It’s a family affair

Cummins looks at whether the issue of dual careers is driving organisations to
change their expatriate policies

Despite the recent downturn and periods of volatility in world economies,
international assignments remain essential to the competitiveness and survival
of multinational organisations.

Accepting an international assignment of three to five years can not only
have a major impact on a family’s lifestyle, but also disrupt the accompanying
spouse’s career and significantly reduce the family income. Most international
assignees continue to be male, but the situation is gradually changing, with
the number of female expatriates on the rise (see Chart 1: Expatriate
demographics for the 21st century).

To attract the best talent for an international assignment and ensure the
expatriate’s success in the assignment location, employers face increasing
pressure to provide sufficient support (financial or otherwise) to the
accompanying spouse or partner. Organization Resources Counselors’ (ORC) fourth
Dual Careers and International Assignments Survey report focuses on the
policies, practices, and trends of 300 multinational companies in managing dual
careers and international assignments (see Chart 2: Key Survey Findings).

Almost 80 per cent of the survey respondents say they have a formal
expatriate policy in place which includes provision for some form of spousal
assistance, recognising the need for such support as part of the assignment
package. This finding represents a significant change when compared with
previous ORC surveys in which formal spousal assistance was provided by only 19
per cent (1992) and 38 per cent (1996) of respondents, and informal support by
48 per cent and 42 per cent, respectively.

A quarter of the survey participants have developed new international policies
and practices to take account of these dual-career concerns, while
three-quarters intend to add a provision for spousal assistance to their
international assignment policy. This finding indicates another important
change from the joint ORC-CBI 1996 survey, when only 17.6 per cent of companies
planned to develop a dual-career policy.

Clearly, increasingly more companies are taking the concerns of dual-career
couples more seriously and are also responding to these concerns by providing
actual support.

Although the type of assistance offered to a spouse or partner differs from
employer to employer, movement in this direction is promising.

Assistance Depends on Stage of Assignment

While organisations generally provide spousal support during all stages of
an international assignment, the amount and type of assistance is typically
higher and more focused once the assignment has actually started rather than in
the period before the family relocates or when the family returns to their home

For example:

– The provision of cross-cultural orientation to the family is part of
pre-assignment preparation

– Language training is available both before and upon arrival; career
counselling, work-permit assistance, CV/résumé preparation, and reimbursement
for further educational studies tend to be offered during the assignment and
upon repatriation

Based on policies reported by the survey participants, the following are the
prevalent types of assistance in each stage of an expatriate assignment:

– Before the assignment. All types of pre-assignment spousal support, with
the exception of company employment, have increased in the last 10 years. The
most routinely-provided assistance is cultural orientation for eligible family
members, with language training a close second. This result represents a
significant change from the previous surveys, in which cultural orientation was
not even viewed as a part of spousal assistance. Language training has also
markedly increased in recent years. The next most common types of support
include help with work permit applications, job search, career counselling, and
CV/résumé preparation

– During the assignment. Confirming the trend towards increased assistance,
the level of support provided to the spouse or partner while living in the host
location has doubled in comparison with ORC surveys conducted in 1992 and 1996.
Language training is by far the most common form of spousal assistance,
followed by cultural orientation, payment toward further education, and work
permit and job search assistance. Companies also offer career counselling and
CV/résumé preparation

– Post assignment (repatriation). Job-search help, CV/résumé preparation,
and career counselling are the most prevalent types of assistance when the
family is returning home However, there has been a slight decrease in the
number of organisations which offer support in these three categories. This
result is surprising, considering the following points: (1) according to the
survey, employers recognise the significant impact that dual-career issues can
have on the success or failure of an overseas assignment, and (2) although the
assignment may be over, repatriating the employee and spouse/partner continues
to be an important step in the overall process.

Chart 3: Common types of assistance provided to spouses and partners, gives
a more in-depth overview of the different types of assistance typically offered
to expatriate spouses and partners.

Tackling the challenge: early repatriation and failed assignments

With increasing awareness of dual-career issues and their impact on
international assignments, more employers realise the importance of assignment
acceptance, but also successful completion. The desire to attract the right
person for the job is accompanied by the need to prevent a failed assignment
due to unmet business or career development objectives, or, perhaps, local
problems. Such local concerns might include, for example, difficulties in the
family’s adjustment to the new location, different management or work styles,
and issues arising over cultural and language differences.

Consequently, employers are increasingly looking for alternative ways of
dealing with the dual-career issue, such as the use of shorter-term
assignments. This trend is confirmed with three-quarters of the participants
reporting that they use short-term international assignments, which represents
a significant jump from 1996, when only 25.7 per cent did so. Companies also
reported using the following alternatives to the traditional long-term
international assignment:

– International business trips (57.2 per cent)

– Unaccompanied assignments, whereby the expatriate’s family stays in the
home country (more than 50 per cent, compared with 23 per cent in 1996)

– Commuter assignments, whereby the expatriate’s family stays in the home
country and the employee returns home on a regular basis, often weekends (45.9
per cent, compared with 19 per cent in 1996)

– Virtual assignments, conducted from the home-country office, that do not
require the employee to travel abroad (15.6 per cent)

Proactivity increases the organisation’s appeal

Unlike the early days of expatriation, success in attracting and retaining a
global talent pool of employees, who are willing to accept an international
assignment, depends greatly on the willingness, attitude, and circumstances of
the employees’ spouse or partner. The new generation of expatriates, whose
spouse or partner is very often employed in a professional position,
exacerbates the need for support for both spouses and partners.

While trying to find the right combination of assistance to satisfy employee
need without being overly costly to the company, more and more employers are
starting to look at assignment options. Depending on employee circumstances,
location, and business objectives, companies are offering alternative forms of
working through short-term and more flexible types of assignment.

In the future, companies will increasingly need to provide innovative
solutions to the dual-career issue, along with other family-friendly policies.

Chart 1 – Expatriate demographics for the 21st century

expatriate             Female expatriate

Married, accompanied                          67.5%                          38.1%

Married, unaccompanied                      8.1                               7.2

Unmarried, accompanied                      5.3                               4.4

Unmarried, unaccompanied                   19.1                             50.3

Chart 2 – Key survey findings

– The percentage of female
expatriates is on the rise

– More companies are formalising
spousal assistance within their expatriate policies

– Spousal or dual-career issues are
the most common reasons cited by employees for rejecting international

– While all types of spousal
assistance have increased in the pre-assignment and (substantially)
on-assignment stages, organisations have reduced some of the services offered
on repatriation

– Companies are proposing a variety
of alternative assignment types to overcome dual-career barriers, with a
significant increase in the number of short-term assignments that generally
last from a few months to a year

Source: ORC’s Dual-careers and
International Assignments Survey    

Chart 3 – Common types of
assistance provided to spouses and partners

            On-assignment              Repatriation     
Stage                            Stage                            Stage   

Career counselling                                                                    12.6
%                         23.4 %                         17.6 %

CV/r‚sum‚ preparation                                                              12.2                             23.4                             19.8

Company Employment                                                              1.8                               8.3                               2.5

Job search assistance                                                                14.4                             32.7                             19.8

Retraining                                                                                 3.2                               11.9                             5.8

Language training                                                                      59.0                             73.7                             5.8

Cultural orientation                                                                    62.2                             39.6                             8.3

Voluntary work assistance                                                        2.2                               11.5                             2.2

Work permit assistance                                                             28.4                             34.5                             4.3

Payment towards further education                                            7.2                               36.0                             5.8

Payment towards business start-up                                            2.2                               4.0                               1.4

Partial financial compensation for loss of spousal income            2.9                               10.8                             0.0

Full financial compensation for loss of spousal income                0.0                               0.4                               0.0

Other                                                                                       8.3                               14.7                             5.8

Source: ORC’s Dual-careers and International Assignments

The author

Siobhan Cummins is managing director
of the London office for Organization Resources Counselors. (ORC) and director
of ORC’s International Compensation Services for Europe.

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