How debunking the ‘trailing spouse’ myth helps avoid expat failure

19 October 2016

If an assignee is happy and fulfilled in his or her time abroad, they are more likely to be successful. The ROI indicators will show positive results, and the HR department will be applauded for a job well done. 

So why do we still see early repatriations? Louise Wiles, Director at Thriving Abroad points out that the link between wellbeing and performance is well known, yet global mobility departments, driven primarily by the need to reduce cost, often fall short in the support they offer expats. They frequently describe the experience as “depersonalized” since it is obviously cheaper to create a one-size-fits-all global assignment policy. She notes that the success of relocations relies upon engaged and motivated assignees – and when their support requirements are effectively ignored, the process is undermined. Poor performance or early repatriation is then a much more likely outcome. 

It’s not just work, work, work

The main problem is that organizations fail to offer sufficient support to the assignee at a social and domestic level. Carl Redondo, leader of Aon’s global benefits practice noted that “When moves are unsuccessful, it is typically due to an underestimate from the individual or employer about the change in overall environment. There is a lot of focus on the role, but not enough on how the individual will spend their free time, how their family will cope, and the overall social and environmental aspects.”

The truth is that unhappy families and partners are one of the main reasons why international assignees eventually decide to return to their home country – and at the heart of this problem lies the myth of the trailing spouse.

Teapots referring to traditional gender roles | FIDI blog

Do spouses really trail?

In fact, the very term “trailing spouse” is unhelpful. The term was invented to describe a spouse who accompanies their partner to another country on their overseas job assignment. In those days the worker was usually a male executive and the trailing spouse was female, and there was a general assumption that the trailing spouse would be occupied as a primary care giver for the rest of the family. 

HR departments would do well to recognize that spouses do not ‘trail’ in the wake of a more successful partner, but take an equal part in the decision to accept a global assignment. A couple that moves together, and whose partnership is respected and supported as such by the sponsoring organization will have a much better chance of success.

Spouses are also now far more likely to want to work in the new host country, and it is in the interest of both the assignee’s employer and the host country to offer support to help them do that. 

Different countries, different rules

One great example of a country that gives attention to and helps trailing spouses assimilate into the new environment is the Netherlands. In Amsterdam, the local expat center assists in providing accompanying partners with the professional guidance and support necessary to settle them into the city.  

Other countries may be less conducive to helping partners, simply because of gender equality rules. Saudi Arabia, for example, strictly enforces gender segregation, and a female spouse is simply not expected to work. Conversely, an assignee’s male partner is expected to be the main breadwinner and may find local support for his desired role thin on the ground.

The point is not to make a statement about the attitudes prevalent in different countries, but to point out that HR departments have a role to provide support because it is not always provided in the host country. 

So what can an employer do to support the wider family?

Woman starting career abroad | FIDI blog

The most obvious areas of support for the wider family are in accommodation and schooling. Getting assignees and their families settled is critical, and compensation packages take this into account. In addition, advice is often given – frequently via previous expats – on appropriate schools and housing arrangements. There are also programs to help with social integration: providing classes to learn and adjust to the local culture and language, as well as providing contacts within the domestic expat networks. 

But some employers go further, for example offering professional support to accompanying spouses, such as career counselling (to adjust to or seek out a new occupation) or aiding in necessary paperwork such as obtaining a work permit or setting up medical insurance. 

Stop trailing, start leading

Forward-thinking HR departments are putting these measures in place as standard. By moving past the outdated idea of considering families as baggage, and understanding that they are actually a key factor in the wellbeing of every assignee, they will be preventing early repatriation and increasing ROI. 

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