Global group aims to strike right balance to keep talent

When an organisation’s best performers turn down international assignments because their spouses will face barriers to pursuing their own careers abroad, it becomes a problem for the HR professional.

But HR departments, which often struggle to assert their strategic importance in many businesses, now have the chance to lead the charge on an issue that threatens workforce mobility, according to a new global body set up to put an end to constraints on international mobility.

Lowering or eliminating existing barriers to work abroad for expatriate spouses is the aim of the Permits Foundation, an organisation supported by more than 30 multinational companies in-cluding BT, Shell, Unilever, British Airways, Siemens and BASF.

So far, the group has been successfully in influencing change in the US and France and is anticipating change in The Netherlands.
Caroline Waters, BT Group’s director of people networks, said the issue of international assignees’ spouses being able to work abroad is “utterly important for the future of our companies”.

“If you want the best [people], this is an issue that must be tackled now,” she warned.

Jan Schaapmeerders, HR director for Shell in The Netherlands and the Anglo-Dutch oil giant’s global head of employee and industrial relations, is the chairman of Permits Foundation.

He said HR departments should take a lead on the issue and drag their business colleagues along with them.

“It is a business issue, first of all, when we talk about international mobility of expatriate staff and their partners,” he said. “At the same time, the HR community has a fantastic opportunity to lead the networking on this topic and to really make sure it is also on the radar screen of their respective business leaders.”

Recent mobility trend research conducted by research companies ECA and ORC Worldwide highlighted the business need for companies to take seriously the modern phenomenon of dual-career households. The ECA Trends in Mobility Survey 2004 found that dual careers were an issue for 70% of companies participating in the research.

Siobhan Cummins, managing director of ORC’s European offices in London, said: “Concerns over spouse careers are the single most important reason why employees turn down overseas assignments.”

Taking spouses abroad can be difficult for UK workers, but foreign nationals making the opposite journey benefit from the policy that allows expatriate spouses of assignees with work permits to seek and accept work in the UK once they arrive.

At its conference in London earlier this month, Permits Foundation said it hoped that more countries would soon follow the UK’s example, and more recently, those of Australia, Canada, Sweden, the US and New Zealand.

Relaxing the work barriers for expatriate spouses offers a ‘triple win’ for host nation countries, multinational businesses and their employees, according to Schaapmeerders. Countries benefit, he said, by increasing the attractiveness of their climate for investment and trade.

“It basically says to companies that they are welcome, and if you want to bring along some of your expatriate staff and their associated spouses, they are welcome,” he said.

Moves to relax the requirements have also been shown to improve a country’s ‘brand’ among business employees, Schaapmeerders added. Businesses benefit by having employees who are willing to be mobile, and employees gain by being able to address both spouses’ career needs.

To move the campaign forward, the Permits Foundation organisers are seeking additional corporate sponsors, who are being asked for donations to support the foundation’s work. They also want workers who are having difficulty obtaining work permits for spouses to begin networking groups in those countries and start to lobby for change.

Under a 2003-2005 strategy plan, the foundation is targeting European countries before moving on to Asia and the Americas.

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