Assignment Failure on the Rise? The Solution is to Prevent Family Separation – Part 1

Stop me if you have heard this before, but the general belief among people seems to be that separation rates among expatriates are higher than those among the native (aka stay-at-home) professionals. I would like to point out that this is not the case. The reality is in fact that this idea comes from the fact that the impacts of family separations are much greater. Think about the difficulty of handling separation and potential custody disputes through geographical boundaries.

Discussion among multinational Global Mobility circles is centering on the issue of Dual-Career Expat Couples. 

Why You Need To Care About This

You may be wondering, how do their personal relationships and related problems impact businesses? The answer is simple: 

People would choose to leave their international assignment in order to save their marriages or as one Partner in one of my former GM Leader roles once said “Happy Wife, happy Life”.

In fact, a McKinsey study shows that 70% of expat assignments fail, meaning the position gets vacated, companies have to spend extra money to replace and train personnel, meaning their growth slows down.  Businesses therefore have a vested interest in seeing these relationships continue to succeed. 

To get the perspective of the professionals, research conducted by PwC found that most employees listed the spouse’s career as a barrier to mobility. 

Many would not choose to disrupt their spouse’s established careers and move them to another country.

Reports from Crown and Brookfield pointed out that family challenges of international relocation remain a top reason for assignment refusal and assignment failure, while a growing body of anecdotal evidence suggest that many expatriate marriages fail often at huge cost to organizations (McNulty, 2015). In fact, nearly 70% of expatriates and their spouses reported “marital breakdown”as the most important reason why relocations fail (Lazarova et al., 2015; Lazarova & Pascoe, 2013). 

The reasons for Expatriate Failure are usually not well captured. There is a data hole here and we have to assume that family reasons are a major reason for expatriate failure rates. This lack of data is something that needs to be addressed in the near future as the importance of this issue rises, like a recent survey from Mercer highlights. According to the NetExpat and EY Relocation Partner Survey 71% of the companies they surveyed claim that Expat Spouse’s unhappiness is the primary reason for Expatriate Failure. 

In the light of all these findings, improving spouse and family assistance as well as spouse career support clearly need to feature at the top of the list of challenges and priorities of Global Mobility programs.

When it comes to Expatriate Failure rates, one example that I tend to criticize is that often assignments end prematurely because of business considerations, expats accepting a new role in a new location or ending school years. However, the assignment was still a success. 

The current definition of Expatriate Failure would categorize such an assignment as a “failure”

In contradiction to “Expatriate failure”, “Expatriate Adjustment” is used as a common way to measure “success”of an  international assignment or project and often equalized with carrying out the assignment during the assigned period.

There isn’t a quick or easy solution to this issue, especially with the data hole present. Let us therefore look at possible solutions to this issue, how to improve the Expat Experience (XX) for your spouse or life partner and how best to handle the issue in case the worst outcome becomes inevitable.

Besides Expat Spouse’s career, KPMG identified another main demographic reason that leads employees not to take up an international assignment: sexual orientation. 

In 2018, only 40% of the companies they surveyed had Diversity and Inclusion objectives as part of their Global Mobility strategy, while only 20% had actually planned to review their policies after reassessing the demographics of their globally mobile employees based on diversity. 

Additionally, excluding gender, other points such as ethnicity, age, religion, disability status, have not yet been captured in the global mobility space. 

Like in most of today’s international companies, you too have probably come to recognize the proven benefits of a diverse and inclusive workplace. However, if you are in a same-sex relationship the reality of Global Mobility can be complex. Even if your Global Mobility Manager is open you could be faced with immigration challenges and prejudice in the host country.

How we Define Expat Spouse

As most countries require you to be legally married to enter their borders, I will be using the term Expat Spouse for life partners as well. Also, this term applies to all genders and same-sex relationships. For the sake of clarity, with the gender neutral ‘spouse’ is meant the expatriate’s life partner and the term is also commonly included in contracts and policies for international assignments. We will also use the term Expat Couple. For further definitions and terminology you can consult “The Global Mobility Workbook”(2019).

What you can do: Eight  Ideas to Avoid Family Separation on Your Expat Assignment

1 – Involve Your Spouse 

It is crucial that you (the Expat) appreciate and contribute in any way possible in order to not let your Expat Spouse compromise their career. Many Expat Spouses can probably relate to the experience of living in a country which is not always of their choosing. 

Often, they also have very high professional qualifications and years of solid work experience behind them. Suddenly though, they are left without any employment despite real efforts to find work, and might even struggle to have their degrees recognized in the new country. 

The most important point here is that you involve your Expat Spouse in the decision-making process from the beginning, not only when the moving truck pulls up the driveway.

2 – Understand Immigration

Many countries do not automatically grant the right to work to the Expat Spouse. You need to check if your company will support your Expat Spouse with obtaining a work permit. You can check the host country’s immigration websites for initial guidance.

3 – Support as Long as necessary 

Assist your spouse in getting a job or starting their own business by being financially supportive. You can agree on a temporary loan so they don’t feel dependent on you. Discuss the financial situation during the assignment and what it will mean for their old-age pension and other saving plans they might have. Make sure you aren’t troubling them by overemphasizing.

4 – Spend Quality Time Together

A new place can feel daunting and scary, often lonely. Spend quality time with your spouse so they don’t feel alone in a new place. Plan weekends away so you get to know the positives about living in a new culture, not just the daily life. Explore the new culture and meet other people to build a network of friends fast.

5 – Consider Joining A Support Group

Joining a support group of people who are going through similar experiences can also guide your Expat Spouse in adjustment to change. There are several online and physical communities around the world that are worth looking into. And when it comes to Switzerland alone, the choice is large: from the well known Internations to Expatica, and from the Zurich Spooglers to the Hausmen of Basel, the opportunities to connect with fellow Expats and Expat Spouses in the country are plenty.

6 – Help Your Spouse In Finding Volunteer Work 

In Switzerland a lot of associations depend on volunteers. Search for English-speaking groups your Expat Spouse could support, like SINGA Switzerland or Capacity Zurich. If you have children , you can also offer your help to international schools and kindergartens. Generally, this is easier done by joining parents’ associations like the one at the Leysin American School in Switzerland, or at TASIS, but also at the Zurich International School or at the Inter-Community School Zurich.

7 – Give them a Coaching Voucher for a Session with Angie

I have a lot of experience with helping clients to mend their broken relationships. One session can already help to shift the Spouse’s mindset from victim to self-reliant, strong, and active professional.

8 – Step Back For The Next Career Move Of Your Spouse

Even though this one idea is pretty self explanatory, it is hard to do in practice especially if your income is a lot higher than the income of your Spouse. Take turns in whose career is leading the decision for the next assignment. That means stepping back when it is your spouse’s turn to move up in their career.

Kind Regards,

Angie.

Resources

If you cannot afford our program you can still profit from our expertise if you purchase “The Global Career Workbook” (2016) and read these blog posts.

Hit post No. 1

How to Get a Swiss Recruiters Attention Through Well Written Cover Letters & Organised Testimonials

Hit post No. 2

Top 10 Tips for a Killer Linkedin Profile

Hit post No. 3

Bourne Effect

Other helpful posts:

References:

Black, S. J., Mendenhall, M. E., Oddou, G. (1991). „Toward a Comprehensive Model of International Adjustment: An Integration of Multiple Theoretical Perspective”, The Academy of Management Review, DOI: 10.2307/258863

Bruno, Debra. (2015, March 18). „Divorce, Global Style: for Expat Marriages Breaking Up is Harder to Do”, The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved April 29, 2020, from https://blogs.wsj.com/expat/2015/03/18/divorce-global-style-for-expat-marriages-breaking-up-is-harder-to-do/

KPMG. (2018). „Inclusion and Diversity in Global Mobility”, KPMG. Retrieved April 30, 2020, from https://assets.kpmg//content/dam/kpmg/xx/pdf/2018/06/global-mobility-inclusion-and-diversity-how-gms-can-help-move-the-needle.pdf

Hsieh, T., Lavoie, J. & Samek R. (1999): „Are you taking your Expatriate Talent seriously?”, The McKinsey Quarterly. Retrieved April 29, 2020, from https://www.questia.com/library/journal/1G1-63725939/are-you-taking-your-expatriate-talent-seriously.

Lazarova, M., McNulty, Y. & Semeniuk, M. (2015). „Expatriate family narratives on international mobility: key characteristics of the successful moveable family”, in Suutari, V. and Makela, L. (Eds), Work and Personal Life Interface of International Career Contexts, Springer, Heidelberg, pp. 55-76. 

Lazarova, M. & Pascoe, R. (2013). „We are not on vacation! Bridging the scholar-practitioner gap in expatriate family research”, in Lazarova, M., McNulty, Y. and Reiche, S. (symposium organizers), ‘Moving Sucks!’: What Expatriate Families Really Want (and Get) When They Relocate, Symposium at 2013 US Academy of Management Annual Meeting, Lake Buena Vista, FL.

McNulty, Y. (2015). „Till stress do us part: the causes and consequences of expatriate divorce”. Journal of Global Mobility, vol. 3, no. 2, pp. 106–136. https://doi.org/10.1108/JGM-06-2014-0023

McNulty, Y., Selmer, J. (2017): Research handbook of expatriates.

Weinberger, A. (2019a): „The Global Mobility Workbook“, Third Edition, Global People Transitions, Zurich.  

Weinberger, A. (2019b): „The Use of Digital Intercultural Coaching with Expats and Implications for Transition Plans in Global Mobility”, Master’s thesis, The Institute for Taxation and Economics, Rotterdam, from https://feibv.nl/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/Master-Thesis_Weinberger-Angela_Jan-2019_Final.pdf



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