RSS icon

Top Stories

CEO Mom The Tie That Binds a Global Family

March 1, 1996
Related Topics: Expatriate Management, Featured Article
Mary Beth Hallen opens the door of her spacious four-bedroom home in The Hague. Is it true that this expatriate family has been here only seven months? They seem so settled-in; so well-adjusted. Dog barking outside, son doing homework, sparkling clean kitchen. Everything's clicking.

Mary Beth and Gary Hallen epitomize the ultimate expatriate family. Now, on a second assignment—this time in the Netherlands—their adjustment would make any global manager breathe a deep sigh of relief. This couple is resourceful, outgoing and adventurous, able to navigate its family of four through the rough spots of expatriation—a family capable of supporting the employee in his corporate mission. But it's not ready-made; it takes work and a company that's supportive. And the Hallens are the first to tell you that partnership with a supportive human resources department is where it started. In addition to the more basic briefings and provisions, the Hallens relied on their local HR manager when they were in Switzerland to help them make sense of the world. She was the one they contacted for cultural guidance when Gary received a call from the police explaining that there had been a citizen's complaint because he had broken the law by waiting in his car for 20 minutes on a residential street while his son finished soccer.

Talk with the Hallens and you realize they're partners in the experience. Gary is the employee (a quality management consultant for Eastman Chemical Company, headquartered in Kingsport, Tennessee), and Mary Beth is the one with the encyclopedic knowledge about how to make their lives work. Affable and assertive, she chats about local customs and daily routines; she'll explain the proper etiquette—that it's important to ask a Dutch plumber or handyman to partake of tea before he starts his job—and she'll display her deep cultural knowledge. But it's not simple, and the Hallens have gone through their struggles so they can make the best of the expatriate experience. Gary admits he hasn't been home for Thanksgiving since they first became expatriates in 1991; that he travels 50% of the time; and that he worried about his family's adjustment—especially when they were on their first assignment.

The family has a profound impact on the success of the international assignment. It's a crucial source of stability, nurturance and support for the expatriate employee—and by extension, the business. Well-adjusted family members offer respite and predictability to each other as they each steer through the labyrinth of daily life in a new society, which often seems totally confusing and unpredictable.

"The fact is the significant majority of failed expatriate assignments [fail] because of the family, and to the degree you take care of those issues and smooth those problems out, you're really making the assignment more likely to be successful," says Stephen Ruffing, global assignments consultant for Minneapolis-based Medtronic Inc., which makes heart pacemakers and cardiac-related devices and generates 44% of its revenue overseas. "Technically our employees are the right ones to do the job. But to the degree we can make the family members happy with the assignment—whatever that means—then clearly you're increasing the probability that the individual is going to be productive."

Work with the spouse—the family's CEO and HR director.
To be sure, the number of expatriate families isn't inconsequential. There are approximately 350,000 U.S. expatriates, says Reyer A. Swaak, senior consultant for New York City-based Windham International. According to the 1995 Global Relocation Trends Survey Report by Windham International and the National Foreign Trade Council, 87% of expats are male, 69% are accompanied by their spouses (the majority of whom are wives) and 60% have at least one child with them. Of these, 72% are under 12 years old.

However, if the family is one key to a successful assignment, the spouse (most often the wife) is central to the family's adjustment. She may—or may not—have had a paid career at home, but once she agrees to accompany her expat spouse, she's catapulted to the highly demanding position of family CEO and director of human resources. Like it or not, a large part of making the assignment work rests with her. To pursue the analogy, she oversees the relocation, compensation, benefits, training and education, communication with the community, even wellness of her family organization. Moreover, she's the one who interfaces with the new community, confronting cultural differences immediately—and often. At the same time the expatriate employee has to learn his job and handle enormous pressure, she has to build a cohesive, well-functioning team of parents and children and has scant support while doing so. She often functions solo because of her husband's travel schedule.

HR, therefore, can have a tremendous impact if it recognizes the importance of the family and views the wife as an ally in the business process. What is HR's role, realistically, though? While HR can't be expected to serve as family nanny, it can recognize that expatriates become dependent on the company in ways they've never been before. Granted, human resources managers walk a fine line between offering aid and intruding upon the privacy of employees. But if managers make it obvious that they regard the wife as a colleague and resource in this business endeavor and take a strongly proactive position from the outset, the support will pay dividends far greater than strict cash value. Beyond that, global HR professionals can anticipate the dramatic changes awaiting families upon expatriation and also can play a key role by alerting parents to some of the potential long-term effects of expat life for their children.

Gary Sawyer, Eastman Chemical Company's manager of human resources for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, gets the families thinking about living abroad, beforehand. "In some cases the family is so enthusiastic about the relocation, it fails to work through issues about what it's going to be like after the initial excitement has subsided. We start by encouraging employees to think very carefully about family-related issues when they consider an assignment."

Expect new dependencies from your expat's family.
Why should human resources advocate for the family unit? It's not altruism, that's for sure. "Companies are doing this because it makes good business sense," explains Mildred M. McCoy, of Cincinnati-based McCoy Consulting Associates, who raised children as an expatriate and conducted research at the Center of Asian Studies at the University of Hong Kong. "It has become increasingly expensive to send a family overseas. It's not just the money. More than that, the social and psychological consequences of a mistake can disrupt the overseas location and [exact] a personal price to that employee and his family that's practically immeasurable."

No one has to tell HR professionals the selection process initially ignores the family; human resources usually comes onto the scene just before the relocation. But it's HR that ends up on the phone hearing complaints from discontented people. "Businesses are just like any other group [foreign service, military, clergy] that's moving personnel. They're thinking about the job and they look through a list of people and pick the person who would be perfect for the position. They see the person as a worker, not within the whole context of the family," says Kay Branaman Eakin, a Washington, D.C.-based international education and mobility consultant who served with the U.S. State Department for 10 years.

But an international assignment will create a special relationship between a company and the expatriate family. As McCoy states, since the international relocation affects—and uproots—the entire family unit along with the individual employee, the family believes the company should be far more responsible for its well-being and happiness than it would ever expect at home. This dependence (for housing, schooling, tax preparation) creates additional demands on HR professionals to understand the expat's experience and to react accordingly, whether that be with responsive policies, clear and frequent communication, referrals or simple interest.

Indeed, this is how all the distinct elements of the components come together. For example, the careful COLA calculations take tangible form when the expatriate begins to purchase the first cans of soup, bars of soap and bottles of soda to set up house; housing allowances transfer from scribbled numbers on a tablet to rooms with shutters or curtains and spaces for the children to play; cross-cultural counseling pays off in the first few months as family members adapt more easily to the predictable culture shock.

Surely, it's not by magic or chance that the Hallen family has adapted so well. Selection, planning and preparation were involved. Eastman sets a positive example. It helped the Hallens anticipate and prepare for the transition, offered them help when they arrived and continues its support through the assignment. "We contract with a relocation firm that specializes in helping newcomers," says Sawyer. "This organization handles general kinds of questions like, 'How do I go about finding a doctor? Where do I go shopping? How do I get a driver's license? How do I go about registering with the local authorities or police?' That organization does some handholding in the early days to get the person settled."

Unfortunately, these types of firms aren't available in all locations. Sawyer is the first to admit the Netherlands is special because it has so many expatriates and therefore so many services available. "In some of our smaller, more remote locations, it's much more difficult to find that kind of capability," he says. He has been encouraged to learn that sometimes, in the absence of such services, line managers will take responsibility for the new expatriates and their families.

"You can assume a higher degree of stress in a family with a teenager than in one that either doesn't have children or has younger children."

Strong HR support for international employees is a goal the company strives for. In the Hallens' case, assistance from the local human resources manager was crucial for them in Switzerland as she helped them succeed in a rather tough assignment. She helped process governmental papers, answered questions about day-to-day adjustment, even found a Swiss boy scout troop.

In the Netherlands, Eastman employs a regional manager who understands the expatriate lifestyle. You see, Sawyer is an expat himself. A citizen of the United States, he and his wife are on their second assignment, transferring to the Netherlands from a small town in Northwestern England where they lived with one of their sons. Sawyer explains that Eastman's matrix organization encourages support. Regional leadership takes a great interest in the individual expatriates and in HR-related activities.

"We haven't had high failure rates in our community, and I think part of that [is because of] careful selection. We ensure that family considerations are taken into account when selection decisions are made," he says. "I think we could do more to assist the employees in realistically thinking through the possibility of foreign assignments and to continue sensitizing management about expat issues. But we do talk with the family before relocation and give them the opportunity to carefully consider the assignment." In fact, Eastman has had a few people turn down assignments after careful consideration because either the spouse wouldn't give up a career or the children were in their last year of high school or had serious concerns about leaving their friends.

Connect with the wife and family as soon as possible.
Global managers who want to help their expatriate families succeed should create an immediate and strong bond with them as soon as they're selected. In Eastman's case, the company offers at least a one-day briefing (and in some cases, longer) about compensation and benefits. It provides intensive language training and cross-cultural counseling, and extends predeparture and settling-in services like home- and school-finding trips and, where available, enlists relocation specialists. Beyond that, the company offers additional convenience benefits, such as use of the corporate mail pouch for two-day delivery of mail and small items.

From the advantageous perspective of expatriate himself, Sawyer explains HR might consider a combination of aids. For example, he says, "The company might offer a little bit of pre-departure training, a little when you first get to the location (a survival course of sorts) and then have something later that's a little bit more in-depth so we give people an opportunity to explore some of their feelings." Explains Sawyer further, "You've formed a lot of your opinions during the initial periods—you like this place or you might not like this place. A lot of those early decisions have a big impact."

But even when there's adequate preparation, people often will hit a trough in the adaptation cycle, and Sawyer believes there currently isn't much help except the friendships expats have been able to make on their own. Companies, however, can consciously try to aid this void by hiring former expats as regional managers. "If you're working for another expat, and you have hit this wave, the experienced global manager will be more patient and understanding. Your ups and downs will be viewed as normal." Obviously, when someone understands the motivation for your behavior, it's placed within context and the difficulty isn't counted against your performance—it's seen as part of the adaptation process. Not necessarily so with local managers who haven't experienced expatriate life.

Furthermore, Eastman provides cultural training in host locations after three months. The rationale? Three months into the assignment people are just beginning to confront some of the cultural differences. They're more receptive than when they're fresh off the plane. It also provides an opportunity for expats to talk about issues so they realize they're not alone in the experience.

Sensitivity and deep-based knowledge are crucial for an effective relationship, says Ruffing, who knows families face different challenges and situations depending on their stage in the life cycle. "Certainly you can assume a higher degree of stress in a family with a teenager [going overseas] than in one that either doesn't have children at all or has younger children."

The way in which Medtronic handles that is to actively encourage families with teens to participate in predeparture training. The idea being the more prepared they are before they go overseas, the less likely problems will develop.

Nothing beats a relationship between an active and interested global HR manager and the family. Personal visits and continual phone conversations with the expats throughout the assignment yield huge dividends.

Ruffing has several missions incorporated into his global human resources position. "Although we keep in touch with these folks pretty regularly just in the conduct of everyday business, the HR job really is about establishing relationships with the expatriates and at the same time establishing a network with peers at other companies to determine what are state-of-the-art global human resources practices."

Create a team between HR and the family.
The more one thinks about life as an expatriate family, the more obvious it becomes that families need to feel strongly supported by the company. When HR and other managers realize the family is having more than everyday difficulties, it's time to remind them of EAP specialists, who may become other active players in the success of the team. "People often prefer to go to a third party—not necessarily someone connected to the company—if they want to talk about the stress and reveal that the pressures at home are overwhelming," says Eleanor Haller-Jorden, managing director of the Paradigm Group in Zurich, Switzerland. "These households of expatriates are trying to put on a good face and come in every morning and be productive. When households have difficulties that go on day after day, these things are like mini-volcanoes about to erupt. They're eating away at productivity."

No question that a team approach to expatriation helps throughout the assignment. Expatriates who feel connected to corporate headquarters and are invested in the company, who feel their families have been supported and understood, are far more likely to succeed abroad.

Clearly, people who go on international assignments are changed forever, be they adults or children. In the short-term, human resources professionals offer guidance to assist expats until their business objectives are met. They also provide a huge service by communicating some of the realistic difficulties. But, an even greater service is that HR pros prepare parents with information and resources that address long-term issues. You don't have to be a psychologist, but it behooves you to know how a global assignment might affect expats' children of different ages and relatives at home.

"Despite all the alleged glamour, work overseas—because it often has so much travel involved—is extremely stressful for the working partner," says Ellen Porter Honnet, who is a counseling and consulting psychologist who spent most of her childhood in the American Foreign Service and is currently living in London with her 5- and 10-year-old children and husband. "What ends up happening is the roles change so much it puts tremendous stress on the marriage." It's a multifaceted situation. On the one hand, the employee frequently is unavailable and focused on work. Family decisions fall to the wife. On the other hand, spouses tend to idealize the business travel of the employee.

The dilemma in these situations relates to making the communication as effective as possible. "I suggest the spouse go on some of the business trips so [she] can see what [her] partner is going through. It often diminishes any fantasy about the wonderful travel the spouse is getting," she says.

Another dilemma has to do with family members left behind. They also should be considered part of the family team. Elder care is a great concern for individuals who have aged parents. When elderly parents become ill or in need of care, the situation can become a quagmire that produces logistical tidal waves and torrents of guilt. College-age children (and less frequently high schoolers who remain in the United States) also are still family members whose needs must be considered. One parent said she had "one foot on each side of the Atlantic" until her daughter graduated from high school and joined them in England. Until that time, she simply couldn't adjust to living in the new country. HR managers need to consider expenses, such as additional travel expenses for special visits, and home computers and online services so family members and friends can communicate across the continents.

Encourage parents to develop healthy third-culture kids.
Despite the difficulties, living as an expatriate can be wonderful. The overseas experience has its blessings. Children become more international in their perspectives, have a greater appreciation of diversity and an obvious knowledge that their home country isn't the only place in the world. Many of them develop additional language skills. No question, they're changed. Recent research has coined the phrase, third-culture kids for these youngsters who develop a hybrid of cultures—a mixture of their culture of origin and that of the destination, seasoned with the idiosyncrasies developed by the international community in which they live. However, there are some concerns.

The number one worry for parents is their children's education. Most U.S. companies cover the cost of private school tuition and incidentals for elementary and secondary grades at an international or American school, and some also provide for air travel to visit children at college. But cost isn't the only worry. Each child has individual needs. One might be gifted or have special musical or athletic abilities; another might have learning disabilities; maybe another is an average student but is very shy and concerned about the shift in academic environments. Then, there's the thinking that the younger the child, the easier the move. And preteens typically don't want to relocate. HR can help introduce preteen expats to their repatriated counterparts before sending them abroad. Or you might want to recommend an EAP counselor to facilitate a family session that addresses each individual's anxieties and expectations beforehand.

Companies such as Bennett Educational Resources in West Chester, Pennsylvania set positive examples. Bennett helps candidates sort out the education process and helps with the school application procedures. First it assesses the children and then presents an array of options for each child based on need, availability, cost and proximity. "It's important that each member of the family be addressed as a person—and that there isn't this little group of leftovers who are just sort of secondary to the relocation. If children are appropriately placed in schools, they're resilient and will probably adapt quickly and well; if they have special needs, that's another story. Most families immediately start out with the assumption that they'll try the American or international school. So, part of our job is to get them to visit the schools and see what the other options are. Another aspect of our job is to tell them there are compromises they can live with," says Georgia Bennett, president.

Be aware of child development. Expect the unexpected.
Talk to anyone who has experienced an overseas assignment, and they'll tell you unhappy children can spell disaster. At the very least, they simply make parents feel impotent, creating additional burdens to adjustment and productivity. At the worst, children—especially teens—can become angry and act out, generating untold distress for both the family and the company that sends them overseas.

Witness the Michael Fay caning incident in Singapore in 1994. The boy, who was attending the Singapore American School, pleaded guilty to spray-painting cars and possessing stolen street signs. He was slapped with a $2,200 fine and sentenced to four months in prison, plus six strokes on his bare buttocks with a four-foot-long, half-inch-thick rattan cane. His father was CEO of an automotive supply company in Dayton, Ohio, and the boy was accompanying his mother and stepfather—who was an executive working for a U.S. multinational in Singapore. Fay's indiscretion caused not just mere humiliation; it created an international incident. Obviously, the families had to face the media, were subjected to public scrutiny, incurred legal costs and had to endure the agony of their son's incarceration in a Singaporean jail. Certainly no company wants to be associated with such a fiasco.

Although most children don't act out in such a public way, some can be equally distructive in more private settings. One teenage boy in Hong Kong attended a party where his father was entertaining major clients—managing directors of multinational corporations. To everyone's horror the boy wasn't only sullen, but when the group was congratulating each other on the fine job they'd recently completed and what a good attorney the father was, the boy screamed, "You may think he's a good person, but he's not. He's terrible and he's ruining our family." The boy stood upright, frozen still, daring anyone to say something in return. Humiliated and furious, the mother whisked the boy out of the room. The effect: Major loss of credibility for the father and complete embarrassment for the law firm.

Obviously, children on assignment aren't the only ones acting this way, and the majority of them have the same ups-and-downs as kids who don't expatriate. In other words, most children adapt well and behave perfectly fine in public. However, the family's highly visible status in the expatriate business community means their actions may reflect more directly upon the company. Beyond that, it's clear that anything HR can do to aid adjustment for the children will lessen potential problems for the parents. And that may come in the form of simply transferring knowledge.

"Whether you're a child or an adult, living in a transient international community certainly offers the advantage of making fast-friends."

There are several hurdles expatriate children face, any one of which can present trouble. "The major issue in raising children in our culture is helping them achieve a balanced independence," says McCoy. "When you move kids overseas, you disrupt the process." This becomes particularly problematic with teenagers. In some respects, they initially become more dependent on their family instead of peers: They can't drive and don't work at part-time jobs. On the other hand, they may experience more freedom because of easier access to public transportation, alcohol and greater physical safety in the host-country. Yet, when their fathers increasingly are absent, some children become angry at the father or blame the company for taking their dad away for too many business meetings and trips.

"The research evidence suggests, for example, that teenagers have a much harder time adjusting to international relocation than small children," says Haller-Jorden. "Presumably, if one knew that someone had two teenage children, there might be some questions that would be brought up to help the expatriate review the implications of the move." There's evidence to suggest that adolescents are at a very critical stage in terms of forming peer-group connections, and when pulled away from the security of their peers, the move can have a profound impact on their sense of self-identity. Haller-Jorden has seen teen peer groups provide just the kind of support expatriate youngsters need. HR can investigate the possibilities or simply provide information to parents about the helpfulness of peer group networks of expatriate children and have parents ask their settling-in counselor for specific resources.

Promote networking.
Whether you're a child or an adult, living in a transient international community certainly offers the advantages of making fast-friends. Networks of teens and children, therefore, can provide another salve. Kids are excited about new children moving in and tend to be open and eager with friendships. However, the incoming youngsters frequently miss the people they've left behind. It's only normal they discover how painful it is to lose friends. Often, their natural instincts take over and they try to protect themselves by withdrawing. If parents don't encourage children to express their hurt, these children may learn to not invest much of themselves in relationships because they believe they're going to hurt. Experts warn this can be equally traumatic with younger children who do tend to invest a lot of emotion in child-care providers and caretakers. The difficult outcome? Children can become sad, isolated and even depressed. Not a happy state for other (already stressed) family members to contend with, and the long-term effects can follow these children through life.

HR's role, therefore, can be significant, yet simple. By acknowledging children as part of the expatriate equation, that they have their own reactions to the experience, HR can sensitize parents and offer them some primary information and resources. HR can encourage them to read, form affiliations and communicate with their children. Because the spouse and children have tremendous influence on the outcome of the assignment, anything that HR managers can do to help them adjust quickly and well is a beneficial first step. Sustaining an adequate level of satisfaction throughout the assignment falls primarily to the wife and children, but HR managers can lend a hand by showing their interest and making sure that expat families aren't left adrift overseas.

Personnel Journal, March 1996, Vol. 75, No. 3, pp. 80-93.

Recent Articles by Charlene Marmer Solomon

Comments powered by Disqus

Hr Jobs

View All Job Listings