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Do migrants have to work twice as hard to reach the top?

In recent years we have seen a huge push to increase the gender diversity of corporate boards and at CEO level, and rightly so. It has been widely acknowledged that there are substantial obstacles that women have to overcome in order to reach top positions, and that something must be done to remove them. 

Whilst policies have now been implemented to create gender equality, there are other under-represented groups who experience significant barriers in reaching the top, and receive little support in tackling them – one of which, being migrants.

There are many highly-skilled migrant professionals who are multi-lingual, adaptive and well educated, and as a result, pose a significant benefit to their employers in the host countries and the host countries too. Whilst there is an ever-growing need for firms to be international, you would think qualified, multi-lingual migrants would be highly sought after and would have little difficulty in making it to the top. However, the conspicuous scarcity of migrant CEOs demonstrates that this clearly isn’t the case.

This prompted me and my colleagues to research into the career paths of migrant CEOs: to find out how hard it actually was for them to reach their position, what barriers they faced along the way, and what strategies they deployed to overcome these obstacles.  For this study we focused specifically on migrant CEOs working in France. Due to its long-standing central economic position in Europe and globally, and with a history of colonization, France is home to a large number of migrants, all with varied skill levels. However, despite comprising a substantial number of France’s population, migrants actually appear to be disadvantaged in terms of representation in prestigious occupations.

To gather our data we conducted  interviews with migrant CEOs, French CEOs, HR Directors and Diversity managers. That was in order to have a panoramic – hence, more valid – view of the situation instead of relying only on the experiences of the migrants themselves.  The findings showed that migrants who reached the very top and became CEOs of their firms faced enormous barriers on the way, and had to deploy their own specific tactics to overcome these by themselves, as organisations were almost completely oblivious to their struggles.

So, what barriers did migrants frequently face and how did they overcome these?

Elite qualifications

Migrant CEOs found that because they had not studied at one of France’s national elitist educational institutions (“Grandes Ecoles”), firms were much less inclined to trust them with elite careers. This suggests that migrants were immediately at a disadvantage simply by receiving a similar education elsewhere.

Migrants attempted to overcome this disadvantage by gaining additional education, manoeuvring between roles and firms or even becoming entrepreneurs and starting their own firms. Migrant CEOs found it much easier to progress in their careers, once they had undertaken further studies in French elitist educational institutions, such as MBAs, to gain legitimacy and then use these new skills to move roles or companies and progress further. Still, however, the “Grande Ecole” degree remained a large “minus” in their careers. French CEOs agreed on the importance of a “Grande Ecole” degree, but in their case they had the opportunity to attend such a School because they were brought up in France. Migrants did not have that chance.

Language proficiency

The lack of ability to use the French language at a level similar to that of a native speaker proved to be another obstacle for migrant CEOs. Many migrant CEOs found even if they spoke French well, but with a foreign accent, they were at a disadvantage.

This obstacle too was virtually ignored at an organisational level, with firms doing little to help migrant professionals get ahead. In fact, migrants found themselves having to prove their professional skills even further, overcompensating for their linguistic imperfections, whilst also attempting to take advantage of their differences to native speaking French employees by taking on projects or positions where their ethnicity or linguistic skills would make them ideal candidates (for example, taking up an international assignment in a country with similar culture to their country of origin).

Social capital

Migrant CEOs also found it very difficult to break into business networks which tended to be typically full of powerful French natives. These networks can be effectively likened to a ‘glass sphere’, in which the top industry professionals can be clearly seen to socialise and interact with each other from the outside, but it is virtually inaccessible to others, especially migrants. The French CEOs corroborated this, claiming they found no difficulties in relationship building and tended to have strong networks due to family connections, elite alumni relations or personal private relations.

Again, our research found there was little help offered by organisations, with many expecting their senior employees to bring a strong social capital with them into their roles. Migrant CEOs found manoeuvring between firms and roles gave them a stronger network of connections. Additionally, differentiating themselves from others in these networks meant they brought something new and distinct to their connections, making them more sought after.

Cultural mindsets and behavioural norms

French business, and in particular the role of management, was something that appeared to be completely different to many other countries, according to migrant CEOs. In France, managers are expected to know much more than their employees, and employees must obey CEOs, who tend to go unchallenged by staff. Many of them mentioned that they had found it “the hard way”, when they had tried to make suggestions to their line managers and found themselves immediately in the “black list”. Many migrants struggled with the power and politics behind how organisations operated. Until they “learnt the ropes” (mostly by “trial and error”) opportunity for influence and advancement was seriously impaired.

Again, this strict and rigid management style is something that went completely unchallenged by organisations, with migrants expected to adapt to this management style, whilst organisations offered little help or any consideration of adapting their own practices.

Stereotyping and prejudice

According to migrant CEOs, they experienced negative stereotyping, mistrust and prejudice throughout their careers and felt as though this halted their progression in many roles. Though all migrant CEOs said they had experienced this, discrimination was much more prevalent towards migrants who came from previous French colonies or different cultures and religions.

Organisations, again, were fairly oblivious to this issue, with many HR Directors and Diversity Managers claiming ethnicity was a taboo topic and one that is treated with huge caution. Migrants found that they again, had to overcompensate their skills to prove their worth, or manoeuvre to positions in which they were not discriminated against, in order to overcome this barrier.

Unfortunately, there are clear barriers that hinder a migrant’s career progression and make it extremely difficult for them to reach the top of their business. What doesn’t help is also the fact that migrants are left to their own devices to try overcome these.

Organisations appeared to have no systems, plans or even awareness for managing their qualified migrants (for them the only migrants who needed attention were the unqualified ones). As a consequence, migrants found it extremely difficult to break into the so-called ‘glass sphere’, develop their skills or even share their expertise.

In what is now essentially a globalized business world, all organisations can benefit from the rich human resources pool of qualified migrants. However, firms must be conscious rather than oblivious of the issues these talented migrants face. If they do so, they can reap the huge benefits that international migrants have to give.

Nikos Bozionelos, emlyon business school

I am Professor of International HRM at emlyon business school. Being theoretical physicist and psychologist by training, I received my PhD from Strathclyde Business School (UK) and I have been in universities that include Durham (UK), Carnegie Mellon (USA) and Remnin (PR China). My research focuses on individual differences in the workplace, career success and employability, social capital, and cross-cultural issues in management. I act as Senior Editor for Asia Pacific Journal of Management (IF > 2). My research output contains in excess of 200 articles and conference papers that have attracted nearly 4,000 citations (hI,norm = 29). Media where my research appeared include The Wall Street JournalForbesCNNthe BBCthe New York PostThe Boston GlobeThe TimesL’Express, Ouest France, and the Davos Economic Forum.

More information on Nikos Bozionelos:
• His CV online
• His ResearchGate page


Further readings…

  • Legrand C., Al Ariss A., Bozionelos N. (2018). Migrant CEOs : Barriers and Strategies on the Way to the Top. European Management Review, Forthcoming. DOI 10.1111/emre.12166.
    Read abstract online

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Sep 26th, 2018|

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