Home Truths About Foreign Postings

To make an overseas assignment work, employers need more than an eager exec with a suitcase. They must also motivate the staffer's spouse

In this era of globalization, tens of thousands of U.S. citizens are sent abroad by their companies and organizations every year. Corporations make big investments in expat assignments, which can cost two to three times what it would to employ the same exec in the U.S., experts estimate.

So it's no surprise that companies sending staffers abroad have a vested interest in making sure these expensive gigs aren't huge money-wasters. A new report corroborates growing evidence that keeping an expat's spouse happy is a good way to start. Indeed, past studies have shown that spousal discontent is the top reason overseas assignments fail.

One of the key findings of the report, which was done by The Interchange Institute, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit research organization that studies international relocation, is that spouses who have been prepped for the move tend to be happier than those who haven't been familiarized with the culture of their destination. For example, some 30.5% of the 194 women surveyed were offered language training by their husband's employer before their departure -- and those people adjusted much better to their host culture than those with no prior language classes, says the report. (Another 19.8% already spoke the language of their host country.)


  "When one isn't fluent in the native language, even small frustrations are amplified to giant proportions," says an unidentified expatriate spouse cited in the study. The survey was funded by Prudential Financial Services, which runs a relocation service for corporate and government clients.

Conducted between 1995 and 2001, the study surveyed women who, on average, were 43 years old and had one or two children. The subjects had relocated to such countries as France, Spain, Israel, Jordan, Thailand, China, Mexico, Britain, and Russia.

A mere 6.2% of these women were consulted about the move by their spouse's employer before the decision was made -- yet those women were better able to deal with the experience than the majority, who had no consultation, the study found. "Spouses who felt coerced into accepting the international assignment had significantly poorer adjustment than spouses who felt involved and interested in the move from the beginning," the study says.


  Human-resource managers and company-relocation specialists should take note. On average, 92% of expatriates blamed assignment failures on partner dissatisfaction, and 90% said they were caused by family concerns, according to a separate survey conducted in 2001 by General Motors Acceptance Corporation Global Relocation Services.

"A lot of research in recent years has shown very clearly that one of the major reasons international assignments fail is family-adjustment problems," says Anne Copeland, the Interchange Institute's executive director, who headed the most recent study. "So anything companies can do to help the accompanying spouse make this a wonderful experience is worthwhile."

A botched foreign assignment risks a company's investment in an otherwise valuable employee. And there are other potential negatives associated with expat assignments, including "loss of employee productivity, damaged customer relations, lowered staff morale, and increased personal stress," the Institute's study says.


  Spouses adjusted better when their husbands were readily available to attend events such as children's birthdays or school functions, the study found. Yet, as the findings also note, "husbands play an especially important role in families' lives, yet were often unavailable."

Spouses who join local social networks also adjust better to their new lives, the survey reports. About half of the expatriate spouses in the study routinely met with other expats for support. Those who relied on e-mail, fax, and the phone had a much harder time than those who interacted face-to-face. "The most help comes from other women who are living where you are relocating," says one unidentified spouse cited in the study.

Moreover, spouses who were able to continue in their chosen pursuit while abroad -- be it a job, a hobby, or volunteer work -- embraced the international assignments more fully than those who had to give up their primary activities. In fact, the top reason spouses listed for stress was "not being able to be the kind of person I want to be."


  What can HR managers do to help execs improve the chances that an assignment will be successful? Facilitate communication between spouses, as well as with the employer, the Institute says. While foreign assignments can be demanding, companies need to make a point of setting aside time for execs to be with their families, the report says. And, the study says, finding ways to help spouses hold onto their professions is important -- including identifying career-enhancing volunteer work or training programs.

With Americans facing greater risks abroad since the September 11 terrorist attacks, companies increasingly need to show their expat employees that they're prepared to take good care of them. Part of the package will likely include making sure their spouses are well looked after, too.

By Bill Cheng in New York

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