Building your self: a sensemaking approach to expatriates’ adjustment to ethical challenges

Nuno Guimarães-Costa*, Miguel Pina e Cunha, Arménio Rego

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)


Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to understand the behaviours described by expatriates (“what expatriates say they do”) when they are pressed for adjustment and, at the same time, they feel ethically challenged. Design/methodology/approach – The authors interviewed 52 expatriates from the European Union working in Sub-Saharan Africa who were immersed in what was considered by them to be an ethically challenging context or situation while they were in the process of adjusting to their international assignment. The authors conducted a reflexive qualitative analysis between the data and existing literature. Findings – The authors found that the feeling of moral discomfort that causes the perception of an ethical challenge is triggered by an event that contrasts with the expatriates’ notion of morals. After feeling ethically challenged, expatriates engage in a sensemaking process that is hinged in an “intended future identity”. Research limitations/implications – The authors contribute to the literature by stressing the ethical dimension of adjustment. The authors complement the normative approaches to ethical decision making in international contexts. The research identifies a set of events that are considered as ethical challenges by business expatriates. Practical implications – The research opens the possibility to anticipate and manage potential conflicts, thus minimizing the probability of expatriation failure. Early knowledge about an expatriate's intended future identity can provide relevant information concerning the probable type of adjustment problems s/he will face. Originality/value – The research combines two hitherto separate streams of literature – expatriate adjustment and ethical decision making in international contexts – to open the possibility of ethical adjustment. This is supported by a sensemaking process that is also grounded in future intentions, and not only in past experiences and present signals.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)53-84
Number of pages32
JournalJournal of Global Mobility
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 3 Jun 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • Africa
  • Ethical decision making
  • Expatriates’ adjustment
  • Identity
  • Sensemaking


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