Talent management and migration

Talent management and migration

With ESSEC Knowledge Editor-in-chief

In 2019, the United Nations estimated that there are approximately 272 million migrant workers (1), and this number has increased in recent years: this tells us that employers need to consider migration in their broader talent management strategies. In a recent chapter in The Routledge Companion to Talent Management (2), Jean-Luc Cerdin (ESSEC Business School), Chris Brewster (Henley Business School), Lovanirina Ramboarison-Lalao (EM Strasbourg) discussed global talent management. 

Who exactly is a migrant worker? It’s complicated. Organizations like the UN, the International Labor Organization, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (3, 4, 5) consider a “long-term migrant” someone who moves to another country for at least a year, and a short-term migrant someone who moves to another country for at least three months but less than twelve months (except if their purpose is related to tourism, medical treatment, business, or religious pilgrimage). However, many people also use the term “expat” to refer to the same populations, and there isn’t a consensus on what differentiates a “migrant worker” and an “expat”. Further complicating this is the fact that human migration is studied by academics in different fields, from economics to anthropology - although it has not been studied in depth by human resource management scholars, showing the need to study this talent pool to learn how to better manage it. 

Immigration itself remains controversial - look at Brexit, in which immigration played a key role in the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, or the 2022 French presidential election, with Eric Zemmour spouting a “Zero immigration” strategy. It often leads to emotionally-charged political debates about how best to handle an influx of people: while its detractors argue that migrants put pressure on local social systems and drive down wages, there are undeniable advantages, like boosting the local economy with young, energetic workers and bringing in new skills. The money that migrants send back to their home countries - called remittances - also play a huge role in global trade, with ⅔ of this money going to developing countries (6). 

There are myriad factors that can lead someone to leave their homeland: war, climate change, better opportunities, simply wanting a new experience… In the European Union, citizens of the member countries can freely move around and work in any member country. Dr. Cerdin and the research team suggest that it’s key to look at individual, organizational, and macro-social factors in migration. These can include:

  • Individual factors: type (skill level), country of origin, gender

  • Organizational factors: the origin and size of the company and their experience with migrant workers

  • Macro-social factors: legislation, the country’s history, and migration trends

All of these factors are intertwined. 

Understanding migration: the individual level

One key distinguishing factor is a migrant worker’s qualifications and skill level. Talent management tends to focus on highly qualified migrants: those who have higher education degrees and in-demand skills. However, migrant workers without higher education can also have in-demand skills that add to the country’s talent pool. A worker’s skill level will impact their experience in their host country. For example, highly qualified migrants may not have their qualifications recognized or may experience discrimination. A person’s motivations, career orientations and level of integration in their host country can also impact their experience. Organizations need to consider these to best support their employees and implement effective onboarding policies, like help with visas and language lessons. 

The story is a little different for migrants who aren’t highly qualified. “Medium-qualified” migrants have essential skills (manual skills may fall into this category), though there is not a lot of research on this category. Migrants with less education may face a more challenging integration experience, as they may not speak the local language, have difficulties obtaining work papers, and may face discrimination from the locals. To help with this integration process, organizations need to be aware of the specific challenges they face in order to implement policies to maximize their potential. 

Levelling up: organizational factors

Talent management needs to consider organizational factors as well. Migrants can often benefit their organization: not only do they contribute to the talent pool, but research has linked diversity and innovation. However, the opposite isn’t always true: the organization can actually have a negative impact on migrants. One study found that migrants experience issues like restricted physical mobility, poor working conditions, and discrimination in the workplace7. Many migrants move searching for a better life, but not all of them attain this: one study found that immigrant nurses face professional and personal challenges and difficulties getting their credentials recognized (8).  This means organizations need to implement policies to break down these barriers. 

The bigger picture: The macro environment

Of course, none of this happens in a vacuum: borders and immigration policies play a huge role on who can enter and access certain jobs. The European Union provides an interesting example, since its nationals can freely work in the EU country of their choice. When it comes to non-EU immigration, member nations can control the flow according to their own laws. This means that legal residents from non-EU countries tend to have different rights than EU nationals, like access to voting. 

Applications for talent management

Taken together, this means that organizations need to consider the situation of their migrant employees: what is their situation, what is their motivation for moving, how long they have been in the country, what kind of support do they need. There are a few tactics for approaching this: 

  • Keep records on international employees’ experiences abroad, language abilities, and knowledge of the local culture

  • Identify the specific barriers facing employees to pinpoint the support they need: for example, professional mentorship for those who migrated out of a desire to live in that country, and language lessons for those who moved to escape a bad situation 

  • Foster an environment that promotes diversity

  • Establish professional mentoring programs for migrant employees

  • Encourage managers and coworkers to welcome and integrate these employees, and provide cultural intelligence workshops and management when  needed (for example, supporting a new salariée who has fled a war-torn country) 

  • Ensure that migrant workers are properly recognized and paid for their work and promoted in due course 

Bringing together talent management and migration research is no easy feat: it requires identifying who is a migrant worker, a challenge in and of itself, and implementing specific talent management policies depending on the type of worker in employment. Migrant workers are a huge part of the global talent pool, and optimizing their integration can pay off big time for organizations. 


  1. United Nations. 2019. International migration report 2019. New York: United Nations. 

  2. Cerdin, J. L., Brewster, C., & Ramboarison-Lalao, L. (2021). Talent Management and Migration. In The Routledge Companion to Talent Management (pp. 187-200). Routledge.

  3. United Nations. 1998. Recommendations on statistics of international migration. Revision 1. Statistical Papers. Series M, No. 58, Glossary. New York: United Nations. 

  4. International Labour Organization (ILO). 2014. Fair migration: Setting an ILO agenda. Report of the ILO Director General to the International Labour Conference. Geneva, International Labour Office. 

  5. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). 2003. Glossary of statistical terms. http://stats.oecd.org/glossary/detail.asp?ID=1284. 

  6. World Bank Group. 2019. Migration and remittances: Recent developments and outlook. International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, The World Bank, https://www.knomad.org/sites/default/files/2019- 04/Migrationanddevelopmentbrief31.pdf, first accessed on June 17, 2019. 

  7. Rodriguez, J. K., & Mearns, L. 2012. Problematising the interplay between employment relations, migration and mobility. Employee Relations, 34(6): 580-593. 

  8. Newton, S., Pillay, J., & Higginbottom, G. 2012. The migration and transitioning experiences of internationally educated nurses: A global perspective. Journal of Nursing anagement, 20, 534–550. 

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