Retain your international talent through acknowledgement and support to the expat partner

Author: Inge Aagaard

Attracting global talent in the form of expatriates is a competitive advantage for companies, as is developing, managing, and retaining them. But it can be costly not to have focus on the expat partner and help them set out well with focus on their individual purposes to avoid disruption of the line of success.

Talent attraction and development is one of the big global mobility trends. Attracting the right talent means focus on the whole family in an expatriation and if the company does not have focus on the expat partner, it reduces the chances of attracting the best candidates. Highly skilled expat partners often identify themselves with their professional work, but the companies tend to forget to acknowledge the difficulties they go through as there is a predominant focus on the individual adjustment of the employee taking up the international posting.

According to the 2016 Global mobility trends survey which included respondents from 163 global companies representing over 11 million employees, 73% of expatriates were accompanied by a partner (Sterle, Fontaine, de Mol, Verhofstadt, 2018). In a study by Lazarova et al. (2015) the most common causes of expatriate failure were partner’s career concerns, partner’s resistance to move and marital breakdown (McNulty, 2015). In case where both partners pursue their careers in the host country, women seem to experience more work-personal life conflict than men (Mäkelä, 2017).

Finding conventional job for the partner is often a difficult task, either due to language issues, the role as family caretaker or because it takes time to put transferable skills into action in the job market in a new setting. Culture, academic or professional experience obviously causes challenges, and expectations are often not met – either because the expatriating company has forgotten or not had focus on setting the bar in the right place or because the daunting challenges in a new job environment are a steep challenge up the mountain. So if you can’t find a job, how do you create one.

The key questions for the expat partner will be what is my value in the new place and how will I find work or meaningful existence. Finding professional or personal fulfillment abroad is what makes the expat partner satisfied as the partner must see new opportunities, redefine and reinvent themselves.

There will be highs and low professionally and personally. You go from upward trajectory – can have it all feeling to a feeling of loneliness, no job, or difficulties finding one. You may be busy with networking, voluntary work or part-time jobs, but not fulfilled and not live up to your own professional potential. The partner may need an evidence to show what they have been doing for the last years. Although busy spinning the wheels, you can still lack the feeling of professional progress and need to see life from another perspective- reframe and give up the “could have beens”.  From the outside perspective, people see you as a success with an exciting life as a global nomad. But for you as expat partner, it is necessary to see what you have done and given the world, how we should be living our lives, question what career really means to us, and often you have to go through tough times to see new perspectives.

It is so easy to feel loss of professional identity, loss of confidence, lack of accomplishment – internal struggle as we victims of our own expectations. I often meet expat partners who say, “I have done nothing”, but with support from professional sparring partners, relevant and transferable skills will be highlighted and help realise all the valuable easily transferable skills. Next step is to translate these experiences into useful tools – be it resumes, cover letter, interview scenarios, or simply a visualization of meaningful work for your own self-assurance.

The job market is in transition too, and the way expat partners have to be agile and fit into new settings, fits well into the body of work importance instead of a specific title. More focus on unique pieces of work and create a whole collage of career patterns that are much more acceptable today than years ago. These experiences  may seem useless on its own but uniques in the full picture and put you in a position to be one step closer to the end goal. Each step has its own value and if we acknowledge that, the way is more enjoyable and easier to let go of the feeling many expat partners end up with, namely talking about wasted years.

Value of support lies in that it is helpful having others view you in a different perspective and reframe perspective. The gains of new experiences contribute without having traditional career – take pressure off ourselves. We need to identify ourselves as something else than accompanying partner or someone’s wife or husband, to not lose ourselves and impact our sense of who we are.

Most companies are aware of the fact that the spouse is the number one reason for an early return,  costly for the company as it puts work projects and international relationships in danger, but it is also critical for the company’s reputation of its international assignments.

Strengthening the expat partner in resolving the identity dilemmas will be the backbone of the overall assignment success. There is a competitive advantage in taking special focus on the expat partner, as the most important influencer on whether to say yes or no to an international assignment and not leave prematurely. Not all experience difficulties, but no matter who you are, what situation you are in and your background, the fact that the company offers support to the expat partner, will have a positive impact on both the lived life and the way the company will be perceived.