If you want to solve expatriates’ adjustment problems, don’t forget the spouse!

With expatriation becoming an integral part of the talent management in global companies more and more attention is paid to its challenges and the problems that international assignees face. However, focusing only on the difficulties that expatriates themselves encounter is not enough…

The latest Brookfield global relocation trends survey data indicate that most international assignees are accompanied by their spouses or partners (80%) during the expatriation. As in previous years, family concerns (e.g. partner resistance) remain a hot topic for expatriates and top the list of reasons for assignment refusal and early return. Spousal dissatisfaction also ranked first among the major factors for assignment failure. Given these numbers, it seems logical to argue that expatriates’ families play a crucial role in the expatriation experience, can influence its result and thus need separate attention.

This argument is echoed in a recent study by Nina Cole that examines spousal adjustment issues and highlights the impact of family-related concerns on expatriation outcomes. Her field study of 238 spouses of expatriates builds on previous research findings (Takeuchi et al., 2002) that there is a crossover effect of general adjustment by spouses on expatriates and vice versa.

With the significant increase in dual-career expatriate couples, Cole’s findings indicate that one of the most important factors in spousal adjustment is linked to their employment issues. Indeed, the Brookfield 2011 survey shows that 60% of spouses and partners were employed before (but not during) the assignment and only 12% managed to stay employed during their partner’s assignment.  Accompanying a partner to an international assignment most often means changes for one’s own career and the study’s results show that expatriate spouses who experience a termination or interruption of their employment will have lower adjustment than those who do not. This highlights the need for companies to provide employment assistance for spouses, especially in the case of career-oriented and male spouses.

Based on her research, Cole makes several practical suggestions for spousal assistance programmes. First, she notes that contrary to the wide-spread belief such assistance programmes don’t have to be expensive. While study participants reported to be receiving organizational assistance, it was not always perceived as valuable though. The interviewed spouses indicated that what they needed most is employment-related and networking information to assist with the job search. Cole notes that lists of employment agencies, expatriate associations/networks, and networking groups for spouses can be obtained via a simple Web search or through existing spousal groups and networks.

In addition, respondents indicated that less expensive practical assistance during the settling-in period has a greater perceived value than costly cash allowances. For example, organizations could hire existing expatriate spouses to assist the newcomers with different practical advice and overall moral support, such as acknowledgment of the difficulties they are facing. Cole notes that many spouses that were interviewed stressed the importance of their relationships with other spouses they met in spousal clubs and groups in adjusting to their new life.

Thus, Cole’s research implies that ‘the two major areas where spouses need assistance – information to assist in employment networking and practical support during the settling-in period – are not expensive to provide and may even represent an opportunity for cost reduction compared to current assistance programs’.


Brookfield 2011 Global Relocation Trends Survey

Cole, N.D. (2011). Managing global talent: solving the spousal adjustment problem, International Journal of Human Resource Management, 22, 1504-1530

Takeuchi, R., Yun, S., and Tesluk, P.E. (2002). An examination of crossover and spillover effects of spousal and expatriate cross-cultural adjustment on expatriate outcomes, Journal of Applied Psychology, 87, 655-666.

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