An expatriation costs on average $300,000 to $1 million annually*
Likely the single largest expense a company make on one individual except for the CEO
Regardless of any investment we make, we try to do our best to make sure that it is a good investment. We try to look behind it and estimate the immediate, short- and long-term return. Stocks, property, wine, running shoes, cars, phones, etc.
Behind an expat is (often) a spouse and perhaps also children. They should be seen, heard, and considered as heavy weighing when companies evaluate their investment in an expatriation.
Before digging further in, I want to make it clear that I do not wish, nor do I believe, in bringing forward a stereo type assumption that all companies and mobility programs diminishes the spouse.
That said, and with apprx. 40% of expatriations failing, one of the major reasons being that the spouse/family is unhappy, there is room for improvement.
THE INVISIBLE & MUTE SUPPORT FUNCTION
Based on my close to 9 years of living as an expat I´ve listened to spouses saying that they feel like they are “just there” as a comfortable accessory (to the company), enabling the working spouse to come and go as s(h)e needs to, and work around the clock.
They explain that they feel like an invisible support function, that does not have a seat at the table when things, having a huge impact on their lives, are discussed, and decided on.
For someone (me) who is herself a spouse, not to be given a voice, is highly provoking. And, when I get too frustrated, guess who I take it out on? Yes, the company´s primary investment. My husband.
WE ARE NOT DRUNK DRIVERS
“I´ve never spoken to HR. They did not get in contact”
“I did not have a conversation about what I do, and what a plan for me could look like”
“It was not clear to me that my license as a dentist required 1 year of local training and passing a language exam. Local HR could have informed this”
Above a few examples of things, I´ve heard spouses saying.
It may remind a bit about a drunk driver claiming that “no one took my car keys” when faced with his/her actions. Placing responsibility on someone else.
It is not the same.
There is a ginormous number of tasks and new things to get your head around when relocating and in the blond recognition that we do not live our lives backwards – experience in your individual reaction towards a relocation are non or limited, hence asking the right questions are difficult.
In other words, if it was straight forward it wouldn´t be an issue.
A company has chosen the right person for an expat assignment. Great.
The expatriated employee is married. Her spouse comes along.
After 6-9 months abroad it is clear that the employee is not performing as per usual. She has done initial cultural training, has had individual coaching on self-awareness, a thorough handover has been done and HR has been in regular contact with her to make sure she is thriving.
She claims to be thriving.
But. Her spouse is not. And that turns out to be the root cause for her unfocused effort, hence results.
In essence, it is the spouse that is not the right person for the assignment. He has not been heard, prepared, or have had any cultural or language training. He is culturally illiterate and is struggling to adjust, integrate and is stubbornly holding on to doing things his way.
He struggles with the complex, to him, public system he must deal with in another language. It is not what he is used to.
“They make is so complex”
“Why don´t they just do X, Y or Z?”
“No one speaks English. It is impossible”
In the supermarket people are pushy and rush him at the cash register and when they invite local guests for dinner, they turn up an hour late.
He is trying to make friends, but if they do not comply with his frequent use of sarcasm, he gets switched off.
They are weird. They do not understand him. It irritates him. All of it.
Joining the fact above with the fact that the spouse that comes along, is the one acutely vulnerable to feeling out of place and has no known or safe territory, plus is massively exposed to dealing with all the new, you have a classical expatriate investment predicament.
Finally – joining the fact that the expat and her spouse are spending their evenings on arguing, being frustrated, and slowly disconnecting I consider this lack of preparation a full blown lose-lose-lose situation.
The company loses business and potentially an employee.
The expatriate loses confidence, energy and potentially her spouse.
The spouse loses him/herself and potentially his/her spouse.
HOW TO MANAGE THE SPOUSAL INVESTMENT
1: Create trust
Call the spouse. Introduce yourself. Make yourself available and approachable. Find out who s(he) is. What are his/her views and expectation on a relocation. What does s(he) want to do. What is important to him/her. Extend his/her persona and interest to the local HR and have them call too. In due time.
Inform what s(he) needs to be aware of on a practical and emotional level. Mentioning a few -> pension, 6-9 months of dealing with admin and local practicalities, pitfalls like exhaustion, home sickness, frustrated children, medical differences etc.
Talk and inform about what may happen in the dynamics in a partnership when living like this and what common reactions they may encounter from children.
Make it clear that there is advice and help to get from the company if they stumble.
“Kia, we have relocation companies managing this”. Quote: HR Source
I comply with that, and they are indeed a tremendous help, in ticking of actionable tasks. Very much so.
But. What about the rest. The long-term consequences and the emotional side of it. I strongly advise that; those things should be proportionally recognized.
Additionally, I advise making cultural training mandatory. Apart from nipping some challenges in the bu.. it is also an inclusive approach towards the spouse. Calling for the importance of them investment their time in completing this, promotes investment in the expatriation from their side.
WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE
Then know, that it is not.
All is never said and done.
Expatriation is one long journey of new, learning, development, and challenges (good as bad) and the spouse needs retention all the way. Adjusted to their individual character.
When I look back, 9 years ago, I was facing complete other challenges than I am today.
THANK YOU, HR & COMPANIES
Before I end, I would like to extend a “thank you” and a ton of gratitude towards the HR and companies that manages and considers the spouse. The ones that take them into account, get to know them and show empathy – regardless of whether they might understand the situation or not.
The ones that also, in all honesty, lay down the cards of reality, in front of the spouse.
(Without generalizing) We, spouses, do work around the clock when our spouse do. We give up steady pension. We give up a streamlined career. We give up physical partaking in our families back home. We give up the safety in the known.
“We continuously supply the assists for your employee to make the goals, you have set out for them.
On so many levels”.
Quote. Kia Holm Reimer, Expat Spouse.
I also extend a “thank you” to HR and companies enabling me, as a spouse, to explore and learn from all the places I´ve seen and lived in, in the world. Thank you for the resilience my children have developed, the language skills they have acquired and their unspoiled ability to be and interact with cultures and diversity worldwide. Without judging.
In conclusion, thank you for giving me an education that you cannot study to learn. An education empowering and qualifying me to do what I am doing right here.
Namely – aiming towards making more expatriations succeed.
*Harvard business review.org
This Post Has 4 Comments
Dear Kia, you talking about very-very important things.
I am expat spouse and it took me a few years to adjust. It was hard time and I felt that I have no right to complain or even no right to be so unhappy. As my husband said “you have time and money to do whatever you want” but I was so extremely frustrated and isolated, I was almost dyeing.
I am thinking about this almost unseen social group, how to reach them and how to help. I’m looking for the information and researches about it, I’m looking for people and projects working with this problem. Please share with me if you know somebody or something.
Something should be done here, I do not know what exactly yet, but I’m working on it.
For now I run the art classes for expats in my studio in Bratislava, and I see how this tiny drop of support is important and how people happy just to come, meet and do something together, to have some chit-chat and cup of tea.
I would like to make more.
Thank you for your attention to this topic.
Best regards, Taisia
Thank you very much for your reply and for open up about this. This is exactly what is needed!
I have come across many that have felt exactly like you did, and I am happy that you found strength and did the only right thing -> finding yourself a purposeful project.
Indeed we are an overlooked group and the consequences can be very severe, both mentally and financially. In fact those go hand in hand and the outlook of no pension is a mental stressor in itself.
For now, our option is to do what we can to find purpose and stimuli for ourselves. Alongside that, I am raising my voice here and are committed to doing my outmost to change things. This will take time and help from yourself and/or others will be much welcomed. There are organizations like Internations that put together events for expats. You may want to check them out.
I will look at your project and share it on my SoMe platforms where fitted.
All the best,
P.s. my project called SecretLab.Studio, if you have some info or ideas, links to the peoples or related researches, please contact me via email firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks for your blog, nice to read. Do not stop.