International dual careers: latest policy and practice

Sue Shortland reports on the implications for dual-career policy and practice for internationally mobile employees in the light of the current economic picture.

Image of a female couple working from home
Sue Shortland reports on the implications for dual-career policy and practice for internationally mobile employees in the light of the current economic picture.As the recession bites, it would be predicted that organisations will reduce their corporate spend on supporting mobility as they are obliged to tighten their belts. It might also be predicted that the business case for promoting diversity will begin to crumble as labour markets become less difficult in terms of manpower supply. ORC Worldwide has recently released its 2008 survey on dual careers and international assignments the latest in a series that was originally launched back in 1990 and this supports these predictions. One of the main findings concerns the fall in women`s participation as expatriates in their own right. For the first time in almost two decades, women`s increasing share of expatriate opportunities has come to a halt, with their participation down from 17 per cent in 2005 to 13 per cent today. Of course, there are two sides to this coin. Although the worsening economic climate means that employers do not have to look beyond traditional sources of expatriates to fill their positions overseas, it also means that, where dual-career couples are concerned, they are more likely to reject an international assignment if the career of the primary breadwinner (most typically the male partner) is jeopardised to a greater extent through a career break as an accompanying/trailing spouse.Another change in evidence is the reduction in the prevalence of formal, written dual-career policies. In 2005, ORC reported that almost 90 per cent of organisations had a formal policy on dual careers; today, this figure is down to 63 per cent. Even where there are formal policies in place, only 43 per cent of those surveyed reported that they applied them strictly. Why? The answer may lie in the need to demonstrate flexibility (within budgetary limits) to encourage as many dual-career couples as possible to undertake an international assignment. As the economic climate worsens, dual-career couples are likely to be fearful of one partner giving up his or her job, and may thus seek more tailored support to help with job search and career continuity: one size does not fit all.It is not surprising to see from ORC`s findings that financial support for dual-career couples is being reduced. Companies are increasingly mindful of the need to reduce expenditure and it is well known that throwing money at the problem does not solve it in the case of managing dual careers. In the main, couples want to work for a wide variety of reasons personal well-being, social, financial and career so elements of policy that provide compensation for its own sake as some form of sweetener cannot hope to achieve this aim. Thus, any financial assistance needs to be targeted to achieving work/career-related goals.Policy elementsThe main elements of policy applying to dual-career couples have changed little over the years, although the relative emphasis placed upon them has done so. Typical elements contained with a dual-career policy include: language and cultural training; pre-assignment visits; career assistance, such as career counselling; education assistance (payments towards pursuing qualifications, etc); and job search/work permit help. One of the key areas that has increased significantly in importance concerns this latter issue, along with co-working and direct spouse employment. This reflects the fact that dual-career couples place increasing emphasis on being in employment the financial driver is clear, but also being in a job is a springboard or a stepping stone to another. Being out of work represents a lack of career continuity, and a yawning gap in a CV on return home is not an encouraging prospect for those who have given up their job to accompany their partner overseas. Although it is easy to switch focus and throw all of your weight behind one initiative, it is important to consider how these policy elements interrelate. Work permit support is crucial, but without underpinning language and cultural training, for example, obtaining a job in the overseas environment may prove to be far from fruitful.One of the key issues that has seen an increase in take-up over the years concerns the use of alternative forms of mobility such as commuter and short-term assignments. It has been thought that such assignment patterns might encourage take-up of expatriate opportunities enabling a balance of domestic and employment issues. Although these forms of mobility do address dual-career and family concerns, such as children`s education and responsibility for caring for elderly family members, they are not the panacea that they were originally thought to be. Overall, they do not address business needs as effectively as might be hoped, with much time and money spent travelling and those involved in such assignment types not gaining as much cultural capital as might be hoped for, owing to reduced opportunities for social interaction with locals. It seems that, for business needs to be met, there is no true substitute for an assignment whereby the employee is based in the host location. However, this requires spousal/partner and family support without this, assignments can easily fail.

CommunicationOne if the key factors that dual career spouses and partners feel is important is communication regardless of how great a policy may be, if it is not communicated, or if spouses/partners feel that they are ignored, their motivation to support the assignee is very much reduced. Although the offer of a spousal communication package is not a typical feature of dual-career policies (only 13 per cent of those surveyed by ORC offered them), it emerged within the ORC research as an area in great demand by dual-career couples. Addressing issues of involvement and engagement are particularly important in times when staff are fearful for their jobs. Being out of sight and out of mind is typical in the expatriate world. This may not be good practice, but potentially employers could get away with it in the past. When employees and their partners are not confident of their futures, fear breeds discontent to a greater degree. The benefits of communication simply outweigh any disadvantages, and thus employers are exhorted to introduce spousal/partner communications into their dual-career policies and practices.

DemographicsA final key issue that affects spousal/partner dual-career support concerns the changing demographic expatriate profile. The typical age profile of the expatriate workforce is between 30 and 50. As we all know, this is the age band when, typically, employees have children in critical stages of education, and it is also the key age band for career development for employees and partners alike. This hasn`t and won`t change. But what is changing is the views of the expatriates in these age bands. Generation X, born in the 1960s, comprises the bulk of the expatriated population today. For this group, equality is viewed as a right, and both partners in a relationship expect to work. The Baby Boomer generation, which was more willing to accept that the wife gave up her job to support her husband`s career, no longer dominates the expatriate profile. Generation Y following along behind and entering the expatriate workforce in greater numbers sees equality as a given and has even stronger views on working to meet their own aims. Employers will need to take special care to ensure that their support for these employee groups does not follow the take it or leave it` approach that has been prevalent in the past a far more proactive style will be needed to managing dual careers if organisations are to attract and retain the very best talent in the future.Of course, this does not mean that managing dual-career relationships is solely the responsibility of the employer employees themselves must also shoulder part of the responsibility. But, once again, this brings us back to the role of communication. It is critical to understand employees` and their families` wants and needs and to work jointly and flexibly with them, within a policy framework, thus addressing concerns to the mutual advantage and satisfaction of all parties.

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