When Benjamin Franklin remarked that nothing is certain in life but death and taxes, he clearly wasn’t thinking ahead to 21st century global mobility. I hope I’m not stepping on BFrank’s toes when I point out another certainty he failed to mention: Sending a manager on an overseas assignment ain’t cheap.
Mindful of the costs associated with assignment failure and hoping to increase their return on investment, firms are being much more selective these days about who they send. They’re priming their expats for success by pre-screening candidates using psychological assessment tools, offering cross-cultural training, and providing attractive (but no longer crazy-extravagant) expat packages.
What’s missing from this picture? The spouses, of course. It’s mind-boggling that many companies don’t ask for their input into a process that will forever change their lives and those of their families. In fact, far too many firms still don’t communicate directly with the spouse at all.
Keeping them out of the loop is just plain dumb. We all know the statistics: spousal dissatisfaction is way up there on the list of reasons assignments end early. It doesn’t have to be this way. Most expat spouses aren’t asking for the moon; they just want a few basic needs to be met:
Clear and direct communication from HR. Expat expert Robin Pascoe, who partnered with AMJ Campbell International to conduct the relocation survey “Family Matters!” found a “desperate need” among expat spouses for clear, regular communication from HR regarding all aspects of the international assignment. Not content to be the silent partner of yesteryear, spouses are insisting on a direct line to HR, bypassing the traditional chain of command which involves the manager as the go-between.
Input into the decisions that will affect their life abroad. Despite all those studies reaffirming that the spouse’s satisfaction can make or break the assignment, most are never asked by HR if they’re happy about the move. Big mistake, according to Dr. Anne P. Copeland of The Interchange Institute. In the “Many Women Many Voices” Study of Accompanying Spouses Around the World (conducted by Dr. Copeland and commissioned by Prudential Financial), she urges sponsoring organizations to consult spouses before the offer is made. Makes sense, right? No point having a chat about expectations six months into the assignment, by which time the spouse may already be BFFs with Ben & Jerry and Jack Daniels. You can’t put the toothpaste back into the tube, people.
Help with employment (or alternatives). Enlightened organizations know it’s in their best interests to support the accompanying spouse in this new role, whatever form it may take. If the spouse is able to work in the foreign location, this support may extend to assistance getting a work permit, translating relevant documentation, updating a CV, and providing guidance during a job search. If work isn’t an option, how about an educational allowance, or assistance starting a business? Spending a little $£¥€ now could save a bundle later.
A look-see visit. No amount of online research can take the place of a trip to the host country. A look-see isn’t a sightseeing jaunt; it’s an opportunity to assess the fit between the candidates and the host country. Smart organizations view it as a necessary expense. Why? Because it leads to an informed decision about something that will significantly affect the lives of the expat family and the company’s bottom line.
I haven’t mentioned such things as house-hunting assistance, language lessons, and school tuition because these are generally included in expat packages. I’m sure I’ve overlooked a few spousal needs, though. What would be on your list?
A longer version of this article appeared on Suite101.com on May 23, 2010 © Maria Foley.