To combat high levels of partner dissatisfaction on international
assignments, the US Department of State has introduced a scheme to help spouses
find employment and happiness. Marion Callahan reports
Partner satisfaction can make or break international assignments. More than
half of them fail, and the number one cause is spousal dissatisfaction. As the
number of dual-income married couples soars, and the pool of young qualified
candidates willing to sacrifice their partners’ careers for their own continues
to dwindle, this is clearly a problem that is not going to fade away.
In May, the US State Department launched a programme to help thousands of
overseas employees’ spouses find jobs. Dubbed SNAP (Spouse Networking
Assistance Programme), the scheme is being tested in 10 countries, where
newly-hired local employment advisers are scouring the job market to place them
in the right roles.
These agents are skimming through local newspapers and classifieds
advertisements, forging industry contacts and lining up interviews. Some are
launching websites where spouses exchange job-finding tips, while other agents
are briefing them on the social nuances of their host countries.
No job is guaranteed. But officials say the Department of State (DoS) is
reaching out in unprecedented ways, fulfiling a recent pledge to boost
recruiting and retention efforts. Programmes such as SNAP are a priority now
more than ever before, as both the public and private sectors are in the midst
of a war for talent.
Leading state department officials say one of the top retention challenges
is dealing with the complexities of dual-career families. "The lack of
spouse employment opportunities was often a significant factor in deciding
whether to remain or resign," says US Ambassador Ruth Davis, director
general of the Foreign Services and HR director, citing a 2002 employee
Since SNAP began, more than a dozen spouses and family members have found
work in their fields.
Success stories are expected to multiply as the agents strengthen and widen
their network of contacts. Organisers now expect Congress to support the
programme’s expansion in another 10 countries next year.
"Spouse employment issues may have little to do with foreign affairs,
but it is a big ‘quality of life’ issue and can impact the mission if our
officers [staff] are unhappy," says Debbie Thompson, who directs SNAP
along with other family support programmes for the DOS in Washington DC.
"We know from our own reports that the most common reason for assignment
failure was partner dissatisfaction. People were talking about leaving. That
was enough to make us concerned."
Today, few spouses are willing to suspend their careers or slice their
salaries in half to accommodate an overseas move. Congress has poured $800,000
(£520,000) into SNAP so that US foreign service spouses don’t have to make
these sacrifices. The bulk of this money pays the salaries of the employment
advisers in the field, who are now helping to support the careers of 1,500
employees’ spouses in Belgium, Canada, Chile, Egypt, Japan, Korea, Poland,
Mexico, Singapore, and the UK.
State department officials are now researching countries in which to place
the programme next year. As SNAP matures and networks become established, job
placement goals are expected to jump from 20 to 80 per cent, Thompson says.
"Right now, we’re in the early stages and we’re giving our advisers
time to build a strong base of contacts. If we help 20 per cent of our spouses,
it’s 20 per cent more than we’d helped before," she says.
"Eventually, we believe if the support is in place and the right
information is in the right hands, spouses will find a job in their field in a
short amount of time. But it’s not an easy task, no matter where you are in the
world." In the past, many spouses found the job-searching process to be
long, tedious, and simply "not worth the hassle", she says.
Steve McKinney, a local employment adviser in Korea, says spouses became
overwhelmed by the country’s hiring process and gave up.
"This leads to either no employment, underemployment, discouragement,
or a feeling of lacking worth, which causes stress for the sponsored spouse and
unhappiness within the family unit," says McKinney, who also serves as
co-chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce’s Living in Korea Committee.
Going Global president Mary Anne Thompson, an international relocation
expert, says spouses in foreign countries face a plethora of obstacles when
they set out on a job search, especially if they lack guidance or expertise.
"They don’t know what newspapers to read, how to write a résumé or
where or when the career fairs are," says Thompson, who has researched and
published information on employment practices in more than 23 countries.
"It could take a year to figure it all out."
Before May, the DoS provided in-country sponsors to help families settle
into their homes and adjust to the new culture. Some language training was
offered, and spouses were given the right to apply for a work permit – one of
the most difficult hurdles for married partners in the private sector to
Despite the logistical support, employees were still talking about leaving,
mostly because their spouses were unhappy. Already facing stiff competition for
qualified candidates from a rising number of non-governmental organisations and
private companies, the DoS turned to its family liaison office to draft a plan.
Debbie Thompson zeroed in on establishing a career network, something which
foreign service officers stressed was most apparently lacking after spouses
were plunged into foreign countries. Families wanted contacts well-versed in a
country’s culture and hiring procedures, she says.
"We realised that one professional working in the field could save
spouses what could amount to a year of job-searching, navigating through local
bureaucracies and hiring customs," Thompson says.
McKinney is especially proud of a recent success in the Korea office. He
helped to place a career-track spouse in a position at the Korean office of one
of the world’s top accounting firms.
"The successful spouse is elated. She gets to continue her career and
is actually improving her résumé by getting this international experience with
one of the top companies in the world in her chosen field," McKinney says.
He was also able to help two of his placements negotiate salaries exceeding
those their US jobs.
In other countries, stiff requirements for special certifications and even
more schooling can add to the frustration. DoS hired Going Global to provide
spouses with employment manuals detailing job conditions and academic
requirements in dozens of countries. Therefore, employees and their spouses are
made aware of the employment challenges before they accept an assignment.
"We are getting more and more spouses who are doctors and
lawyers," says Going Global’s Mary Anne Thompson. "And you can’t just
walk into another country and practice medicine or law." Spouses with
technology expertise are the easiest to place. Most DoS spouses have careers in
education or medicine, two professions which often require additional
certifications to practice abroad.
SNAP’s Debbie Thompson says that while permits are granted, countries are
not bending the rules to make room for accompanying spouses. "Spouses
certainly won’t glide through," she says. "There are no shortcuts and
we’re not asking for any."
In some countries, the programme simply wouldn’t work. From the start, SNAP
was limited to countries able to support it. Language difficulties, the local
unemployment rate, gender limitations and ambassador co-operation were
important factors during the selection process.
"Our hopes were dashed with Argentina because of the struggling
economy," Thompson says. "We considered Israel, but we had some
serious security concerns."
Saudi Arabia was eliminated from the list of potential sites, she says,
because of the language difficulty and the inability for women to work in
certain sectors or drive on public roads.
To narrow the selections, Thompson rated each country on these factors:
– Is there a work agreement in place for diplomatic spouses between the US
and the country in question?
– Are there enough spouses to support the programme?
– Is the country’s economy stable?
– Are salaries in the country comparable to those in the US?
– Are security concerns an issue?
– How difficult are the language barriers?
– Are multinational or US corporations located in the country willing to
"When you are starting a programme like this from scratch, you want to
be in places that give you the best opportunity to succeed," Thompson
says. "We wanted to jump as few hurdles as possible."
– 23 per cent of companies help
spouses find employment
– 35 per cent of companies help spouses
– 45 per cent of companies offer
education or training benefits
– 20 per cent of companies help
spouses find volunteer work
– 7 per cent of companies pay for
spousal lost income
– 59 per cent of companies are
seeking alternatives to long-term assignments
– 70 per cent are expanding use of
business travel without relocation
– 16 per cent of expatriates are
female, up from 13 per cent in 1995
– 69 per cent of expatriates are
– Spouses accompany approximately 87
per cent of married expatriates
– Before an assignment, 43 per cent
of spouses are employed
– After an assignment, 14 per cent of
spouses are employed
– 80 per cent of companies report
that cross-cultural preparation was a success
Source: Global Relocation Trends
2001 Survey (research on 150 companies worldwide, representing 33,340
Case study: Relocating to Mexico City
Expatriate Ellen Jones, an embassy
employee spouse based in Mexico City, hasn’t yet found work as a primary school
"I’m getting closer to finding what I want," she
says. "Still, it’s a very complicated and involved process. You hit a
roadblock everywhere you turn."
But the SNAP programme has helped her family. Her local
adviser, Nadja Giuffrida, helped place Jones’ three accompanying children – all
over 21 years old – in well-paying, professional jobs. Giuffrida helped Jones’ daughter Danielle
find a job teaching the Graduate Management Admissions Tests for a branch of
the Princeton Review in Mexico City.
"Nadja was able to connect with people," says
Danielle, adding that Giuffrida helped her draft a r‚sum‚ and line-up
interviews. "Without her, I would have had to continue dropping off
unsolicited r‚sum‚s. In this country, finding a job is about finding the person
who can get you the job you want."
Guiffrida says ‘making friends’ is the key to finding
employment in Mexico. Many business transactions, including recruitment,
"demand a certain amount of warmth and a mutual bond before a deal is
closed," she says. "In Mexico, it is perfectly normal – especially in
high circles – to be greeted by a strong hug if you are a man, or a kiss on the
cheek if you are a woman."
While Guiffrida says cultural differences are a glaring
obstacle for job seekers, the Jones family points to the country’s bureaucracy
as another source of frustration. Although family members of embassy employees
are eligible for an FM3 work permit in Mexico, they still must go through a
long, laborious process to get one. Even then, not all the hurdles have been
Once a work permit has been promised, a recipient may obtain a
job and go to work. But until the permit has been received, no pay can be
"The Mexicans have a saying, ‘poco a poco’, which means
little by little, and it applies to everything, including obtaining a permit,
which could take as long as three months," says Danielle Jones. She should
know: she has been at work for more than two months and has yet to be paid.
The lesson for private business
Private companies cannot afford to
ignore the warnings of unsuccessful international assignments. And, according
to a recent survey by Windham International, the National Foreign Trade Council
(NFTC) and the SHRM Global Forum, more than half of them do fail.
"And the number one reason is spousal
dissatisfaction," says Brenda Hagen, Director of Global Workforce
Development at Prudential Intercultural, an arm of Prudential Relocation
International. She has reviewed both the Windham survey and its internal
survey, Many Women Many Voices.
Such reports are pushing family issues to the forefront of the
global hiring market. Most transferees
return home before the assignment ends and, even more disconcerting, leave the
company once they repatriate.
"Employees are not leaving because they lack the technical
skills to do their jobs," says Hagen. "The biggest factor is the
family’s inability to adjust to the new environment. And companies aren’t doing
enough to help them."
With the average expatriate assignment costing $1.5m
(£960,000), companies can’t afford to ignore the unhappy partners, she adds.
Larger corporations, battling similar retention problems as the
US State Department, should adopt programmes like SNAP, says Steve McKinney, an
employment adviser in Korea, as such an investment may be too financially steep
for smaller firms.
"It all comes down to the war on numbers. The cost per
person is much higher than an internal programme, but the cost of losing a well
trained employee and moving expatriates more often, clearly outweighs the price
of a personalised transitional programme for a few spouses."
Plus, it is a clear boost for morale and the retention rate, he
says. "We can now sit down with these spouses, confidentially assess their
background and career goals, and then devise a customised plan that takes all
the cultural nuances of our adopted country into consideration," McKinney
"This brings them great satisfaction. And even if they
cannot get exactly what they want, they understand the limitations and what
they are. We’re people, not machines, and it is the human resources of a
company that makes the difference at the bottom line."
Among the major employers providing support for accompanying
spouses is Motorola, whose officials say it is important to support the a pool
of people who are willing to go abroad with their families.
The electronics manufacturer, which has more than 1,000
expatriates worldwide, backs spouses with a financial stipend and offers
assistance with continuing education, says Motorola spokesperson Jennifer
Weyrauch. She says the money can be used for search firms, r‚sum‚ coaching and
other career placement services.
NFTC’s senior director of global HR, Bill Sheridan, has noticed
a shift in the type and duration of expatriate assignments which also affect
"We are seeing more six and 12-month assignments, and we
believe this is in part due to the dual-career challenges companies are
facing," says Sheridan. "Gone are the days of the male employee with
his stay-at-home wife."
A new generation of professionals is emerging, says Ilene
Dolins, vice-president of GMAC Global Relocation Services.
"Couples are now partners and there is no such thing as a
trailing spouse. Everyone wants the best opportunity without neglecting their
partner. A spouse’s self esteem and career are more important than money."
Barbara Fitzgerald-Turner, president of Human Resources
Strategies in Maryland, says companies need to communicate with their
employees, not pay them off with housing perks or company cars.
Fitzgerald-Turner was a seasoned HR executive when she decided
to accompany her husband on his job in Paris in the 1990s. Upon arrival, she
became mired in paperwork, and vividly recalls one document in particular.
"To live in Paris, I had to sign a paper saying I would
not work in France," says Fitzgerald-Turner, who was annoyed by the
country’s restrictive policies. "These are the surprising issues spouses
One hurdle is countries battling with high unemployment rates
are reluctant to grant work permits to foreigners. Work permits are available
to DoS employee spouses in more than 100 countries because of formal and
informal US bilateral agreements. However, these permits are not always
available to spouses of employees in the private sector. Those who do get them
often confront high work permit fees, laws preventing employment of expatriate
spouses, cultural differences and language barriers.
"This is a big issue," says Fitzgerald-Turner.
"I saw people who thought they could deal with taking time off from work,
but it drove them crazy. Then add the stress of being in a new country. Some
individuals really couldn’t find a place for themselves and just ended up going
Effects of relocation on spouses’
The DoS says 65 per cent of US
government employees’ spouses work when based in the US. After relocating on an
international assignment, that figure plummets to 35 per cent, nearly a 50 per
cent drop. Of the 35 per cent of spouses working, more than 75 per cent take
jobs paying less than an average of $30,000 (£19,000) annually. The remaining
spouses telecommute, freelance or seek jobs in the local economy. Many settle
for work without pay.