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Unhappy Trails

August 1, 2000
Related Topics: Expatriate Management, Relocation Management, Featured Article
Fromthe beginning, Terry Paule, an administrative law judge, had a plan. Relocating with herhusband (a corporate attorney) and children to Hong Kong, she was eager to launch intothis new phase of her life and optimistic about the opportunities that awaited her. Shewas also aware of the statistics showing that accompanying spouses who relocate globallywith their partners rarely get jobs. But Paule had a strategy and was hopeful that shewould be one of the lucky few. She took the time to settle her two daughters into school,set up house, and make friends before pursuing job options.

However,Paule didn’t foresee how difficult it would be to work overseas, even in Hong Kong,which is one of the few places where foreigners can obtain work visas. She landed aposition in a law firm but quickly discovered that the typical schedule -- 10-hour days,six days a week -- was impossible given the frenetic pace of her husband’s workschedule and her parenting responsibilities. This, coupled with his travel schedule, thekids’ long school vacations, and home leave back to the States for six to eight weeksduring the summer, made a full-time job impossible to maintain.

“Havingworked my way up in the States to an ideal work situation, I was astounded by the workculture of Hong Kong,” Paule said. “Long hours and complete commitment are theexpectation.

“Iwas not prepared for the cultural difference with the work environment, and it didn’tmesh well with a dual-career family situation,” she says. “Someone has to holddown the family fort, and it had to be me.”

Andso, Paule was surprised to find herself joining the ranks of global “trailing”partners who could not work.

“Thespouse career is becoming more and more an impediment to overseas relocations,” saysMarjorie Shorrock, president of Cleveland-based Resource Careers, Inc. “It is moredifficult internationally for a spouse to be able to continue a career in the newlocation, and this is a greater challenge than ever before.”

“It is very important to us that the spouse be happy.”

Takea look at the numbers. The 1999 Global Relocation Trends Survey conducted by WindhamInternational GMAC GRS, the National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC), and the InternationalInstitute of Human Resources (IIHR), reveals that 69 percent of expatriates are married,with spouses accompanying 77 percent of the time. Of those spouses, 49 percent wereemployed before an assignment and only 11 percent were employed during an assignment. Andif you don’t think this is a negative factor in relocation, think again. The mostcommon reason listed for assignment failure is lack of partner satisfaction (27 percent),which is directly tied to work.

Thesituation is only getting worse. Women were 46 percent of the labor force in 1997, andwill be 48 percent by 2005, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 1996,dual-earner marriages comprised nearly 43 percent of families. That’s more thandoubled since 1950, when just 20 percent of families were dual-earner marriages.

Talkto global HR managers, and they’ll tell you this is the top reason first-choicecandidates refuse to accept international assignments. They decline because they can’tafford to lose their spouse’s income or worry that the spouse’s career could bederailed entirely if he or she is out of the workforce for a few years. In most cases,paid work is not available; but as Paule’s situation illustrates, it is morecomplicated than simply the availability of jobs. Relocating dual-career spouses facechallenges with cultural differences, lack of support networks to help them withchild-care needs, language barriers, and even local national supervisors who see expats astransient and don’t want to make the investment in them.

Theproblem is not confined to wives, Paule said. “I knew several men who had to be thehouse spouse, rather than have a dual career family with its enormous stress.”

Whenpaid work is not an option, some trailing spouses decide to use the time to pursuevolunteer or educational activities that could contribute to their long-term career goals.But it’s tough to follow through in an unfamiliar place without guidance. Moreover,it’s difficult to unearth volunteer and educational opportunities when you have nonetwork through which to find them.

Asdaunting as the challenge may seem, companies and their global HR managers know it’scritical to tackle these issues.

So,what are companies doing? Not enough. About 37 percent provide education assistance tospouses; 36 percent establish spouse networks; 21 percent reimburse educational expenses;20 percent assist with career planning; and 20 percent help to find jobs when possible.Yet 30 percent provide no spouse assistance at all.

However,some companies are taking action. New York-based Pfizer Inc., the pharmaceutical firm, isone of them. “We are in such a tight labor market that whatever we can possibly do toensure a success story, we’ll do.” Their program provides a $10,000 allowance tospouses that can be used in many ways. There is also a local person who assists thepartner with professional development and locating the types of resources he or she needs.

“Itis very important to us that the spouse be happy,” says Randy Decker, senior employeeresource manager for Corporate Employee Resources. “You find that if the spouse isnot happy, sometimes the assignment itself does not go very well.” In countries wherethe spouse is allowed to work, Pfizer tries to find them a position within the company.Whatever the location, the firm provides career counseling, and the counselor keeps intouch as needed for a year.

Pfizeralso provides cross-cultural counseling and language assistance. To help families dealwith the social isolation inherent in international relocation, the company also tries toconnect the family with the expatriate community in the destination.

Asdaunting as the challenge may seem, companies and their global HR managers know it’scritical to tackle these issues. Some organizations are beginning to consider shorterassignments so they are less disruptive, and some European firms are consideringinternational commuter marriages as alternatives.

Others,like Pfizer, are constructing programs that offer a combination of programs and financialassistance, and that may offer the solution. The dual-career dilemma is not impossible tosolve. HR can have a tremendous impact if it recognizes the importance of the spouse issueand appreciates the spouse’s contribution as an ally in the business process. It’sa complex problem, perhaps the thorniest aspect of expatriation. But the needs of theaccompanying spouse must be adequately addressed, or there may be no assignment at all.

Workforce,August 2000, Vol. 79, No. 8, pp. 36-41 -- Subscribe now!

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