Expatriate spouses: what do they want?

By Nina Cole, Associate Professor of Human Resources Management, Ryerson University in Toronto

spouseCoupleEvery time an expatriate employee returns home before completing his or her assignment, their employer loses $1 million. That’s on average – it could be more. HR makes a major contribution to the bottom line if even one expatriate assignment ‘failure’ is averted.

What causes premature returns home? The evidence clearly shows that spouse and family adjustment issues are the number one reason. However, employers have been reluctant to establish spousal assistance programs. With the demand for expatriate employees growing rapidly as it becomes necessary for firms to expand globally in order to create and maintain a competitive advantage, the case for spousal assistance should be reconsidered. HR managers consistently rate finding employees who will accept international assignments as a major challenge, increasingly due to the prevalence of ‘dual career’ families. Thus in order to enhance expatriate adjustment, reduce expatriate failure rates and to enhance expatriate performance, it is critical that HR professionals address spousal adjustment issues.

New research carried out

This article reports on a new research study that provides valuable insights from the perspective of expatriate spouses, both male and female, regarding their most important needs for employer-provided assistance. Field data was collected in the Asia-Pacific region in 2007-2008. The research was funded by the SHRM Foundation. All 238 participants completed an online questionnaire regarding spousal assistance. Of those, 100 participants volunteered to meet for a detailed discussion. They provided specific information on the assistance they had received, and what additional assistance they wanted.

The research findings indicate that spouses who had experienced an interruption or cessation of their employment had significantly lower adjustment to interacting with local people (a key component of cross-cultural adjustment) than the spouses whose employment situation remained substantially the same. For spouses with a career orientation to work (as opposed to those who just work to supplement family income), females had higher cultural adjustment than males with respect to both interacting with locals and to adjusting to differences in food, climate and cultural norms.

Less than 20% of the spouses received employer-provided employment assistance, and there was no difference in adjustment between spouses who received such assistance and those who did not. Further, there was no difference in the proportion of spouses who found work between those who received employment assistance and those who did not. Therefore, it can be concluded that current spousal employment assistance is not effective, and money spent in this area is being wasted! Employers need to more carefully design such assistance based on a rigorous assessment of spousal needs.

Employment Assistance

Interviews with spouses revealed that desired employment assistance falls into six categories (in decreasing order of number of suggestions):

1. Networking Assistance

The overwhelming message from spouses was that they need some basic assistance to help them get started on a job search process in the expatriate location. In particular, they want information to assist them with networking, which is how most jobs are found. Specific suggestions included a list of employment agencies; a list of other Western companies using English-speaking staff; information on job fairs; and books on managing portability in both careers and identity. They suggested that companies could help them meet other spouses looking for work by establishing a spouse association that could maintain a list of potential jobs for spouses. An internal spouse liaison officer (full- or part-time) could organize career workshops; maintain a list of local job opportunities; provide information on job-relevant courses and graduate programs in English; and a local HR staff person could provide help with translation and local resume and interview norms. A listing of Websites for organizations providing services to the expatriate community is available from the author.

2. Jobs with Large Employers

Spouses suggested that large employers try to provide jobs for spouses internally or with associated organizations. Spouses would like information on internal jobs, and to be given preference when they are equally qualified with other job candidates.

3. Career Counselling

Many spouses expressed a desire for career counselling. Individualized assistance, before moving, regarding transfer of skill set and identity issues would be particularly helpful.

4. Greater Respect

Many spouses indicated a desire for greater respect from employers. Spouses wanted organizations to follow through on vague offers of assistance and to face the reality that dual-career couples are the norm in today’s Western societies. Rather than cash payments, spouses want practical assistance in return for acknowledgement of all the work of moving a family as well as undertaking their own difficult job search.

5. Specific Services

A number of suggestions were made regarding specific services such as assisting spouses with obtaining work visas; paying fees associated with maintaining professional registration or re-qualification exams for the host location; and providing more language training.

6. Assistance in Establishing a Small Business

Some spouses wish to establish their own business. They suggested that employers could provide related information including how to adapt to local business practices and regulations, and could provide a spousal allowance to use for courses on how to set up a small business in the local setting.

Relocation Assistance

Spouses interviewed described significant family relocation assistance received from the employer. Many made the point that if the relocation process went smoothly, they could start their job search more quickly and with a more positive, confident attitude. Thus relocation assistance can indirectly enhance the job search process. This assistance typically included housing allowances, school fees, moving expenses, orientation, medical insurance, and language training. Less common were ‘look-see’ trips before deciding whether to accept the assignment, cross-cultural training, home leave, and relocation allowances.

Spouses were grateful for the generous support provided, but the administration of the assistance was often criticized, with a common complaint being that HR departments in their home country did not understand the difficulties facing expatriate employees in other, often lesser-developed, parts of the world, and local host-country HR staff did not understand the cross-cultural challenges facing expatriate families. They suggested that mobility management should be outsourced to external relocation companies because of their expertise. Employers focusing on core competencies related to their strategic objectives often find that this outsourcing alternative meets their needs.

Spouses made three major recommendations for additional relocation assistance:

1. Practical Settling-In Assistance

The most frequent recommendation related to the need for practical support immediately upon arrival and over the first few weeks of settling-in. Spouses overwhelmingly found this experience to be very difficult and many expressed a strong belief that the best source of support and assistance would be another expatriate spouse who had already settled into the location. Those who described themselves as self-sufficient only wanted some basic support for the first few days, but most wanted longer term access to a ‘go-to’ person for all their questions and quandaries based on their individual family circumstances. Such a person can be provided by hiring existing expatriate spouses on a contract basis to provide assistance to newly-arriving spouses before and during the actual moving and settling-in period. The cost of this assistance would be minimal.

2. More Cross-Cultural and Language Training

Many spouses also found that they needed more practical cross-cultural information and more language training to be provided both before and after moving.

3. More Information “Keep Us in the Loop”

Another common suggestion was for more information to be provided by the employer to spouses throughout the relocation process. Very few spouses had been included in the distribution of information during the planning stages for the assignment and the negotiations of the details that would affect the family. Providing this information would be a simple way to enhance perceptions that the spouse’s key role in the expatriate assignment is acknowledged and respected.


These evidence-based results clarify the need for spousal employment assistance to enhance spousal adjustment (particularly for career-oriented male spouses), and ultimately to reduce expatriate failure rates and enhance company performance. The evidence further clarifies specific action that employers should take in providing assistance, employment-related and otherwise, based on what spouses say they need.

The two major areas where spouses need assistance are:

  • information to assist in employment networking, and
  • practical support from another expatriate spouse during the settling-in period.

These are not expensive to provide and may even represent an opportunity for cost reduction compared to current assistance programs.

HR professionals will find that these research findings provide:

  • evidence-based ideas for spousal assistance program design
  • justification for decisions regarding the content of spousal support programs, and
  • strong rationale in support of requests for resources to implement or update spousal assistance programs.

Source: acs-alumini

Nina Cole, BSc(Hons), MBA, PhD, CHRP, is Associate Professor of Human Resources Management at Ryerson University in Toronto. She has been active in the HR profession for over 30 years as a practitioner, consultant, researcher and professor. The complete article reporting this research will soon be published in the International Journal of Human Resources Management. She can be reached at n2cole@ryerson.ca and at (416) 979-5000 x7558