Support for expat partners overlooked
Research suggests that 65% of the international assignments which are not successful, can be attributed to the unhappiness and poor well-being of ex-pat partners. Organizations (and couples) frequently forget to take into account the needs of this special demographic, sometimes called the invisible ex-pat.
The decision for one partner whether male or female, to put their own professional activity on hold to support the other, is challenging and complex. Today, women are still the more frequently the trailing spouse, especially on international assignments. A very high number are university educated and professionally qualified, a significant shift to 30 years ago. More women are creating stronger individual career paths than ever before. Couples and families are also increasingly reliant on two incomes. Many factors have to be carefully thought through to make this career development period for the employee successful. This involves taking care of the expat partner.
What can companies do to prevent international assignments being derailed?
#1 Couple career coaching
Companies tend to invest in the practical side of the preparation for relocation. Funded trips to look for schools and accommodation are generally offered but very little thought is given to career support for the couple. This should be considered before the start of the assignment, even the acceptance of the offer.
The initial reaction of the employee and the partner is frequently one of excitement. The opportunity to move internationally offers what seems like enormous opportunities for personal growth, new cultural experiences and travel. Yet very rarely do companies factor in the career trajectory of the non-employed partner, particularly assigning a career coach to work with the couple to understand the full impact this move will have on both of them, at the point of offer. One trailing spouse told me:
“I was excited at the prospect of moving overseas, but had never fully realised how important my career was to me. Once the novelty had worn off I found I really missed my job and working: the structure of the working day and the interaction with colleagues. I started to feel valueless.”
Many expat partners report feeling a loss of identity. This is added to by a tacit understanding by organisations that the expat partner will take care of the “emotional labour“ involved in an international move which saves them significant sums on outsourcing costs. One expat wife said
“I took care of all the paper work relating to our move and dealings with the different authorities, including the IRS and local tax returns.”
Sometimes companies will try to hire the expat partner in the overseas location or offer network assistance. But this does not happen frequently.
#2 Individual Career Coaching
PWC reported on future trends in international talent mobility, and identified that although the expatriate population is expected to grow, decisions will be predicated around budget restrictions, with an increase in local hires, virtual teams and sending younger (single) employees on international locations. Provision for expat partners is not anticipated to be strong.
Many trailing spouses report feeling misled by the possibilities of career opportunities in a new location described by their partner’s employer. This is especially significant if there are visa and language limitations. Real care should be given to establishing what the expat partner can do to manage a career gap, in terms of personal development or alternative career paths. This period can be used in a positive way to acquire meaningful new portable skills which have long-term value to the overall career strategy of both the expat partner and the employee. Iris is spending a year overseas recounts:
I didn’t pay proper attention and ask the right questions at the outset. I was allocated a small budget to work with a career coach who properly understood the realities of an international move. I started with her too late and the budget allocation wasn’t high enough. After a couple for sessions I realised I needed to have a career plan for myself.
There are many opportunities to train online or to run virtual businesses. [Tweet “Developing a portfolio of mobile and transferable skills can be advantageous”]. This may need access to ongoing professional support from someone familiar with the international market. The reality is that the chances of an expat partner continuing their career, uninterrupted, in a new location are not high.
#3 Preparation for repatriation
It is well documented that organisations very often don’t provide repatriation support for the employee let alone the expat partner. Depending on the length of the assignment it is important to start repatriation preparation well in advance for re-entry and to position the career gap well, if there has been one. Finding a mentor and or a coach can prove invaluable. Check out the 3Plus Mentor Gallery
Working and living internationally can offer significant opportunities for professional development and personal growth. But many couples make the decision with insufficient insight into the realities they face.
The global mobility departments of companies can take some basic steps to support expat partners to reduce the risk and to protect their key investments.
Contact 3Plus for all queries related to global mobility and coaching of employees and partners for expatriation and repatriation.