Wait! Before signing that expat contract, ask what the spouse needs

Wait! Before signing that expat contract, ask what the spouse needs

Can we talk?

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.


About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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18 Responses to Wait! Before signing that expat contract, ask what the spouse needs

  1. Judy says:

    All I ever wanted was recognition that I even existed. A bunch of flowers when we arrived would have been nice! The nearest I came was when a junior HR staffer called my husband right after 9/11 (we were living in the Middle East) to ask we were alright :/

  2. expatlingo says:

    Ha! All great suggestions; can you talk to my husband’s company? While my husband’s employer did provide a look-see visit for the first move, they haven’t for the 2nd or 3rd moves. Too true that HR should spend more time including spouses in the loop.

  3. Oh, yes! A look-see is so vital. My husband’s company doesn’t offer those, which is ridiculous, considering what they would cost, what, a couple thousand dollars at most? I mean, the employee has to go to the new location for a look-see / interview, why not add the wife to the ticket? Considering all the other expenses associated with a the move, you’d think that a little trip to ease the pre-move jitters and help smooth out the transition wouldn’t be out of the question.

    As for me, I would have loved (and would love in the future) some pre-move networking. A virtual introduction to other partners who live / have lived in that posting could really help me prepare for the move mentally, and feel like I’m not jumping in blind. I mean, these are people who know what it’s really like on the ground and can pass on vital information like, say, whether or not you’ll need to pack a year’s supply of all natural peanut butter in your shipment.

    Related: Do you know if you can make peanut butter in a blender? Maybe I should google that.

    • Maria says:

      I think about the idea of mentoring programs all the time. It wouldn’t take much work on the company’s part to set it up: they already have a database of current and former expats, so how hard would it be to set up an introduction or make available a list of people willing to chat with someone considering a move? The payoff would be enormous, and you’d think in an age of corporate social responsibility, companies would jump at the chance to show some employee love. (PS yes, you can make peanut butter in a blender. It won’t keep long without preservatives, but it’ll probably taste a whole lot better.)

  4. Naomi Hattaway says:

    Missing from our experience? A chat with ME about how the tax process would go and be handled. It all falls on me anyway … why isn’t anyone talking to me about the hows and whys? GREAT post, Maria!

    • Great point Naomi! Literally *The* single saving grace for me was that I had filed US tax returns while abroad even though no tax was due. It sounds like a no-brainer (and a legal issue) but there were ex-pats who didn’t. After being divorced, it was hard to know how to start to separate records on two continents, but as it turned out, that one key step was the difference between being able to buy a home and re-patriate, vs. facing more hurdles on verifying my income from non-US sources. You made a great point about needing help sorting that bit out!

  5. Thanks for sharing your insight about the expat spouse experience. In 2010, I followed my husband to India. In retrospect, I wish that we had read more about the expat experience before he signed the contract. I chronicled my adventure in my published memoir. I’m hoping that others will learn from my adventure.

  6. Carole Hallett Mobbs says:

    Fantastic article! We are lucky in that we do have a lot of assistance with our actual relocation, but then, once there, that support tends to disappear completely. Us spouses are left to work it out for ourselves unless there is a spectactularly capable ‘buddy’ who taakes it upon themselves to help out.
    I’ve literally just heard that we are on the move again, very suddenly and very quickly. I could use some physical help to declutter – ain’t gonna happen!

  7. Easy win for employers is to have the spouse (the back up support system) onside! Small acts can help too! I tell you if I’d just once received a bouquet of flowers on arrival/departure, a card, an invite to a drink/ coffee or even a thank you card from one of the “bosses” I’d have been delighted. As I repatriated to the UK last year at my request whilst hubby worked on – his then boss did invite us out for a meal.

    • Maria says:

      It’s strange how some bosses behave as though their employees exist in a vacuum. It’s so short-sighted, and as you’ve illustrated, completely counterproductive. Thanks for commenting, Nicola.

  8. Thank you! I think that it makes good moral and economic sense for the company to pay good attention to the spouse and family. I would love to help train expat spouses on how to learn a language before they expatriate and once they get there. Often the spouses have to interact with the local culture more than the employee! I’ve blogged a couple times about this topic.

  9. Eyagee says:

    Sadly this does not apply to English teachers, as my wife is one. So in our case, any expenses are from our own pocket as contract work is only with my wife. We understand this and accepted it. In many cases, we ask for something bigger (i.e. bed, apartment) and pay the difference. It is a bit of a strain on our relationship as I am not legally allowed to ‘earn income in Korea’ so finding ways to contribute are few and far between outside of the obvious (do the dishes before she gets home) type of deal. Still, for us, this was not an issue but merely a reality and looked at, mostly understood and went with it any ways 🙂

  10. worldwifetraveler says:

    What a wonderful post! I would email/call the contacts at the relocation company that were provided to my husband as I was going to be the one handling our day to day affairs. When it came to the house hunt, if I didn’t like it, we were not getting it so I felt it was important they know what my requirements/needs were with housing before we arrived to house hunt. I feel as though I had to somewhat force myself into the situation and thankfully, everyone was receptive. I think including the spouses from the very beginning to ask questions, etc. would be huge rather than having to go through your husband. Seriously, this is not the early 1900’s. I am not a silent partner. We are a team and a decision as large as relocating to another country deserves to have concerns heard from both partners. Overall, the company is very good at taking care of spouses i.e. language classes, paying for the look & see trip, etc. I think having other spouses of the company willing to talk/share their experiences would be helpful too. Hopefully companies will get on board with this as more expats are relocated.

    • Maria says:

      I do think things are getting better, but you’re right: they still have a way to go. Speaking up for ourselves is one way to make sure this happens. Thanks for commenting.

  11. Pingback: Intercultural Blog Carnival: Expat Support: What We Need, and How to Deliver It | Expat Everyday Support Center

  12. michelloui says:

    TOTALLY! I loved this post. I was just connecting with a group of int’l recruiters on just this topic. Ok, after reading through and commenting on several of your posts this morning I realise I don’t stop by often enough!! Have just added you to my Bloglovin account to hopefully rectify that. 🙂

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