Chances are if you have employees working in international assignments, you’ve already learned about the importance of culture training and language lessons. You probably have a global relocation policy that incorporates occasional visits back home. You may even have a destination service ready to show your expat families around. And in spite of all of this, every once in a while you have a disillusioned family return early. The reason could be that you’re not handling your accompanying spouses any differently than their nonworking predecessors.
Global Workforce assembled a team of experts to help you grapple with this issue. And after animated discussion, three key suggestions surfaced that will help you head off problems before they bring your overseas project to a screeching halt. Our global round table consisted of:
- Noel Kreicker , president of Inter-national Orientation Resources, based in Northbrook, Illinois.
- Bonnie Michaels , president of Managing Work & Family Inc. based in Evanston, Illinois.
- Rebecca Rolfes , managing editor of Imagination Publishing based in Chicago and former accompanying spouse of 12 years.
- Carrie Shearer , manager of global compensation for Caltex Petroleum Corp. based in Dallas.
- Chuck Steel , manager of expatriate administration for ALLTEL, based in Little Rock, Arkansas.
- Marian Stoltz-Loike , Ph.D., vice president and director of cross-cultural and intercultural programs for Windham International based in New York City.
Tip One: Collect firsthand information.
It only makes sense. The less your expat couples know about a particular destination country and its culture, the more difficult it will be for them to anticipate questions they’ll have when they arrive. And the more unanswered questions they have, the more unsettled—and maybe unsure—they’ll feel when they get there.
Sure, a house-hunting trip is a start—but even that isn’t a real-life experience. It doesn’t help when the spouse has relocated with the intention of starting a business from home, only to learn that the permit he’ll need won’t be available to him; or the certification she’ll need is only awarded after passing an exam—in Thai.
What your expats and their spouses need is the inside scoop—and preferably straight from other expat couples who have lived in the same location. Bonnie Michaels explained: "The well-meaning HR manager will give 10 really great ideas of what the spouse can do, and none of them will work because they don’t exist in that country. I would suggest to HR managers that they interview expatriate spouses who have already gone over and come back—because they’re the ones with the wealth of information."
Michaels also suggested trying to get your hands on realistic case studies, with an eye for country-specific issues. Try calling HR managers at other multinational companies. Even ask if you can talk with some of their expats—especially if you don’t have employees of your own who have been there. Arrange for your employee’s accompanying spouse to meet with an accompanying spouse of a dual-career couple during the house-hunting trip.
And seek out a global relocation consulting company with specialized knowledge in the country you’re interested in. Just remember: You can’t talk to too many people. You may discover it’s easier to gain employment in the Far East, because there are more jobs than there are qualified people. Or you may learn that if the spouse can teach English or is an accountant, there’s a better likelihood he or she will get a work permit in some places.
Rebecca Rolfes—who for her first experience as an accompanying spouse received only a copy of the State Department’s book on Greece and best wishes—shared that throughout her 12 years abroad she’d always managed to work and go to school when she wanted to. But she recognizes she was the exception. "I know a lot of spouses overseas who can’t get out of bed in the morning. It’s as difficult as it ever was: You have culture shock, you’re isolated, you’re far from home, you’re homesick," Rolfes said. "You experience all of those very human things and you don’t have the structure of the job that the spouse who brought you has."
Hearing this from a trainer who hasn’t experienced it may not convince your expat couples that they need to take this issue seriously. They shouldn’t assume the spouse who, before leaving, thinks taking two years out of a steady career won’t be a problem. Let the couple talk with a husband and wife who’ve resorted to a trans-Atlantic commuter marriage because global relocation didn’t work out—and maybe they’ll be convinced that putting some serious thought into the issue of career development is an excellent precaution.
Tip Two: Be a creative career counselor.
It’s likely you’re already playing the role of career counselor to some extent with your employees. You’re helping them identify their interests, and you may be investing in their skills development. You’re reminding them that they’re in charge of their own destinies.
The round table discussed the urgent need to help with spouses’ career development in the same way. Members made several suggestions. Many you’ve likely heard before including offering a stipend to cover costs of specific activities that will help the spouses feel connected to their professional lives. Examples include: membership in professional organizations, tuition reimbursement, work permit expenses, job-search assistance, magazine subscriptions and transportation to conferences.
Shearer—who as an accompanying spouse in a domestic relocation found herself with a master’s degree selling cosmetics in a department store—suggests that the first step is a heart-to-heart with the spouse. "Usually what I try to do is get the employee’s permission to talk to his or her spouse—because a lot of times the employee minimizes [the problem]," she said.
If the spouse currently is employed, Shearer determines whether he or she has an interest in working during the overseas assignment or whether he or she plans to pick up the career again after coming home—because there’s really two sides to this issue. There’s the fact that the spouse may go stir crazy while abroad, but there’s also the very real gap on his or her resume that may make it difficult to find work again back in the States. And you have to consider that a potential employer learning of a previous relocation may worry that another relocation is around the corner.
Next, Shearer outlines some of the options and encourages the spouse to look into them. In one Caltex relocation, this led an expat-spouse-to-be who worked for Dallas-based Texas Instruments (TI) to do some checking into her employer’s global locations. Once she found a potential fit, Shearer stepped in and negotiated with HR at TI. "She was going to get free housing from us. She was going to get trips back and forth. So I told the company: ‘Just think, you’d get somebody there who’s young and bright for one-third what it would normally cost you.’" Texas Instruments agreed and the match was made.
Besides the personal development issues, there’s the simple fact that a dual-income couple may have a hard time adjusting their standard of living enough to make it on a single income. Chuck Steel said he’s concerned first with making sure his expat spouses understand the laws governing employment. And then, once the proper working papers are in place, he offers the spouse some help with his or her tax liability—which in some countries can be double what it is here in the States.
"We’ll help bear the cost of a higher tax for the spouse so the couple has the same cost they would in the United States," Steel explained. "We won’t do it without limit, but we do provide some assistance." This benefit supports the "no undue gain, no undue loss" nature of the company’s global relocation policy.
And what if, after looking at all of these issues, spouses say they don’t want to work? If they have been working until now, anticipate they could change their minds once they get there. When Caltex spouses say they’re not interested, Shearer explained, her response is: "Well that’s nice, but take this information anyway because you may find that later you are [interested]."
So now that you’ve been well-informed by firsthand sources and you’ve suggested creative career-development strategies, you’re front-end work is out of the way. Now, create a safety net to help the couple when the unexpected happens.
Tip Three: Weave a support network.
Noel Kreicker certainly knows the importance of having a support network. She shared her experience in the late 1970s as an accompanying spouse in Bogota, Colombia. After a successful Peace Corps assignment with her husband just after college, she was sure this would be a positive experience. Instead, her family became a statistic—returning home early.
Kreicker explained: "I was the classic spouse who said, ‘I’ve had it!’ Today I keep fighting this myth that the unhappy spouse causes the failed assignments. My theory is the breakdown of the support system causes the spouse to be unhappy—which then causes the failed assignments."
Kreicker suggested helping your expat spouses use the Internet to stay connected to long-distance employers or former offices: "If someone’s giving up a career and the employer is nice enough to say, ‘Stay in touch, and we hope there might be an opening when you get back,’ certainly that person could e-mail his or her friends back at the office. Or even do re-search for the company."
Marian Stoltz-Loike emphasized that pretrip culture training provides an excellent foundation, but doesn’t necessarily wipe out the possibility that your expat couples will experience culture shock. And culture shock, although not limited to just the accompanying spouse, is certainly an added stress that may weigh heavily when he or she is reevaluating the decision to relocate. "Typically it occurs around special events. You used to come home to spend Christmas with your family and you’re just too far away now," Stoltz-Loike said. "Or something occurs at home, like a death or birth in the family, that you can’t be there for."
Finding groups of Americans abroad helps a lot with this. Besides sharing holidays like Thanksgiving, these groups serve an important function for the spouse looking for overseas work-related activities. The American Women’s Club is one example. Unfortunately, Kreicker thought it was a club focused on activities like coffee and knitting, so she avoided it when she was in Bogota. "Later I found out I was missing a lot. It’s highly organized and provides tremendous activities for spouses to meet each other and to work on projects together."
She identified another useful organization called FOCUS, with offices in Lon-don, Brussels and Bellevue, Switzerland. This group works specifically to help spouses further their potential career options while overseas. It maintains job listings and holds seminars on an ongoing basis. Men and women both are active participants.
And there’s a special kind of shock the unemployed spouse may be dealing with. Stoltz-Loike explained that many Americans gain their sense of identity from their work. It might not be a problem in the beginning, but then it can quietly build. HR can help by simply calling the spouse to see how things are going. "I think it should be HR’s responsibility to [check] how people are doing, how they’re managing in terms of their career track," she said.
The bottom line is this: Dual-career spouses are here to stay. So if you’ve been ducking the issue by choosing employees with a nonworking partner, then you need to realize two things: You’re missing out on some strong overseas candidates; and you’re going to run out of people to send.
If your expat couples go abroad armed with a stack of resources—literature on culture, numbers to call for legal questions and contact information for local expats and organizations—then you’ll minimize your chances of failed assignments. You can’t foresee every challenge, but offering some resources for reassurance and guidance will go a long way.
Global Workforce, October 1996, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 25-28.