A few weeks ago, when reviewing the latest stats from industry surveys on expatriates, I noted that there is a slowly emerging shift towards younger and less attached expatriates. Yet, the average profile of an expatriate still remains quite traditional, including a dominance of male employees, who are married or have a partner. Given this profile, it does not really surprise that the list of expatriation challenges is still topped with spouse/partner (hereafter partner) and family issues.
Specifically, the Brookfield 2013 survey indicates that 46% of respondents reported partner resistance to an international assignment as the major family related challenge. Although this resistance can be attributed to many different reasons, such as social ties and quality of life, I believe that at large it may be linked also to partners’ career aspirations. When brought out separately, 73% of the survey respondents rated the partner’s career as a critical or highly important expatriation challenge, and 17% reported a partner’s career to be the reason for assignment refusal. Considering that these numbers correspond to the total expat population, which includes single expats and those with unemployed partners, it is logical to assume that within dual-career couples these challenges are even more acute.
What to do? From challenges to solutions
One easy solution would be to recruit more single employees to international assignments. However, if companies want to recruit the best suitable candidate from a skills, personality characteristics and job requirements standpoint, then some of these candidates will inevitably face dual-career problems. Ignoring dual-career couples would simply dilute the talent pool.
According to Brookfield 2013 survey data, currently the top five partner assistance programs include language training (72%), career planning assistance (29%), assistance with education/training (28%), coverage of employment search fees (27%), and lump sum allowance for partner support (27%). Adding to these data, the KPMG 2013 survey on IHRM programs indicates that slightly more than 40% of organizations provide some form of allowance to the accompanying partner, 33% offer work visa assistance, and 21% offer job search assistance.
Beyond doubt these assistance programs are needed and valued, and yet, all of them imply that the decision to accompany the expatriate and, hence, sacrifice one’s own career is already made by the partner. Indeed, I would use the word sacrifice, as changing the location for someone else’s career is rarely a natural and planned part of one’s own career. In essence, when one partner is offered a suitable position in a host location, then the other partner, in most cases, has to look for a new job in a new location, most likely with a new language. As such, being compelled (by the circumstances) to change jobs will usually lead the trailing partner to choose what is available (if he or she is ‘lucky’), rather than what is best for his/her career progression. Hence, it is a sacrifice, and the assistance programs provided are in a way a cushion that takes the edge of this sacrifice. So, is there anything else to do?
Could companies do more than easing the sacrifice?
Well, companies can make the sacrifice worth it!
Naturally, no cost efficient assignment abroad could fully substitute the dual-career couple for the two jobs left at home. Yet, companies have all the opportunities to make an expat’s assignment more worthwhile with regard to their partner’s sacrifice. Planning the assignment well in advance, supporting its implementation, and most importantly making use of it for the assignee’s career after repatriation (while also helping with the partner’s career reentry), are some of the possible methods for making such a big change in dual-career families meaningful. Interestingly, this idea brings me from the topic of partner assistance back to the topic of better management of expatriate programs themselves. In the end, however, this makes perfect sense, as there is not much use in partner assistance initiatives if the main and initial matter for partner relocation – the international assignment of the expatriated employee – is managed poorly.