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Expats Say Help Make Us Mobile

August 7, 1996
Related Topics: Expatriate Management, Featured Article
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When Kathleen van der Wilk-Carlton sits at her desk these days, she wants her phone to ring off the hook. She expects to be barraged by calls from spouses and partners of expatriates—and would-be expatriates—around the world. You see, van der Wilk-Carlton is the spouse employment consultant for Shell Internationale Petroleum, B.V. It's her job to help them with the formidable task of finding a job or suitable educational opportunities to maintain their professional skills as they accompany their spouses anywhere in the world.

It's no easy task as van der Wilk-Carlton offers guidance to people heading out to locales as diverse as Norway, Syria, Malaysia and Nigeria. They present her with a wide variety of questions about their career lives, hoping she can help them. At one end of the spectrum is the open-ended question, "I'm not sure what I want to do." At the other end, she hears, "I know exactly what I want to do and need contacts and interview skills that will help me in the new location." Her challenge arises not from these requests, but from the array of restrictions that may exist in the expat's future host country. In some there are few constraints; in others there are many. For example, many countries don't have comparable work. They may limit work permits or they may have cultural sensitivities that mean women can't work in a particular country. If Shell is sending an expatriate to a country where local unemployment is high, also trying to employ the spouse can create a sensitive situation. "It's often a matter of gently pushing back boundaries and trying to be a little bit creative," she says.

Although Shell's new and existing employees expect to be highly mobile, societal changes—such as increasingly demanding family lives and the need for double incomes—are affecting the ease with which these employees and their spouses will transfer between locations. Van der Wilk-Carlton's position as spouse employment consultant, therefore, is an example of the ways in which progressive global companies are grappling with the tough issues of globalization today. Creativity, sensitivity and awareness are the cornerstone of Shell's approach to it's expatriate population.

Ask and ye shall find out.
Shell Internationale, the giant oil and petroleum multinational headquartered in both London and The Hague, The Netherlands, is truly a global company and clearly appreciates the affect of societal trends on international assignments. With as many as 5,600 expatriates, Shell may have more expatriates than any company in the world. It currently operates in more than 120 countries. The lifeblood of Shell Internationale is a mixture of employees at both the central offices as well as in host countries around the world. Company executives believe these expatriates and their partners must be content if the business mission is to succeed. Mobility is critical to the business. Therefore, the company devotes resources and time to scrutinizing and analyzing what its employees need.

"An internationally mobile workforce is a prerequisite to the way we run the expatriate business, and the way we run exploration and production—in particular," says Andy Johns, who's responsible for Shell Internationale's expatriate terms and conditions development. "With a number of emerging trends, both inside and outside the company, we felt we had to find hard data on what encouraged mobility as well as the factors that block international mobility."

To discover what expats need to remain an effective force in the organization, Shell embarked upon the largest single survey ever conducted among global employees and their partners. The survey, "Shell Expatriate Outlook," was commissioned and sponsored jointly in 1993 by the Exploration and Production Business along with the Corporate Human Resources group.

"It's often a matter of gently pushing back boundaries and trying to be... creative."
— Kathleen van der Wilk-Carlton
Spouse Employment Consultant, Shell Internationale

Shell began its survey by interviewing more than 200 employees and their partners to uncover some of the main issues. Next, it approached a London-based consulting company, International Survey Research, to design and administer a questionnaire. The firm developed a 24-page questionnaire and sent it to expatriates and their spouses in the top 35 countries with expatriates. The employees and spouses answered separately. Questions were phrased to elicit the data the company wanted while ensuring confidentiality of responses.

Johns explains why confidentiality in such a huge multinational corporation is important. "When I'm filling out the questionnaire, sitting in the middle of West Africa and filling in my own biodata—such as how long I've been with the company, what sort of job I've been doing, what level of seniority I have—that [can still identify me among] the 100,000-plus employees in the Shell group. So if I'm going to give straight answers, I have to be pretty sure it's going to be confidential."

Shell sent out 17,000 forms to both staff and spouses—including past, present and future expats. It received 11,000 back—nearly a 70% response rate, indicating how important the issues were to the expatriates. The company culture places high value on getting support for change. Thus it was crucial the main autonomous operating companies within the Shell group agree with the action plan after reviewing the findings. The big wave of policy changes came by mid-1995.

Were there surprises in content? Not really. Because of the number of people who responded, Shell was able to take the hard data and "persuade technically-based management [to take action based on the] hard data and right answers that emerged from that data," says Johns.

The findings: two big blockers.
The company discovered two main impediments to its employees' mobility. First, the reluctance by spouses to move primarily because more women have their own careers and are hesitant to leave them. Many said Shell could accommodate the needs of working spouses more than it currently does, and also demonstrate greater understanding of their problems. Second, concern about the quality of the children's education—including separation from family while attending secondary school (Shell's traditional model had been to support children living at an English boarding school and fly them out to spend school holidays with their parents).

Furthermore, 95% of the spouses stated the company would do better if it consulted them and learned from their experiences. They felt their expertise was neither being utilized nor highly valued. They also sent a clear message that people need more up-to-date, firsthand briefing information on the specifics of living in these various countries. On the positive side, expatriates believe global assignments definitely enhance their professional and personal growth as well as their career possibilities. Most view it as an advantage for promotion.

After receiving the survey results, Shell moved quickly. The first activity it undertook was notifying the participants about the status of the project. Consequently, even before it had time to complete all of the analysis, Shell published a booklet with a summary of preliminary results and findings. Then, the company established six task forces, led by line managers with strong staff and spouse representation, in the following areas: children's education, spouses' careers, spouses' recognition and involvement, staff planning and consultation, relocation information and assistance, and health.

The most pressing problem was that of dual careers. Shell created a policy that was essentially twofold. The first part was a culmination of advice either received directly through van der Wilk-Carlton's role and networking in The Hague headquarters or through access to both internal and external information networks. The second part was financial support. "It's that combination of advice and money that has moved Shell to be among the leaders," says van der Wilk-Carlton. "The policy had to be flexible enough to respond to the diverse needs of the spouse population in all countries—both male and female."

These are the specific solutions created by the six task forces:

1) Spouses' careers:
Shell decided to put into place several services that demonstrated the company's acknowledgment of the partner's contribution. It added services to address their career needs as individuals. How was it done? First, the company created a position of spouse employment consultant—someone who advises spouses and partners on a broad range of employment issues (paid and nonpaid work). The goal is to help spouses improve their chances of finding career opportunities and aid in their career development.

This isn't a small matter. Shell Internationale clearly is among a small handful of companies that offer this level of support—recognizing the importance of a partner's career and the impact on that career by leaving the workforce for an international assignment. The company decided to put financial—as well as human—resources behind the solution.

Second, spouses receive a thorough assessment that ultimately will lead to career planning. Then van der Wilk-Carlton helps them locate employment, aids in acquiring work permits, and when paid employment isn't possible, helps them find appropriate educational and volunteer activities that interest them and will help him or her keep on track. The process can be very difficult because many expatriates who work for Shell Internationale move from one international location to another, and thus, one area may be conducive to paid employment whereas the next destination may not.

Shell also provides a financial assistance policy that covers many of the costs associated with transferring employment skills, such as job-search programs, translation and evaluation of diplomas, preparation of curriculum vitae or resume, fees for maintaining professional accreditation if unable to work in professional capacity, other forms of education, tuition for language instruction, and specific fees to cover some of the costs of starting a new business.

2) Spouses' recognition and involvement:
In addition to employment, Shell recognized the enormous contribution expatriate partners could make to the company. It took seriously the overwhelming response of partners who said they felt unrecognized and underutilized. It heard two clear messages from spouses: "Give us better, more up-to-date information," and "Learn from our experiences."

As a result, it created a network of expatriate information centers around the world. "The survey responses made it clear how much energy there is within the spouse community," says Mechteld Nije, head of expatriate transfer services in The Netherlands. "The question is how you tap into it, and what natural activities can you support that come out of that empowerment?"

The answer to the question arrived in the Information Network Centre, created for the entire expatriate family. Staffed by spouses and partners, it offers information on culture, spouse employment, living and traveling in the host country, and other issues of concern for expats. Shell Internationale also consulted Rita Bennett of Chicago-based Bennett Associates to help kick off the entire spousal project. Bennett helped Shell put the center together, assisting with decisions such as whether to have a full-time director, how to best utilize the spouses in each center and where to draw the line on paying spouses or not paying spouses; she also helped with general training.

Today, the model is in The Hague center—called Outpost—which is housed in two huge rooms in Shell headquarters. Outpost has a paid staff of expatriate spouses as well as volunteers. Although Outpost in The Hague is the model, each center (there are currently six operational and six more in the set-up phase) serves a different community, and thus offers somewhat different activities around the world. But each group is generated and directed by the interest of local expatriate spouses.

Susanne Holtam, director of Outpost, heads a salaried team of four, supported by many volunteers. "When we opened our doors for the first time on November 1, 1995, we were overwhelmed with the interest and support from the families," says Holtam. "We get a spectrum of inquiries—from 'Can I buy peanut butter in Lagos?' to 'Can my five-year-old wear shorts in Islamabad?'"

3) Children's education:
After addressing the spouses' and partners' needs, Shell wanted to address another serious concern of both employees and their partners—family separation. In fact, the survey discovered the greatest single factor that would encourage mobility among families is the availability of adequate secondary schooling in the host country. Traditionally, many of Shell's expatriate children attend boarding school for secondary education because many of the typical destinations are inadequate to meet their needs. However, in the mid-1990s, fewer parents than ever before felt comfortable with this option. More and more, their desire is to find a solution that enables the family to live together.

"The policy had to be flexible enough to respond to the diverse needs of the spouse population in all countries."

To answer this concern, Shell is supporting additional schools in several locations. Another approach the company is taking is to strengthen and expand the International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO)—a nonprofit educational foundation based in Switzerland. It offers the Diploma Program for students in the final two years of secondary school and the Middle Years Program for students in the 11 to 16 age range. The IBO also is beginning to create school programs for primary-aged children. These programs are recognized throughout the world; graduates qualify for university entrance in 70 countries (among them the United States and Canada as well as most European nations). Both of these options not only help the family remain together, but facilitate some of the difficulties that occur upon repatriation when children are faced with returning to their home schools.

4) Staff planning and consultation:
This task force looked at improving communication between employees, line managers and HR. One outgrowth will be to talk directly to each expatriate family and attempt to match their needs with those of the business. Balancing the needs of these families with the corporation's, as well as the cultural realities of specific destinations, can be daunting. Dialogue with the families is one key ingredient. Shell also is beginning to opt for more unaccompanied assignments. Consequently, although the traditional Shell philosophy, "keep the family together, and if not, keep the couple together," is still the norm, exceptions will be made if the family and manager believe it's in the best interests of both. The separation sometimes will occur when secondary education or the partner's career make relocating a hardship. If this alternative is chosen, counseling and additional support need to be arranged, and other types of expenses—for example, increased travel allowance—often are necessary. The company believes, however, that the more personalized assignment package is ultimately in its favor. Furthermore, there'll be greater emphasis on recruiting and developing an international cadre of staff who'll be willing and able to expatriate.

5) Relocation information and assistance:
One radical change from the way in which the company traditionally communicated is it now takes a more direct approach toward the spouse. In the past, the relationship tended to be focused between the employee and company. Now, Shell is beginning to include the partners in communications.

Also, in response to the survey's statements, a pilot project is under way to increase country-specific orientations and provide more consistent predeparture preparation. The major change in this arena will be from the spouse networks, which will provide help and information before and after settling into the destination.

6) Health:
Although not affecting mobility decisions, the employees will receive greater communication about medical issues that affect them while on assignment. Furthermore, the company will continue to ensure that a high quality of service is maintained for expats all over the world.

Clearly, global companies that hope to follow Shell's lead won't be successful unless they also begin at square one. "The first challenge is to recognize the problem," says Johns. "We've moved that far, and we seem to be recognizing the policies we need to develop for accommodating some of those situations. Now, it's a matter of being flexible and moving ahead." Shell Internationale, like so many of its global peers, is struggling with demographic changes, societal needs and business demands amid its continued growth as a corporation. Policies that reflect the concerns and fulfill the needs of the expatriate population and their partners—and that systematically question what those concerns and needs are—are a first step. The continuing challenge will be to monitor changing needs and to assess the population again, soon, to see what does—and doesn't—work.

Personnel Journal, July 1996, Vol. 75, No. 7, pp. 47-52.

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