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Solve the Dual-career Challenge

October 1, 1997
Related Topics: Expatriate Management, Featured Article
Nancy Carter and her spouse were a dual-career couple on assignment in Taipei, Taiwan, and Vienna, Austria. As an accompanying spouse in Austria she worked on dual-career issues for the United Nations Industrial Development Organization and the Atomic Energy Agency. She also managed the international assignment policies and programs for two multinational financial services institutions and worked with an industry wide initiative by the companies to address the dual-career issue from legal, tax, immigration and selection perspectives.

Over the last ten years, the number of dual-career couples employed in the United States has grown to three million, representing approximately 20 percent of all employed couples. As a result of these changing demographics, work/ family programs have become more commonplace in the last five years.

To function effectively in the workplace, partners in a career couple must be able to negotiate a balance between the demands of work and family. So family-friendly policies make good business sense. Proactive corporate programs -- including child and elder care, flexible benefits, job sharing, part-time work, telecommuting, parental leave, personal time and employee assistance programs -- all have reflected the changing perspective of corporate interest and involvement.

But what happens when the business needs of the corporation disrupt this equilibrium and an international transfer of an employee places the business needs and the family needs at loggerheads in their differing expectations of work/family support? Do the same programs offered to domestic employees have relevance? They do. But unfortunately, they’re offered far less frequently when an international relocation occurs.

Factors that influence a relocation decision.
As early as the mid 1980s, several financial services companies recognized the issues of spousal employment abroad and established a formalized network to bring the problem to senior managers. The issue was finally given credence because of the number of female expats and the spousal work concerns of their husbands.

The issue of international relocation is critical, as is any relocation, for the dual-career couple because couples can’t sustain multiple relocations for one person’s career without the sacrifice of the other’s career. So before couples accept an assignment, they need to engage in extensive negotiation about the relative significance of each person’s career, the meaning of family and career balance, and the definition of their dual-career relationship.

The demographics of international assignments show a reduction in the number of mid-career transfers as corporations use international assignments for developmental purposes. These days, assignments tend to occur earlier in careers when employees aren’t as likely to be encumbered by home ownership, family, education and career disruption. This makes things a little easier for companies sending expats and spouses overseas.

These newer members of the workforce don’t have the same expectations of career employment or corporate support, and desire international experiences for their own personal and professional development. These couples recognize the rewards of international business and social development that will give them the tools to compete in the global marketplace and an edge over their counterparts who haven’t had this international exposure.

These factors may make it easy for spouses to agree to an assignment, but it’s difficult for them to anticipate some of the struggles they’ll face. Their primary challenge will be maintaining their sense of identity when the identities of their professional lives are absent. It’s important that a company’s policy encourages active involvement in the expatriate community in which social, professional, family, recreational and educational lives are intertwined.

Components of a spousal-assistance program.
Firms such as Organization Resources Counselors Inc., Windham International and the National Foreign Trade Council have undertaken many studies on the challenges of moving dual-career couples internationally. A resounding number of companies report increased concern over the expatriate spouse career issue, but a person can count on one hand the number that have actively developed assistance policies with perceived benefit by the transferee and spouse.

Companies typically limit assistance programs to setting up spousal accounts against which a spouse can draw to cover educational, professional or legal expenses that he or she might have during the assignment to keep up with peers at home. Examples of costs covered include tuition expenses for continued education, fees in connection with securing a local work permit, resume preparation and job-search assistance.

Many companies skirt the dual-career issue by providing total family-assistance accounts which can alleviate the expenses and concerns of caring for elderly parents, children’s special education requirements or medical/ disability requirements as well as spousal employment issues.

What about financial assistance to compensate for lost income of the career spouse? Most corporations have ignored this issue or refused outright to address it. International HR professionals have worked through their networks of peers in other companies to attempt to find employment opportunities in the countries of their expatriates’ assignment.

Some companies have made financial contributions by allowing for dual households and commutation, and rotational or short-term assignments as alternatives to traditional expatriate assignments if these variations don’t increase the corporation’s costs.

Human resources at global companies should consider each of these components of a spousal-assistance program when formulating a company policy.

The value of the international experience.
A popular misconception is that accompanying partners have difficulty adjusting because they don’t have enough to do if they aren’t employed. This is far from true. Spouses are by necessity and commitment the most flexible, energetic and entrepreneurial of international assets. They must make an effort to be self-fulfilled, often through volunteer work or new business ventures. They often develop a talent for resourcefulness, negating the myth that years spent abroad automatically damage a person’s career progression and development.

Repatriated employees who succeed to positions of influence within their corporations surely will take the issue of dual-career programs for international transfers more seriously. After all, a company recognizing global business skills as critical to its future success should be encouraging spouses to focus on the value of the experience abroad and the skill sets they’ll develop during the transfer.

And it’s HR’s role to make sure the company’s relocation policy supports this viewpoint. Throughout the expat assignment, HR should reinforce the message that entrepreneurial ventures and uncompensated social contributions made during the years accompanying an expatriate abroad also carry a great deal of value.

Then when it comes time to fill a staff vacancy, HR professionals share responsibility with line managers for recognizing this value in applicants who have accompanied their partners on international assignments. The independence, adaptability, flexibility, and political and cultural awareness gained through life overseas are attributes seldom found in people without international experience. Voids in the chronology of work history will be more than compensated for by the attributes and experience gained through their ancillary role.

Global Workforce, October 1998, Vol. 2, No. 4, pp. 21-22.

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