“It may be a new role for human resource managers to be so involved in an employee’s family life and, of course, it is a role that must be played carefully. But the overriding finding from our research, and that of virtually every other research study available, is that most families appreciate—indeed, demand—a company’s concern and involvement when they make an international move.”
So concludes Dr. Anne Copeland of The Interchange Institute, Brookline, MA, in summation of her comprehensive study, Many Women Many Voices (2002), on accompanying spouses moving internationally. In this, and its more recent companion, Many Expatriates Many Voices (2004), Copeland asks two central questions.
First, what factors correlate with a healthy spousal adjustment to an international move?
Second, what can companies that move employees around the globe do to contribute to this healthy adjustment?
The background to Copeland’s work is an abundance of evidence accumulated over the last decade testifying to the relationship between the well-adjusted spouse and a successful employee assignment. The studies contribute their own finding of a correlation between the spouse’s degree of comfortable adjustment to the international location and the employee’s job satisfaction.
“In summary, accompanying spouses’ and partners’ experiences are closely linked to their transferee spouses’ work experience. In particular, transferees’ job satisfaction was higher when accompanying spouses/partners...had better mental health adjustment.”
Given the huge cost of international assignments, one would think that U.S. companies would be stumbling over themselves to establish programs for the accompanying spouse. A spousal assistance program that saved only one or two potential failed assignments would pay for itself, and then some.
But not all companies have taken the message to heart. Cendant Mobility’s 2004 Emerging Trends in International Policy and Programs study found a majority of companies reluctant to commit themselves to “soft-service” support.
Other major surveys also have found that fewer than 50 percent of companies provide spousal support in connection with an international move.
Whether Copeland’s studies will convert any reluctant corporations is unknown. But, at the very least, they will provide helpful guidance to companies that already have committed themselves to programming for the internationally relocating spouse.
Among the companies that do provide such support, there is a strong focus on pre-move preparations and on the immediate post-move 30 to 60 days. While this is important, it is not enough. In Many Women Many Voices, Copeland affirms that companies should maintain contact for the duration of the assignment.
“Offering supportive services at the time of the move is undoubtedly valuable but does not address the continuing needs that families face. Their needs continue over the course of the assignment and new needs arise. Check in with families periodically,” she wrote.
Why should a company do this? What will it achieve?
In both studies, Copeland finds that the key to positive spousal adjustment over the duration of an international assignment is the building and maintaining of interpersonal connections.
Another significant factor is the spouse’s ability to pursue and develop her own social and professional identity outside the family.
Third, company-sponsored employee assistance programs (EAPs) can be primed to intervene in the life of an employee, spouse, or family before matters reach crisis proportions.
Copeland’s studies strongly endorse the value of ongoing company-sponsored services for spouses and attention throughout the duration of the employee’s assignment. This can be best achieved through the spouse having a single point of contact throughout the international experience. Whether this person is in human resources or a separate, possibly outsourced department, his or her responsibilities are to coordinate services from pre-departure through repatriation.
Although these services will be heavy up front, it is helpful for the contact person to interact with the spouse throughout the relocation. This person can play an important role by providing spouses with information about networking and connecting events and organizations. The contact can encourage the spouse’s participation in socially rejuvenating activities and assign him or her a local sponsor or mentor who has successfully adapted to the country. These services may be needed at any time during an assignment.
Copeland repeatedly affirms the need for spouses to establish interpersonal systems of support and not rely merely on continued contact with relatives and friends back home. The company representative can play a vital role in helping the spouse seek out and establish these relationships. Most international locations have spouse clubs and organizations. Examples include Focus, active in London, England, and Brussels, Belgium, the Federation of American Women’s Clubs Overseas (FAWCO), and the Schlumberger Spouses Association (SSA), with more than 100 chapters in more than 50 countries.
In addition, many individual companies support and fund (the costs are minimal) volunteer-run groups and associations that can be vital to a spouse’s acclimation. While such organizations used to be insular, today many more facilitate member integration with the local populace.
The value of career and vocational services to spouses overseas clearly has been demonstrated. These services should not be restricted only to those who worked pre-relocation or know they can now work. In the face of various obstacles to remunerative employment, expatriates often need help in formulating and implementing a plan of activities that will maintain and nourish their vocational identity.
The value of EAPs in helping to stabilize family life abroad has been better appreciated in the last several years than it was in the 20th century. Companies more readily recognize that the unusual stresses of international assignments on the employee and family can be addressed fruitfully through modest and time-limited EAP interventions, even when these take place by telephone.
This is another juncture at which the company contact person can play a valuable role. As a concerned outsider, he or she is likely to have a clearer perspective on personal and family stresses than the family members themselves. In addition, EAPs are poised to intervene quickly when serious situations, such as alcoholism or drug abuse, threaten family viability and individual stability.
Copeland’s studies should find a receptive audience in corporate corridors and offices. They do not harangue employers over their failings but encourage them to see that modest and relatively inexpensive efforts can go a long way toward maintaining spouse and family morale and protecting the company’s return on investment.
Galen Tinder is senior consultant and manager, Ricklin-Echikson Associates, Inc. (REA), Millburn, NJ. He can be reached at +1 973 218 0987, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.