According to statistics, the vast majority of expatriates who leave their postings early cite “family adjustment” as the main reason for their return. And while the definition of “family adjustment” is very broad and can contain a lot of different issues, for the purpose of this blog post I’d like to focus on just one.
The spouse/partner career issues come up both in statistics and in my own practice of coaching expatriate spouses. Almost 80% of the spouses I coach come to me citing either their difficulty in adjusting to life without a career or in justifying taking a few years off or in feeling confident enough to look for and find a job in their new country of residence. These struggles put a lot of strain on their well being, their families’ well-being, and, by extension, the success of the expatriate assignment — which, in turn, greatly affects the company’s ability to retain talent and the company’s bottom line.
So what can companies do to help their expatriate families in terms of this issue? Short of finding a great job for the spouse, what tools and resources can companies provide? My suggestion would be to start with these three and add more if necessary:
1. When preparing an employee for expatriation, inquire if the spouse/partner is interested in continuing her/his career while abroad. If that’s the case, make sure you offer that spouse/partner the kind of cross-cultural training that’s focused on job and corporate culture. The list of traditional do’s and don’ts is nice but it doesn’t help when someone wants to find work.
2. There are web sites out there that offer job searches specifically for expat partners. Some require subscription but the amount of money you’d spend on subscribing to them will definitely pay off as you won’t lose the money you spent on expatriating someone who wants to come home 2 months later.
3. Pay for the first three to four coaching sessions with a certified expatriate/cross-cultural coach for the spouse/partner. Coaching is a great tool of empowerment that helps people adjust faster and better. You don’t have to commit to cover coaching costs for the entire time of your employee’s expatriation — but if you cover the first few sessions, they will continue on their own. The support and the skills that coaching offers will contribute to your efforts in creating the best expatriate assignees out there. We work with HR departments and specialists to offer this kind of initial session service — please contact us here for more information.
There are many more things that companies can offer and I’d love to hear other people’s suggestions in the commentaries!
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This is a useful text. I am an expat myself although moved within Europe. I had a friend who was in a great job (to my mind) but it was hard for me to find the right support.
I will now offer this as part of my ‘service’.
This is a great list of suggestions. Having come to the Netherlands as a trailing spouse it would have been nice to have someone in my court from a career standpoint. I would add that covering language training is extremely valuable for spouses since we don’t have an office to go to for practice and interaction. Language skills can also make the difference in some areas for finding work.
That’s true, Amanda! Language assistance is very important. Thanks for the suggestion!
There are two sides of this situation which would both benefit from some ‘coaching’. The first is the ‘working’ spouse, and the second is the ‘trailing’ family.
The ‘working’ spouse is immediately put into both a social and stressful situation. Socially they are integrated immediately into a group that can help them understand what is going on, interact with them, and generally make them feel more a part of the team. The stress is generated by being in a new part of the world with a lot of expectations put on you… after all you’ve just landed with a bunch of skills that you now have to prove.
The family however is put into a more isolated situation, even more so if the ‘working’ spouse does a lot of traveling. There is no built in social network that a trailing family can plug into (the exception seeming to be in the military and perhaps very large organizations) so they have to create their own from scratch. This is daunting to anyone… giving up your entire social network (and safety net) and then needing to build it up from nothing is a terrifying prospect. I’ve often seen that this is further exacerbated by the ‘working’ spouse not really understanding the level of isolation, frustration, and energy it takes to build up a social network. Further because your partner is more often than not unemployed, there are feelings of a loss of self-worth and self-determination.
I’ve both watched this and been through it; it’s not an easy passage to make. Finding employment for your trailing partner may help with them feeling more empowered and help them build up a social network. That won’t be possible in all cases though; to be successful, both sides need to understand the situation of the other and support them.
Because the emotions on both sides are so different and so easy to misunderstand, family coaching is a good place to start. Writing about your situation is also helpful, as my wife did (and still does). She recently wrote an article about how blogging helped her for AlmostFearless. You can find a link to it from here: http://cheeseweb.eu/2010/03/blogging-books-saved-expat-life/
Thanks for the discussion.
Thank you for your comment, Andrew, all excellent points! I completely agree — coaching both the individual and perhaps the family as a system is an excellent place to start.