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The New Expatriates This Time Around, Everybody Counts
By Mary van der Boon
(this article first appeared in the XPat Journal)
If there was one central theme to two major conferences held in London this spring, (the Corporate Relocation News Conference on Career Management & Employee Mobility, March 22 24 and Women on the Move 2000, March 27 28) it was that HR departments ignore spouse/partner and family issues at their peril. In research conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers among over 270 international organizations employing 65,000 expatriates, 80% of the companies reported major, and increasing, difficulties in recruiting executives to go overseas. According to the PWC International Assignments European Policy and Practice: Key Trends 1999/2000, "getting people to accept international assignments remains a challenge. Reasons for refusal range from family issues, the lack of support proposed to manage dual careers and the reality of longer-term career management. In addition, the factors rated least highly by companies when selecting people for assignments, such as issues relating to partners adaptability and dual career management, are most likely to be the cause of failed assignments".
Involving Family Members
A study conducted by Borsoff, Field, and Harris determined that factors contributing to the willingness of employees to accept an expatriate assignment include the employees personal characteristics and attitude towards relocation, including level of international interests and degree of ethnocentrism; spousal characteristics and attitudes toward relocation; and organizational support activities (before, during, and after the assignment). Generally employees who have the required skill set, good interpersonal skills, a positive attitude toward, and a willingness to embrace and experience cultural change will be strong candidates. However, recognizing that family and cultural adaptation problems can lead to failure, involving family members up front in the selection, orientation, and preparation process, as well as providing ongoing support once on assignment is critical. The incremental cost of doing so is dwarfed by the cost of failure.
Putting Families First
The high cost of expatriate failure was outlined by CRN conference speaker Laura Herring of the Impact Group. Unofficial estimates of overseas assignment failure rates are 30 40%, with frequently-cited reasons being insufficient preparation of the assigned executive and family members, lack of family support, little or no support for the career-oriented spouse, and expat career anxieties such as lack of return guarantees and active mentoring systems. An overwhelming majority of expatriate executives, 89%, are accompanied by a spouse or partner, but the relocation reality is that 81% of accompanying partners who were employed at home cannot find work in the destination country. Increasingly, financial considerations alone are sufficient reason to decline the overseas assignment. Ms. Herring proposes a best practices policy of putting families first. This includes a thorough pre-departure needs assessment, pre-departure assistance and training, spouse career continuity options and expatriate career development and coaching, and an emphasis on ongoing HR support in order to manage expat issues and expectations.
According to Barbara Fitzgerald-Turner, President of Human Resources Strategies in Kensington, MD, "Partners of expatriates are very cynical regarding what they call the lip service paid to their predicament. They indicate there is little or no recognition or appreciation for their situation. And when employers do offer assistance, trailing spouses often discover that the assistance promised is of little value. When FOCUS, a resource center for expatriates, surveyed its London members, only 11 percent of trailing partners received any career support. With high unemployment rates and restrictive policies in many foreign countries, it is almost impossible for a spouse to obtain employment unless it is with the expatriates company which is usually not possible because of lack of need or anti-nepotism policies. Instead of feeling excited about a new experience, many trailing spouses feel isolated and lonely, leading them to focus on the negatives instead of the positives of their new world. Despite the assumption that allowances will solve the unemployment issue, according to a recent survey completed by Right Associates, 42 percent of dual-income families reported a decrease in their living standard after relocating."
As the Internet continues to change the way we do things, it offers new hope for accompanying partners. Long-time expat spouse and author Robin Pascoe, through her acclaimed web-site www.expatexpert.com, offers a savvy combination of sympathy, advice and practical information for the spouse. Her popular books on the expatriate experience, "Culture Shock: a wifes guide", "Culture Shock, a parents guide", and "Homeward bound: a guide to repatriation" have been required reading for expat spouses for some time.
There are other threats to an overseas assignment, however, that are less easily identifiable than those of cultural adjustment and financial setbacks. Bruno Schricke, head of personnel for ABN AMRO in the Netherlands, has this to say: "People who are sent abroad on overseas assignments for a few years are more exposed to the stresses that can destroy a relationship." In his estimation, 60% of all expatriate executives experience serious marital difficulties.
According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, however, all is not lost. "Overall, we believe it has probably never been a better time for the partner and family accompanying the expatriate on assignment. Many companies are more willing to spend money on making the assignment a better experience for the partner. This is in clear recognition that to neglect this area can jeopardize the success of the whole assignment. The emphasis on greater indirect spending on areas such as family support on arrival in the host location and the career or education of the partner, is clearly considered by many to be a better investment of funds than simply heaping more generous allowances on the expatriate. Employers should be encouraged to think about the career interests of partners during the recruitment process, and possibly provide training and development in advance of international assignments so that the partners can acquire e-business competencies and careers which can be conducted virtually".
Hitting the Ground Running
American School (TASIS) UK principal Mary Hart reports that the new expatriates are more interested than ever before in finding balance between their personal and professional lives, including dealing with dual career and values system issues. CRN speaker Lorelei Carobolante from Ciao! International Relocation Management says you can never get too early a start on managing these issues. "Policy, benefit and work permit planning minimizes problems and is less stressful for transferees and family members. The timely achievement of corporate strategy ensures employee retention and maximizes cost effectiveness by managing employee expectations, enhancing employee confidence and empowering the employee to "hit the ground running". The end result HR can relax!"
The Wave of the Future
At this years Women on the Move 2000 conference, Dr. Elisabeth Marx discussed the holistic culture-shock model from her acclaimed book, Breaking Through Culture Shock: What You Need to Succeed in International Business (1999, Nicholas Brealey Publishing) demonstrating how learning to behave and think differently and balance emotions is the key to international effectiveness for the whole family. She also shared her strategies relevant to international assignees and expatriate partners, including how to forge an international identity while retaining a sense of ones own, family adaptation and other crucial issues. Mari Simpson of PriceWaterhouseCoopers also contributed her insights on the current goals, policy and practices of HR management in dual career issues. Joanna Parfitt, founder of Words That Work and author of Career in Your Suitcase addressed the theme of Building Careers Across Boundaries in the 21st Century. Non-traditional, e-business and virtual career possibilities are all part of the wave of the future for expatriate partners.
In the final analysis, responsive corporate HR policy on spousal and family issues simply makes good, bottom-line sense. Premature repatriation and poor job performance have serious financial consequences in international business. HR departments, which themselves put the blame for expatriate assignment failure on "partners inability to adjust" in 62% of all instances, need to follow the lead of BellSouth Internationals Kris Rainey. "We dont just take the word of the local relocation agent, we go ourselves to have a look at actual post conditions. Cross-cultural and pre-departure training for the whole family is a necessity, not a luxury, and no-one in our organization has ever queried the expense." And Bell South, along with other, like-minded, corporations, is reaping the benefits.