Spousal employment: the impact on international relocation

In today’s economic climate, spouses and partners who accompany an expatriate abroad are finding it particularly difficult to find suitable work opportunities or employment. Sue Shortland explores the effect of spousal employment on international mobility.

In today’s economic climate, spouses and partners who accompany an expatriate abroad are finding it particularly difficult to find suitable work opportunities or employment. Sue Shortland explores the effect of spousal employment on international mobility.

The most recent Brookfield survey reports that half of spouses who were employed before their partners were expatriated were not employed during the assignment, and that less than one-tenth of accompanying spouses were employed both before and after an international move. These figures alone demonstrate that spouse employment is likely to act as a major brake on international mobility.
 Spousal satisfaction with both lifestyle and career is an important determinant of assignment success, and thus employer action to support accompanying spouses is of paramount importance.

Work permits

One of the key issues facing working spouses is the workpermit or visa regime of their receiving country. According to a Permits Foundation survey of over 3,300 spouses, when asked whether they would relocate to a country where obtaining a permit to work was difficult, around 60 per cent of spouses said that they would be unlikely to relocate. Only 6 per cent said they would definitely go, while only just over a third said that they would probably go. These statistics are interesting, as they demonstrate the scale of resistance to an international move if there is no (or only a low) chance of obtaining employment.

Key issues raised by the respondents related to the importance of the spouse having his or her own career, income and the social connections that come from the workplace. Those who said they would go, even if they were unlikely to be able to work abroad, cited reasons such as career precedence for their spouse, taking retirement or planning to have/looking after a family. Perhaps not surprisingly, male spouses were less willing to relocate than women if their employment prospects were low.

A major difficulty concerns the fact that, under many visa regimes, the accompanying spouse needs to have a job offer from a specific employer. One of the key problems is that, when moving abroad, there is frequently insufficient time to make contacts, find employment and then obtain the necessary paperwork from the host-country authorities. Local employers also usually prefer to hire people who do not require work permits, as this reduces their administration and the time it takes to complete the recruitment process (and the knock-on costs of this). The complexity of the process also acts as a disincentive to accompanying spouses.

Practical aspects

Given these barriers, it may be questioned what employers can do to assist working spouses who wish to continue in employment in the foreign location. The Permits Foundation survey asked their sample of spouses and partners about this, and received some interesting suggestions. For instance, some 85 per cent of the spouses and partners surveyed said that information on local opportunities would be very much welcomed, while almost 80 per cent said they would appreciate a network of contacts and/or vacancies. Another popular suggestion concerned employers providing job-search advice or guidance. Career counselling was also considered to be helpful, as was advice to be given on tax and pensions implications.

By contrast, the forms of assistance most frequently provided by employers to working spouses and partners were language training and an education or training allowance.

While the spouses and partners surveyed did find these interventions useful, there was a noticeable mismatch between what employers did to help and what the spouses themselves found to be most helpful to them.

The value of communication and networks

Even if employers do provide greater levels of support in relation to career counselling, local opportunities and networking, there is no guarantee of spousal employment locally. Spouses recognise this, but would appreciate their partners’ employers taking more proactive steps to provide direct communication and support. This might include advice on training, job search and working-visa processes.

Expatriate spouses are a potential source of talent.

Information on their CVs detailing their skills and competencies, which could be shared among employers in the host location, could be very useful in filling local skills gaps (either within other foreign operations or in local companies).

This requires employers to collate such data, and also to operate networks to share it (subject to any data-protection laws). A difficulty can arise here in respect of recognition of qualifications locally, but nonetheless such an initiative can go some way to helping working spouses to make the necessary contacts to find employment.

Even when it is clear that paid employment is not possible abroad, this does not mean that employers should simply wash their hands of the issue. Continuing to communicate with spouses and to assist them with future career planning is considered to be very valuable. A gap on the CV can be filled with meaningful, worthwhile and highly-enjoyable voluntary opportunities – many of which can develop spouses’ competencies and can be used effectively as personal development or continuing professional development.

The skills required to work effectively in the voluntary sector can be turned to a spouse’s advantage on his or her CV on return home.

Social and financial issues

One of the key issues raised by spouses and partners who are unable to work is the reduced social opportunities available to them. The work environment provides a place to make friends and build a social life. It can prove to be very lonely if there are no such opportunities to meet people, particularly in a new country where the spouse lacks his or her usual networks and friendship groups. Employers can provide social support to spouses via informal networking groups, and by mentoring arrangements whereby newly arrived couples are paired with established expatriates and their families. This is a low-cost intervention, with great benefits.

Another important factor in not being able to work, or in taking unpaid work, concerns the financial loss when both partners were working before the move. Although expatriate packages generally make good provision for financial issues, they are rarely so generous as to cover any lost second income.

There is little an employer can do in this regard, as, clearly, it is unreasonable to compensate for the loss of the second income. That said, an allowance to assist spouses with education and training, to undertake professional qualifications or to pursue personal endeavours, such as to kick-start a small business, could prove to be money well spent. The sums do not need to be large; the appreciation by spouses who receive them often far exceeds the actual value of this investment.

Paying dividends

Spousal happiness is critical to the happiness of the assignee and, in turn, their settling-in and productivity. It is, therefore, very important that companies continue to pay attention to spouses and their employment and social status, even though the recession suggests that employer focus should rest purely on direct business matters.

In the current climate, organisations require their employees to be highly mobile, to seek out and develop business opportunities as they arise globally, and to respond to competitive pressures. If married and partnered employees refuse to move because of dual-career and employment concerns for the spouse/partner, the talent pool for expatriate selection is reduced to singles. Posting a single worker abroad may prove to be cheaper in terms of expenses and benefits, but, if that person is not the best for the role, the added value achieved in the overseas environment may not meet organisational objectives. Such a false economy may result in significant lost opportunities for the business.

Like it or not, spouses and partners are part of the expatriate deal. They require sensitive treatment and support.

If effort is paid to communicating with them, responding to their fears and concerns, and meeting, as far as is practical, their needs in respect to employment in the foreign location, this will pay dividends in terms of assignment success. If expatriates are to get the most from their assignments and generate business opportunities for their companies, they need to be sure that their spouses and partners will be able to benefit from their assignments as well. It is, therefore, fitting to close by citing the following extremely pertinent comment from a spouse responding to the Permits Foundation survey:

“In my experience, most employers prefer to ignore spousal employment issues. However, from my personal observation, how well a spouse settles is key in determining how an employee will perform. If spousal employment is important to that couple, then companies ignore it at their peril.” Source: Global Relocation Trends Survey 2010, Brookfield Global Relocation Services

International Survey of Expatriate Spouses and Partners – Employment, Work Permits and International Mobility, November 2009, Permits Foundation