HR Management & Compliance

Expat Tips—Prepare for Dual-Career Couples and Trailing Spouses

By Anthony Di Bratto

As companies continue to expand globally and as international trade and production become both easier and more cost-effective, more and more companies are sending their employees abroad. These employees, known as expatriates or “expats,” are employees from the home country who are transferred to work in a host (foreign) country.

This is done in order to implement company standards in the host country, train employees from the host country, and ensure the long-term viability of the firm in the host country. For example, if a Canadian firm wanted to ensure that a recently acquired firm in Brazil was going to produce to Canadian standards it might send one of its Canadian employees to Brazil during the critical setup of the business. In this example, Canada is the home country while Brazil is the host country.

However, despite the integral role that expats play in establishing a global commodity chain and the high cost associated with relocation and compensation, a large number of expat assignments end in failure. Often, this is due to relationship stress brought on by what is known as the trailing spouse problem. This occurs when the partner of the expat, known as the trailing spouse, has varied reactions and experiences related to relocation that puts unforeseen stress on the relationship and well-being of the expat culminating in a return to the home country and incomplete expatriate assignments.
In response to this, many employers are turning to their compensation system in order to ensure a higher expatriate assignment completion rate. Two considerations often overlooked in this undertaking are dual career couples and male trailing spouses.

Dual-Career Couples

In most cases of dual-career couples, the partner of the expat gives up his or her own career in the home country in order to relocate and maintain a relationship with the expat in the host country. The loss of a second income can result in a lower standard of living and financial instability that, coupled with the stress of relocation, can often result in low productivity at work and can cause the expat to reconsider assignment completion.

As a result, the success of the assignment is put in jeopardy unless the employer is able to compensate the expatriate for the lost wages of the trailing spouse. However, in order to combat these potentially high costs, the employer may also provide employment services to the trailing spouse. This is done in order to help ease the financial burden of relocation while also addressing the career needs of the trailing spouse.

If employment services are not offered, then an employer may also choose to provide the expat with allowances for the trailing spouse that address training and education in the host country, including job-related, cultural, and language training. All of this is included in the expat compensation package in order to decrease the psychological and monetary impact of relocation on the expat and the trailing spouse. If these measures are undertaken, there will be an increase in the expat assignment completion rate, an increase in expat productivity through a reduction of domestic stress, and you will ensure that expat assignments remain appealing to other top performers in the company.

Male Trailing Spouses

While male trailing spouses face the same challenges as their female counterparts, there is an added complexity introduced when gender stereotypes are challenged while adapting to a new country and an unfamiliar societal role. Since the majority of men in North American society have not previously assumed the primary homemaker role, their domestic consciousness as well as their lack of domestic skills can often prevent them from being able to effectively establish a home in a foreign environment while their expat partner focuses on work. This results in women being in charge of domestic responsibilities while also trying to establish company standards in the host country.

This balancing act often leads to work-family conflict where the expat feels she is not fully committed or is failing at fulfilling her roles in the family and at work, which is often due to time constraints and other stresses.

Furthermore, due to these stresses, expat engagement and productivity at work are significantly reduced, resulting in insufficient levels of performance that can ultimately lead to assignment hindrance and assignment failure. Even when a male trailing spouse regularly performs nontraditional tasks in North America, upon relocation to a traditional or less tolerant society, the male is more likely to be stigmatized when he does not work outside the home.

In addition, many of the formal and informal support mechanisms for trailing spouses are designed for women only. That is why when developing expat compensation initiatives the employer needs to directly address the concerns of male trailing spouses either through employment services, which may provide the husband with a more traditional role in society, or through cross-cultural training. Through cross-cultural training the trailing spouse would be able to learn the norms of the culture they are entering, including socially acceptable behaviors. This will also provide the spouse with realistic expectations of relocating to a new country so that any potential problems can be addressed before relocation occurs. This measure is useful for both male and female trailing spouses and results in less domestic stress on the expat and an increased probability of assignment completion.

As employers continue to expand in the global marketplace, they must continually look to utilize the knowledge and experience of expats and look to increase expat assignment completion rates in order to ensure continual profit and growth. In this effort employers must continue to incentivize and provide adequate compensation to ensure expatriate assignment completion. In today’s world, that means compensation initiatives must consider the impact of relocation on not just the expat but also on their partner. Providing expats with the foundation for success by addressing the concerns of dual-career couples as well as male trailing spouses in these compensation initiatives ensures the expat will have every chance at assignment success.

About Today’s HR Daily Advisor Blogger:
Anthony Di Bratto is an HR consultant based out of Toronto, Canada. A believer in human resources as a lifelong learning pursuit Mr. Di Bratto enjoys playing various sports while also trying to give back to his local community.