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back to index backGLOBALtalk June,  2005


Many Expatriates, Many Voices: A Look Beyond the Assignees

It is not a secret that employees are but only one factor in the decision to take an assignment—it affects the entire family. But who should assume the responsibility to help ensure that employees are consulting their spouses/partners before making a final decision? Should a company assist an employee's spouse/partner with finding a job at the assignment location and making friends in their new community? How involved should a company become?

Many Expatriates, Many Voices: Accompanying Spouses and Partners Relocating to the USA,” is a new study commissioned by Prudential Relocation, and conducted by the Interchange Institute. It is the second installment of a five-year research project investigating the impact of international mobility on expatriate families. According to this study, all of the questions asked above are valid; however, their answers will ultimately affect the success of an international assignment.

Why Was the Study Commissioned?

Many Expatriates, Many Voices” examines the factors that influence a spouse's adjustment when moving to the United States (U.S.) from another country. The goal is to identify what affects the spouse's/partner's deeper adjustment, which in turn affects the assignee's overall satisfaction and productivity with the assignment. The secondary goal is to examine the effectiveness of the different services that expatriates may need to help them adjust to life in the U.S.

The results of this survey point to the need for human resources managers to play a role in the employee's family life to some extent before an international relocation. This, of course, is a new role and one that must be played very carefully,” said Margery Marshall, President, Prudential Relocation. No one wants to be intrusive in an employee's life and marriage, but the prevailing finding from our research is that most families appreciate—indeed, demand—a company's concerns and involvement when they make an international move.”

Participants in the study represent a broad range of nations, including Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ecuador, France, Germany, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Italy, Jamaica, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Peru, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and Venezuela. The report includes not only the study's findings, but recommendations for the employee's sponsoring organization and accompanying spouses as well.

The Productivity Effect

Thirty percent of the study participants described their overall expatriate experience as mixed” or worse. This number was high enough to warrant research identifying some of the causes. Uncovered was the fact that assignee job satisfaction and productivity is directly affected by their spouse's experience while on international assignment. Productivity at work improves, which includes loyalty to the employer, improved job satisfaction, decreased absenteeism, and overall enjoyment of work and peers.

The study considered that the spouse's assignment experience does not begin upon arrival in the new country. Instead, it begins in the home country during the decision-making process. Of the study's participants, only 30.7% were consulted during the pre-move decision-making process. Yet, employees on international assignments have significantly better work experiences when their accompanying spouses or partners are involved in the decision making process and received services to assist them with adjusting to the new country and its culture. It is, therefore, suggested that spouses/partners take an active role in the planning and decision-making process for an international move, including inviting them to participate in pre-move discussions and training.

Full Support

Employees and their spouses/partners that are moving for the first time benefit from speaking with other people who have successfully moved in the past. It is also a good idea for sponsoring organizations to provide first-time relocating families with additional support throughout the relocation process. Participants who used support services within the new community once on assignment reported higher satisfaction rates for their spouses'/partners' work experiences. It is important that companies assist spouses/partners with getting connected to their local communities—e.g., clubs, sports associations or classes. The study cautions spouses against relying on friends and family in other countries for support (via phone and e-mail) and, instead, recommends they make a local network of friends. The key finding here is that the emotional connection that spouses/partners make is vitally important to their adjustment.

Career Management

Of the participants in the study, most were divided into two main categories —those who had worked full-time prior to the move and were no longer employed (19.8%), and those who had been homemakers before and after the move (12%). According to the study, participants who had worked full-time before the move but were no longer employed at the time of the survey had lower satisfaction levels with regard to their current employment status. Their mental health adjustment, however, did not differ from those who categorized themselves as homemakers.

The study also looked at career-counseling services. Only 7.9% of the participants received assistance, most of which had been employed full-time prior to their move to the U.S. Of the participants who did not receive career counseling, 60.2% stated they wanted assistance but were not offered it. These participants had lower satisfaction levels with their job situation and stated that their spouses, the assignees, were not as satisfied with their jobs or the assignment overall.

Cross-Cultural Training

Only 25.9% of respondents said they had received some type of cross-cultural training, mostly upon their arrival in the U.S. According to the study, adjustment levels were poor for spouses/partners who did not receive the cross-cultural training, language training or career counseling they needed. That, in turn, resulted in a poor work experience on the part of the assignee. Some of the key findings relate to the importance of cross-cultural training even for those expatriates coming from English speaking countries. Sixty-three percent of the participants from Canada, the U.K., New Zealand and Australia who did not receive cross-cultural training said they, in fact, could have used it.

Language training also had a similar, direct effect on spouses'/partners' views of the assignment.

Twenty-six percent of participants felt they needed language training, but only 6.9% of those were offered this service. As a result, those who were not offered language training had more difficult adjustments than the participants who received it.

The Expatriate Investment

Overall, the study demonstrates that companies can best support their relocating employees and their families by providing continuous levels of service throughout the move. This support will contribute directly to the return on investment of the assignment. Not only do spouses require practical information, but they also benefit greatly from the emotional support to improve their level of adjustment to living in the new country.

The study presents many practical recommendations for sponsoring organizations and has a wealth of suggestions for expatriate spouses. Jack Keogh, Vice President of Prudential Relocation's Global Workforce Development Group, works closely with Dr. Anne Copeland of the Interchange Institute in the analysis of the study findings related to mobility management services. According to Keogh, This ongoing study allows Prudential Relocation to tailor our mobility solutions to help ensure they address the needs of our clients, their international assignees and families. It helps assure that our solutions effectively address issues related to productive employee adjustment and directly affect corporate return on expatriate investment.”

Source: Prudential Relocation International- GAI


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