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Guest blog: The challenges of international transfers for partners of employees

Recently Kemp Little hosted a seminar regarding the employment law implications when a high level executive position is terminated.

This article will explore the challenges faced by the spouses and partners of high level executives who have been transferred to another country (assignees) and why those challenges can lead to the failure of those postings.

This article will also suggest strategies, such as Intercultural Training, to manage those challenges to enable the employee and their partner or spouse to live and work effectively in the host country.

A leading relocation company has estimated that 71% of overseas postings fail due to the inability of the spouse or partner to settle in the host country. The reasons why are as varied as the individuals themselves. However, research has shown that most unsettled spouses feel:

  • undervalued
  • like an appendage
  • that their life is on hold

At this point it might be worthwhile to address some terminology. It is customary to refer to the spouse or partner as a “trailing spouse” or “dependent spouse”. Both terms imply a lack of independence on behalf of the spouse or partner and come from a time where the assignee was almost always a man, and the “trailing” or “dependent” spouse was almost always a woman whose main role in the assignment was to support her spouse.

Intercultural trainers now regard such terms as outdated and potentially offensive. It is not uncommon these days for the spouse or partner:

  • to be a man
  • to have been just as successful and earning just as much or even more than the assignee in their home country
  • to have been working fulltime prior to the assignment.

We now typically use the term “assignee” to refer to both the employee and the employee’s partner or spouse as we regard both people to be of equal value to the success of the assignment. It is crucial to the success of the assignment that both people are able to settle in to the host country. The assignment can lead to overwhelming feelings of dislocation in the spouse or partner. The assignee no longer has the life they had, they no longer have the contact with work colleagues and friends. This alienation can lead to marital stress and infidelity, overeating, and in extreme cases criminal behaviour such as shoplifting and even substance abuse.

It may be worthwhile at this point to note that most HR professionals have never had a personal experience of relocation and it is not unusual that the objections and issues raised by an unsettled assignee are met with dismissiveness. “Stop whining, your husband is very well paid and you are on a good deal” was one response recorded by an assignee.

There are solutions

One of them is technical: WIFI is critical. It provides a link between the old life and the new one as well as being a powerful tool to explore the host country. Indeed, some intercultural trainers believe that WIFI should be included in the first tier of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs!

Assignees should also take the opportunity to allow themselves a “settling in” period. During this time the employee should not work but together with their spouse and partner take time to explore the host country and spend time with their spouse or partner to ensure that he or she feel settled. This has proven to be a far more effective strategy than the rather macho behaviour of “hitting the ground running” such as driving straight to work from the airport, pausing only to drop the spouse or partner and the family at the new place of residence. A rule of thumb would be to “include the spouse in everything”.

Intercultural Training offers an opportunity to ventilate any fears and anxieties that the assignees may have regarding the assignment. The training also explains why and how the host country’s culture is different to the assignee’s home culture and provides tools to manage those differences. In the training, assignees will be able to address questions fundamental to the success of the assignment such as;

  • Why are you here?
  • Why are you doing this?
  • What do you want to achieve on this assignment
  • How can you make this assignment a success rather than just a series of frustrating challenges?

The training also helps the assignees to formulate an action plan to ensure that each assignee can live and work effectively in the host country.

To find out more about how cultural awareness/relocation training could benefit your organisation please contact Michael on:

This blog post was written by Michael Aspell.