What does research tell us about Expats’ Spouses?

Today’s competitive business world increasingly shows greater professional mobility, especially among highly skilled workers.

Having an international career, however, is an issue typically involving not only a particular employee but also his/her partner, the so-called trailing spouse, whose life is also affected by the shift.

In the case of dual-career couples relocation may have an ample range of consequences such as spouse’s career-development difficulties, marital stress or partners’ identity issues, which eventually risk the success of the assignment. Partner adjustment then, becomes a critical factor in the overall expatriation experience.

What do we really know about trailing spouses? In this article, we summarise three key research findings of this crucial issue in international human resource management.

1. Ending up with a job…instead of a career

Making career compromises seems to be a common trend among expats’ partners. Academic research points out that a considerable number of partners overcome their employment difficulties by developing a portable career that sits well with their new international situation. This portable career is a new employment option that tends to be underpaid, is not sustainable in the long-term and is not necessarily in line with the professional career. Moreover, the new employment conditions are frequently less prestigious than the previous job expats’ partners had in their home country.

In a close line, the Brookfield Global Relocation Trends Survey (2013) reports that while more than 41% of partners had a career-related job prior to expatriating, only 15% were in paid employment once in their new location.

2. Identity issues

Abandoning or interrupting a career is a major thread for identity. Professional career constitutes an essential part of who a person is. Thus, being unable to get a paid job can result in a loss of power, self-worth and identity. This, in turn, may have spillover effects on other family members.

For a career-driven person, being stereotyped as a trailing spouse who is on a sort of holiday, mainly spending time with friends in amusing activities has also an impact on identity. Particularly when the option of becoming a stay-at-home-mom is unwanted.

Reformulating identity in a new environment requires individual psychological resources. Results, however, are not necessarily negative. When entering a new country, the cultural code may not be congruent with personal identity standards. A new environment pushes people to step out their comfort zone, which frequently results in personal enrichment. Interestingly, retaining a past identity was found to be less important for partners’ adjustment than creating a new one by building relationships with new people in the host country.

3. Insufficient organisational support 

Studies show that organisational support for trailing spouses is scarce even though there is a strong link between partner’s adjustment and the success of the assignment. In other words, the most frequently reported reason for an international assignment to fail is the partner’s difficulty or unwillingness to adapt (see a comprehensive research review about this point here).

Then, how can an organisation support the adjustment of trailing spouses? Ivonne McNulty describes in this paper three types of organisational support for expatriates’ partners. Firstly, practical support aiming to help spouses adjust to their new environment (for example, interim accommodation or language courses). Secondly, support towards professional integration (for example, career counselling or work permit assistance), which, in turn, helps to address typical dual-career issues such as career discontinuity. Finally, social support, which groups actions leading to facilitate social integration (introducing to networks or membership of clubs).

Reporting on trailing partners in 54 host-locations, the same article finds that they could count with practical support in most cases, even though its quality was poor and did not meet the expectations. Social and professional supports were simply lacking. Interestingly, the three kinds of support were perceived to be essential to promote partner’s adjustment, regardless of whether support was actually received.

The case of German corporations is not different. In a sample of 405 expatriates and trailing partners in 56 German global players, this study shows a severe lack of support to expatriates’ partners, especially when it comes to assisting them in finding a job and recreating social networks. Consequently, while almost 66% of the female spouses were working before expatriation, only around 25% of them could continue their careers abroad. Authors call their findings a rather dark picture.

Organisational support can also facilitate the (re)creation of a new identity by paving the way to rebuild a career-based living and to create a feeling of belonging. Both, essential factors of individual identity. The goal for partners and employers should be the same: to boost the adjustment of the trailing partner in the host country.

Expatriate management is a hot issue for global organisations. Using evidence-based information about expatriates and their partners gives companies essential input to create competitive advantages in their global talent and diversity programmes.

Dr. Carlos Morales & Amaia Izar de la Fuente

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