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The secrets to managing overseas postings for modern families? Start with the spouse

  • Written by Miriam Moeller, Senior Lecturer, International Business, The University of Queensland

Skilled professionals are increasingly likely to have an equally skilled partner at home. This makes it harder for companies to fill overseas positions when the move affects two professional careers.

Multinational corporations are starting to recognise and try to understand the complexities of managing talent globally. But we wondered whether they are considering the “right” scope of complexities. As an example of these complexities, and contrary to popular belief, the expatriate spouse – not the expatriate – remains the number one influence on the success of overseas postings.

Three major, interrelated elements create this largely unrecognised complexity.

1. The family context

An overseas assignment can be an enriching experience for the whole family, but making it a success is a different story. Career paths are no longer choices for a single breadwinner, but compromises between couples or within families.

This means there are a number of stakeholders to consider when an overseas assignment is on offer. The dynamics between the various immediate family members play a major role in whether the assignment is a success.

Research[1] often reports organisational support for spouses as either inadequate or misaligned. One reason for this is that organisations do not have a good enough understanding of expatriate spouse experiences and attitudes to relocation.

Most recently, research[2] has identified that there are four different types of spouses – some more resilient and ready for an international relocation than others. This is to say that spouses and their personal and professional career endeavours may differ greatly. And the lack of knowledge about this makes it difficult to manage.

The reason for any inadequacy or misalignment of organisational support might well stem, then, from not fully understanding the journey of the other family members who are likely invested but involuntarily affected by the way the assignment is managed.

This type of reasoning similarly applies to families with a female breadwinner, families with or without children, those who identify as LGBTIQ, single parents and families going through a divorce, among other scenarios. The chart below illustrates the range of family contexts.

The secrets to managing overseas postings for modern families? Start with the spouse Corporate support for people on overseas assignments needs to consider the diversity of possible family contexts. Author provided

Philosophically, it is about managing the family as a dynamic and complex network of actors. That is in addition to the complexities inherent in any particular individual employee or family member.

2. The assignment context

We are seeing an increase in the types of international assignments, including short-term, long-term, rotational, flex-assignments and so forth. You can add to this the propatriate (a professional expatriate committed to their parent company), the glopatriate (a globetrotting expatriate committed to a global career beyond their parent company), the inpatriate[3] (a relocation from the subsidiary into HQ) and the self-initiated expatriate (a non-organisational form of expatriation[4]) among others. We now have many assignment types – some of which have not existed or been recognised as such, say, ten years ago.

The assignment type matters to the multinational corporation. It is the context for the length, purpose and expatriate and family allowances of the assignment.

3. The location context

Globalisation continues to create opportunities across borders. These in turn are linked to international assignment opportunities.

Today, countries like China, Brazil, India, Argentina, Mexico, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Angola, Nigeria and Iraq present some of the greatest challenges for international assignees, their partners and children[5].

But what do we really know about these countries? And to what extent are dual-career families ready (or supported) to relocate to these places and be successful – as a family or as individuals?

Another difficult challenge to manage is the fact that some assignment locations are considered more dangerous than others. Some research[6] suggests this keeps potential expatriates and their families from considering the assignment in the first place.

Managing challenges of diversity is key

In short, the increased diversity of assignments – in all ways – presents policy and compliance challenges for talent management departments. Creating the right tools to enable multinational corporations to understand and respond swiftly to these challenges is key to competing and winning with a global talent strategy.

Global mobility specialists must fully understand past, present and potential trends to then acquire the agility needed to manage talent in today’s world – across diverse demographic, assignment and family contexts.

In the end however, if the expatriate and their family are not convinced this will be a good experience, no amount of deliberation or support will make it a success. The real key to success is to ensure the expatriates and their families understand their “window of opportunity”[7] for such a life-changing move.

Authors: Miriam Moeller, Senior Lecturer, International Business, The University of Queensland

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