One Assignment, Two Lives

May 1, 1996
To the outside observer, even to friends and acquaintances, Carol Leigh looked fine. But she remembers the day problems began: It was during a small luncheon with six other expat wives. As they sat around the table introducing themselves, every woman gave her name, then her husband's title, then the name of his company. Nothing else.

This was not Leigh's way of doing things. A financial analyst who worked 60-hour weeks, she'd left a thriving career in New York when her husband was offered an international opportunity in Tokyo. Although she wanted to continue working, she quickly discovered the legalities of acquiring a new job internationally were almost insurmountable.

After helping her family settle into school and work, establishing the household and getting into the rhythm of the new city, Leigh realized she needed something more to occupy her time. At first she was happy to explore and meet other expat wives. But, day after day, she began to feel the erosion of her identity; her self-image was so connected to her work (which no one seemed to care about) that she didn't quite feel herself. Her self-esteem began to suffer and she found herself becoming less confident and a little angry. First, there was the introduction at the luncheon, then cocktail parties at which people talked about work and paid only passing interest to her ideas, then an encounter with a colleague of her husband's who said all she needed was a "good cry." She started to go back to bed in the morning after she'd sent the kids off to school. She began complaining to her husband that they hadn't received the same generous benefits package some of his colleagues had.

And then her friend from New York came to visit. Brimming with news of the office goings-on, delivering gossip about chums, Leigh learned her friend had received a well-deserved promotion. Filled with envy and sorrow at what she had left behind, she increasingly became annoyed about her situation. Why should all the focus be on Jack's career? On his work? Why was he the only one with a paycheck? She knew she could always have her old job back at home, and she began to feel like she was wasting time and wasting away while Jack (and her friends at home) were in high gear. She began to harangue Jack about returning early to the States.

Help spouses find meaning in their lives, too.
Carol Leigh isn't unique. Her tale is repeated in various guises by expatriate spouses around the world. She may be a stock broker who's unable to trade on a foreign exchange, an architect who can't work because local customs prohibit women from doing so, or a secretary unable to obtain a work permit. And increasingly, she is a he, a male accompanying partner following his expat wife.

No matter what the reason-or the gender-after the scramble to help their families settle-in settles down, spouses confront an emptiness based on their own lack of routine, lack of network and lack of job. They must create a new life, often with a frequently absent partner and regularly without the prospect of employment for themselves. They face isolation, a loss of identity and diminished self-esteem. This isn't only because they've relinquished their career (or at least paid employment), but also because they encounter stress every day in the new environment-stress that makes them question if they can do anything competently anymore.

The dilemma of expatriate spouses, particularly dual-career spouses, is a growing and difficult one for HR managers. It not only rears its head during the selection of candidates (when many turn down assignments because of the spouse's career), but it also affects the success of the assignment and the ability for spouses and families to successfully repatriate. Consequently, if global managers want to help the Carol Leighs (and the assignments their husbands are on), they're going to have to design practices to help spouses find meaningful ways to spend their time during international assignments. In some cases, this may mean helping the spouse find employment or navigating through a maze of foreign immigration technicalities; in other cases it means helping him or her contact organizations to find out about volunteer work and educational opportunities; in still others it means simply connecting the spouse with a worthwhile network of peers. No easy task with one-size-fits-all solutions. Nevertheless, global HR managers must face this problem, head-on, and attempt to tackle some of these myriad issues with innovative approaches.

"We began to realize that the entire effectiveness of the assignment could be compromised by ignoring the spouse," says Steve Ford, manager of corporate relocations for Hewlett-Packard Co. based in Palo Alto, California. "Lots of things have changed in recent years," he says, "but one of the most significant is the growing percentage of working spouses and a realization that sending a family on a foreign service assignment isn't that simple. The assignment could be unsuccessful because of issues related to greater stress or unhappiness with the spouse (or other family members). And, from the company's point of view, a foreign service assignment is very expensive."

Indeed, statistics support Ford's claim that the number of dual-career couples is growing. The Bureau of Labor Statistics points out that in 1995, more than 65% of all married couples with children were dual-earner families (up 9% in 10 years). Women comprise 46% of the U.S. labor force. Furthermore, simply talk to global HR managers, and they'll tell you the spouse's career is becoming more and more an impediment to overseas relocations. In fact, this is the biggest factor when employees refuse to accept an international assignment. They decline because they can't afford to lose the income or they worry it may derail the spouse's career entirely if he or she is out of the workforce for a few years. It's becoming such an important issue that some organizations are beginning to consider redefining the length of assignments so they're much shorter (and thus, less disruptive to a spouse's career), and some are willing to consider international commuter marriages as alternatives. And these issues will become ever-more complex as greater numbers of men are the accompanying partner.

Already, we see this domestically. The Employee Relocation Council stated that in 1992 women constituted up to 15% of corporate moves (an increase from 5% in 1980). The Wall Street Journal estimates approximately 25% of accompanying partners will be males by the year 2000.

Here are some of the obstacles accompanying partners of either gender say they encounter in their quest to find meaningful work, whether that be paid or unpaid:

  • Immigration regulations that bar foreigners from working
  • Language
  • Lack of transferable skills to meaningful available work
  • Scarcity of volunteer opportunities
  • Cultural barriers that don't allow women to perform certain jobs-paid or voluntary
  • Lack of knowledge about educational opportunities.

As daunting as the challenge may seem, companies and their global HR managers know it's critical to tackle these issues, and some are making inroads. Companies such as Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP), Shell International B.V., Medtronic Inc. and Monsanto Co. take a two-pronged approach: First, they help the spouse overcome cultural and emotional hurdles as well as the loneliness of a new location by offering cross-cultural counseling and connecting them with a network of spouses in the host community; and secondly, they offer a variety of options to begin to address the dual-career dilemma.

These services don't have to cost a lot of money. "At the outset, what's most important is a commitment from the company that it's willing to provide some support and acknowledgment that expatriate spouses are an important issue," says Eleanor Haller-Jorden, managing director of Zurich, Switzerland-based Paradigm Group and an authority and frequent lecturer on this topic. An expatriate herself, Haller-Jorden says companies can provide a variety of simple services that address the problem directly. For example, they can consolidate data, creating a clearinghouse of information and resources; they can set up a conference room and phone line for spouses or a small room to serve as a resource library with materials on the local community; they can create a directory of expatriates (especially those who would be willing to speak with newly arrived expatriates). For firms that feel they can get more involved, they can create a job hotline in which project-based jobs are available or they can create a consortium of companies and pool resources in a specific location or within an industry and create a job bank. Moreover, they can always help with acquiring work permits and offering career counseling. Finally, she says, companies could take stock of what they're currently offering and get feedback from expatriates-what's useful and what's not.

Indeed, that's precisely where Shell International, based both in London and The Hague, began its initiative to support spouses. With more than 5,500 expatriates, Shell possibly has the most expatriates of any company in the world. In 1993, the giant oil and petroleum multinational conducted a survey to discover the details of its expatriate community. The company discovered one of the greatest impediments to employees' mobility was their partners' reluctance to move. It also discovered that spouses felt they weren't being utilized enough and their expertise wasn't valued.

Quickly, the company moved into action. Once the main operating companies supported the findings and conclusions, it appointed a Spouse Employment consultant who advises spouses and partners on a broad range of employment issues (either directly or by referral to external agencies). For example, a partner may come to Shell's consultant, Kathleen van der Wilk-Carlton, because he or she has only a vague idea of what's available in a destination country, or the person may have a very defined career path in mind and speak with her about ways to promote that career. Van der Wilk-Carlton first conducts a thorough assessment that will ultimately lead to career planning. Then she helps to either locate employment, aid in work permit acquisition or-when paid employment is impossible-find appropriate educational and volunteer activities that interest the person and help him or her keep on track. This can be very difficult because many expatriates in Shell go from one international location to another, and thus one area may be conducive to paid employment whereas the next destination may have only a few opportunities.

Apart from the area of employment, Shell also recognized the strong desire on the part of expatriate spouses to have greater recognition and contribution to the company. As a result, it created a network of briefing centers for expatriation around the world. It's for the entire expatriate family and it's run by spouses and becoming a spouse information center. The model is in The Hague Center in The Netherlands, which has a paid staff of expatriate spouses as well as volunteers. Each center serves a different community, and thus offers somewhat different activities, but each is generated by the interest of spouses.

Keep support consistent with company culture and values.
Hewlett-Packard's Ford concurs with Shell's approach of promoting independence. "My belief is that HP people like to take ownership for their own lives and their own careers. What they want is to have us provide an environment in which they can do that. We try to make people as self-reliant as possible and to allow them to channel their energies in some productive way by giving them ideas and giving them access to counseling, education or whatever," he says. HP prepares for this predeparture through counseling sessions that explore a variety of opportunities for the spouse.

HP's awareness of the dual-career problem, however, doesn't mean the company will do just anything to solve the problem. Solutions must be consistent with its fundamental principles about foreign assignments and its corporate culture. In keeping with that idea, the company doesn't approve of commuter marriages. "HP has a very strong philosophy about keeping the family together so we actively discourage commuter relationships in [our] international policies," says Tee Hitchcock, international relocation specialist. "In fact, it could be the basis for nonselection of a candidate," she says.

The firm also won't try to replicate the spouse's income. "It's not under consideration," she says. But, she continues, "We understand that asking a family to relocate these days [involves] talking about two-career families, so we try to create policies that reflect that concern." The following are HP's policies that affect dual-career spouses:

  • One-day session of spouse-specific training that's either career-related or interest-related (it could be academic or it could be a hobby). Usually the counselor researches beforehand what's available in the host country and also gives contact names.
  • Financial assistance for the spouse by which HP shares the cost of all types of educational activities up to $2,000 annually (this can include host-location career-counseling).
  • Assistance with resume preparation and payment for visas when work is a possibility in the destination country.
  • Three days of cross-cultural counseling and orientation for the whole family that's designed to cover local customs (business and social; history) as well as ways to become more quickly accustomed to the local environment.
  • Language training.
  • If the spouse is an HP employee, there's often a leave of absence with a guarantee of work upon return.

Obviously, the policies HP developed and implemented demonstrate the value the company places on spouses, whether they're leaving a paid career or not.

HR can channel spouse contributions toward volunteer work.
Tamara Homburg is a spouse who took the international relocation as an opportunity to create something exceptional. On assignment with her husband for St. Louis-based Monsanto Co., Homburg was always optimistic and enthusiastic about the international opportunity. The chance to move to Brussels, Belgium with Monsanto came when Homburg, a practicing lawyer, was pregnant with her and her husband's second child and she was eager to take a break in her career. During the first year in Brussels, she taught business law classes. Nevertheless, Homburg (who had been on assignment once before) felt antsy to do more involved and challenging work.

Luck intervened. When Marena Rahusen, the HR manager in Brussels who's responsible for expatriate policies, initiated the idea of a Spousal Sponsor Network and asked for assistance, Homburg's hand shot up as the volunteer to lead the effort. At first, it began as a regular gathering for coffee and sharing of relocation horror stories-things such as learning to use gasoline station pumps, marketing in less than three hours, and other relatively minor situations you laugh at afterward that are "... huge events in... your life that can move very competent people to tears... " These were the basis for lively, continuing discussions.

Soon after, the group decided to formalize the network as a way to be sure newcomers could learn from their experiences. Monsanto provides a place to meet, facilities for group gatherings, postage and copying services. Well-known for its responsive international relocation policies, the company not only attempts to sustain the spouse, but actually recognizes his or her contribution to the company. "We value spouses. In fact, we let them know it's not just employees' knowledge we value, it's theirs as well," says Carol Jones, global development director for Monsanto. As an example of this belief, Rahusen helped the group begin and maintained a sense of sponsorship and offered resources. But the company wants spouses to assume ownership of the organization. It also pushes for the group to be autonomous to assure it avoids the possibility of spouses being involved in company politics.

Today, the Spousal Sponsor Network has created a databank of families who have lived in Brussels at least a year. These people (both expatriate and local families) must meet specific criteria similar to the core competencies the company identifies for successful, adaptive expats. Before new expats come on the network's house-hunting trip, they receive a package from the Brussels office with a letter from the network describing the program and asking if they'd like to participate.

"The Spousal Sponsor Network began as a gathering for coffee and sharing of relocation horror stories, such as learning to use gasoline station pumps and marketing in less than three hours."

The family provides a profile (who the kids are, whether they've had previous global assignments, what their interests are) and then they're matched with one of the sponsor families. During the family's house-hunting trip, the sponsor makes contact and invites the newcomers over to their home for dinner during the weekend to become acquainted.

The sponsors actually undergo a competency development workshop so they're able to be helpful to the newcomers, understand the stress they're undergoing, and respect confidentiality. Sponsors are proactive. After an initial needs assessment, sponsors are encouraged to keep in touch with the people and make certain they're doing well. "The whole purpose of the sponsor program was to get people integrated as quickly as possible so they had a network or support group to go to," says Homburg.

Provide financial support and creative employment assistance.
Monsanto utilizes financial resources to help spouses identify their transferable skills and assists them with finding opportunities in the host country. The company has a clear dual-career policy with three tiers. One is for predeparture: a one-time dislocation payment that's 33% of the last six months of gross taxable earned income. Another tier applies during the assignment: a payment of up to $5,000 of pre-approved expenses for higher education that's career-related (job search assistance, immigration help, travel to the country-of-origin for professional meetings, payment for professional certification fees and professional magazine subscriptions). The third tier is for repatriation: a $1,000 allowance for re-entry job-search assistance, resume preparation, interviewing techniques and skills analysis. These policies apply to people who work full time or part time. They can be self-employed or employed by a company.

Another company that offers financial assistance is Minneapolis-based Medtronic Inc., makers of heart pacemakers and other cardiac-related devices. The firm generates 44% of its revenue from overseas.

Possibly the most innovative way the company recognizes the needs of all the family members of its 25- to 30-member expat group is its Flexible Reimbursement Account. It's a matching account in which the family can spend up to $6,000 per year on personal development and the company will reimburse 50% of that. The policy statement offers examples: Dual-career spouses can use the money for travel expenses to conferences outside the foreign location or for other educational expenses. It also can use the money for any other expense that will make the relocation easier on any family members, such as additional telephone calls home or flying grandparents to see the expatriates. The intent? The company recognizes expatriates have needs in addition to what they would have if they were in the United States. But, clearly, as beneficiaries of money, expats share the expense.

In addition to financial support, Medtronic helps dual-career families by networking with the spouse's company and trying to arrange innovative opportunities. In the past, the company has worked with the spouse's employer to find a position in the same country, to alter the timing of the expat's assignment-speed it up or slow it down-if the spouse's career was positively affected, and to help with work-related legalities such as acquiring visas and paying union dues. Furthermore, Medtronic has attempted to find ways to help the spouse maintain a long-distance relationship with the employer, such as a long-distance telecommuting relationship.

The following key policy features are ways in which Medtronic tries to impact the spouse's experience:

  • Flexible Reimbursement Account
  • Predeparture cultural orientation for expatriate, spouse and children, if appropriate
  • Automobile (including special lease rates if a second car is desired for the spouse)
  • Language training prior to and during the assignment
  • Outsourced settling-in services to assist expats in finding their way to the bank, the grocery store and other activities of day-to-day life
  • On-the-ground, in-country follow-ups by a third-party to be sure the expatriate family is doing well.

The company also has defined ways to improve personnel responsiveness. It comprehensively assesses cultural adaptability for the entire family before the assignment to identify any red flags. It establishes closer ties with expatriates throughout the duration of the assignment by talking with them at specific intervals. At the same time, the company creates a network of global managers at other companies to determine what is state-of-the-art assistance. It also continuously measures the effectiveness of current services. For example, it asks families how useful settling-in services, cultural counseling and predeparture training are to them, and what may be missing.

Monsanto, HP and Shell show that although the dual-career dilemma may be a difficult one, it's not impossible to solve. They're trying to support spouses in so many ways: Helping them identify transferable skills that will assist their adaptation in the destination; encouraging career development discussions before relocation; telling them about volunteer and educational opportunities that will further their careers; counseling them about such possibilities as taking a leave-of-absence and returning to the job for specified periods of time during the assignment; providing long-term career counseling and development support; providing names of local spouse centers and counseling facilities; and even exploring collaborations with other global firms for job possibilities.

To be sure, it's not simple. Indeed, it may be one of the most thorny aspects of expatriation. But the needs of the accompanying spouse must be adequately addressed or there may be no assignment at all.

Personnel Journal, May 1996, Vol. 75, No. 5, pp. 36-47.