Magazine article Personnel Journal

The Career Couple Challenge

Magazine article Personnel Journal

The Career Couple Challenge

Article excerpt

One of the major challenges for multinational employers has been to select upwardly mobile executives for overseas assignments who will succeed abroad and successfully re-integrate into the competitive domestic environment when they return home. More than 80% of those executives who have succeeded abroad have been married and accompanied by their families. These dynamics, however, are changing.

By 1995, the U.S. Department of Labor predicts that 81% of all marriages will be dual-career partnerships. This is an issue multinational employers can't ignore because studies indicate that fewer employees are willing to relocate, either domestically or internationally, without assistance for their spouses.

According to New York-based Organization Resources Counselors, Inc. (ORC), U.S. multinational corporations are well aware of the problem. Five years ago, a major group of such employers are with which ORC was working identified the management of dual-career couples on international assignment as one of the five most important international human resources challenges for the decade ahead.

At the time, however, none of the companies had a well-organized program for dealing with dual-career couples sent abroad. Even worse, most of these organizations believed that this problem was the couples' responsibility to resolve. It isn't surprising that many of these dual-career couples considered this attitude unacceptable. The loss of a second income and self-esteem on the part of the trailing spouse who often isn't able to find work can cause serious problems and put the couple at a higher risk for divorce.

Finding resources to assist couples in this process often is the greatest difficulty the couples and the HR managers face. In assessing the viability of an international assignment and in negotiating the transition, the dual-career couple's support at times is so limited that many are forced to make critical choices without adequate data about work permit requirements, labor market conditions, potential international employers and basic supports, such as day care and maintenance services.

More than 30 companies do, however, provide some form of assistance to unmarried couples. The most common approach is to treat them (with restrictions) as married. Other companies reported that they pay travel expenses (within limits), and still others provide immigration advice and assistance.

Even those companies that support the expatriation of unmarried couples generally avoid sending them to countries where such arrangements would represent significant legal or social problems for the couple and/or the company. Yet some employers take the position that the private lives of their employees are strictly their own affair.

Expatriate compensation is inherently complex, but particularly so for dual-career couples. Many employers have developed effective approaches for integrating the various allowances typically paid for overseas assignments when husband and wife work for the same company. Far more complex are the problems that arise when couples work for two different employers.

In many countries, spouses of expatriates can't continue their careers. The loss of spousal income is one obvious concern. Only one of the 10 reporting companies indicated that it fully offsets the income loss. This was a small company with four expatriates that reported it "had no other options." Fourteen companies reported partially offsetting the loss of spousal income, and several other reported paying lump sums of as much as $4,000. The consensus of the remaining 90%, however, seemed to be "no way!"

Some companies have been particularly imaginative in coordinating the compensation and benefits of a potential expatriate with those of the spouse's employer. For example, a major New York bank has successfully coordinated expatriate compensation packages with other employers for 19 couples.

For multinational employers to realize their global and succession-planning strategies, they must find better ways of managing the conflicting demands of dual-career couples who are transferred abroad. …

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