multidisciplinary literature and identify opportunities where organizations and managers might intervene to enable a successful socialization process and improve SMs’ workplace experiences. We review the empirical research from 2000 to 2019 for SMs employed in developed, mature economies and focus on the SMs’ workplace experiences postorganizational entry. We employ a three-phase socialization model (anticipatory socialization, accommodation, and adaptation) as our organizing framework to identify SMs’ key challenges and outcomes, consider those challenges and outcomes through a socialization lens, and isolate the challenges and outcomes that characterize each transition point (from anticipatory socialization to accommodation and from accommodation to adaptation). We then use these distinguishing characteristics to recommend activities that organizations can implement at each transition to facilitate SMs’ socialization process. By leveraging the three-phase socialization model to align organizational activities with SMs’ workplace experiences, we extend the field’s understanding of SM socialization (in particular) and of the organizational socialization process (more generally).

What motivated you to pursue this research?

We were motivated by a disconnect we saw in the academic literature. Skilled migrants deliver enormous value to their host countries in the form of increased innovation and research outputs, technological progress and productivity growth. Despite these documented benefits, skilled migrants experience unemployment and underemployment in their host countries; they make frequent job changes and even occupational shifts before finding satisfying employment. As management researchers, we saw this as a management problem: host country employers are not successfully integrating skilled migrants into the organization. But there’s been surprisingly little attention to skilled migrants in the management literature. You are much more likely to find research focusing on skilled migrants in the sociology, migration, or economic literatures, and so it is unlikely to come to the attention of management scholars.

In what ways is your research innovative, and how do you think it will impact the field?

We reviewed a sprawling multi-disciplinary literature and treated skilled migrants as “intensity cases” who exhibit classic socialization problems – but with greater potency than most newcomers. By looking closely at skilled migrants’ experiences, we were able to identify socialization “loopholes” that organizations can plug to better integrate all newcomers (not just skilled migrants). For example, at organizational entry, employers might need to use expectation-lowering procedures that address newcomers’ unrealistic expectations about the job market and career paths alongside traditional realistic job previews that focus narrowly on job content. And after organizational entry, our review highlights the value of engaging managers and coworkers in developing local inclusive climates when newcomer-insider relationships are unlikely to evolve organically.

Carol Kulik, left, and Phyllis Theranou

We also cast a critical eye on the methodology used in research on skilled migrants. One persistent challenge in this literature is that researchers are a little too “loose” in identifying their samples. We defined skilled migrants as people with at least a tertiary degree who migrate to another country, usually with an intent to stay long-term. But many researchers use “impure” samples that include students and unskilled workers. Or their samples include organization-assigned expatriates or self-initiated expatriates; these mobile workers only intend to stay in the host country for a short time. If researchers aren’t careful about their sample boundaries, they could reach misleading conclusions about skilled migrants’ motivation and behavior. 

What did not make it into your published manuscript that you would like to share with us?

We applied an organizational socialization framework and so the relevance of the literature we reviewed might be most apparent to organizational socialization scholars. However, there are many other management topics that could leverage the special case of skilled migrants to expand the empirical database. For example, turnover researchers usually find that on-the-job embeddedness is a stronger predictor of employee retention than off-the-job embeddedness. But that might not be true for skilled migrants, who are simultaneously new to the job, the organization, and the country. Skilled migrants might value employers who help them (and their families) create links and find fit outside organizational boundaries. Skilled migrants present an opportunity for management researchers to better understand how on- and off-the-job embeddedness develop concurrently and to more accurately assess the predictive power of these components for the retention of different employee groups.

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