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Coming to America

Employers are finding assistance programs for spouses of U.S.-bound expatriates can help boost the successes of those assignments, too.

Monday, February 6, 2012
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Six years ago, Maaike le Grand started packing up her house. While living in Amsterdam, her husband had accepted a new job at the World Bank, a global financial institution headquartered in Washington.

Le Grand, who spoke fluent English, was excited about the move to a new country. She planned to continue her 27-year career as a French teacher. With all her skills and experience, what could go wrong?

Plenty. After she arrived, World Bank invited her to a workshop where facilitators helped participants develop a resume, then handed them a binder containing 2,000 addresses of job-related websites.

"You felt basically left out in the cold," she says. It wasn't until one year later that she was able to land a part-time job teaching English at the International Language Center. "Spouses have to know that it takes a lot of work to get a job ... . It takes a lot of time to get a work permit, from four months to a year, or even more, in some cases."

Expatriates living and working in the United States are often accompanied by their spouses and children, all hoping to acclimate to a new culture and environment. But, even for those who speak English, the challenges of American life can be daunting, even frightening. Similar to spouses of overseas expats, the questions loom: Where do I buy groceries? How do I find a doctor or get my medicine refilled? How do I get around town? How do I make friends?

To help ease the transition, many global employers offer relocation services to the spouses and children of their employees. In most cases, the services are full blown. Some companies pay for preschool tuition while others offer driving lessons for spouses, annual family trips back home and English-language classes for spouses and children. Just about anything goes. The plan is to create a happy and well-adjusted family, which, in turn, produces a satisfied and productive employee.

In le Grand's case, she received assistance from the World Bank Family Network, a 40-year-old volunteer-driven support network that helps about 500 families per year from different countries adjust to life in the nation's capital.

The World Bank provides the network, she says, with an office at its headquarters and a small budget for spouse activities such as a free "Surviving Culture Shock" workshop, potluck picnics and eight other social events throughout the year.

Likewise, the bank's global-mobility department, which falls under HR, has since built a four-step program for job-seeking spouses that is offered six times a year, says le Grand, the network's past president. The general program offers a job-search orientation and follow-up programs covering resume writing, interviewing and networking.

"Global-mobility [departments] should have in mind the well-being of the family," le Grand says, adding that spouses who abandon a successful career abroad often feel helpless, useless and isolated in America, and this can deliver a huge blow to their self-confidence. "Teens are upset, the children don't adapt or refuse to learn the language and spouses are so isolated, they even refuse to unpack the boxes. All of those things happen."

Global Moves

According to the results of Mercer's 2011 Worldwide Survey of International Assignment Policies and Practices, spousal-assistance programs can be as different as the people they serve. More than 1,000 global-mobility-compensation professionals were surveyed worldwide.

Consider that 38 percent of respondents indicated they had broadened the definition of spouse to include long-term live-in partners of the same or opposite sex. Although 77 percent of Japanese companies said they still use the traditional definition of husband or wife, 61 percent of European companies apply the expanded definition.

More findings:

* Eighteen percent of survey participants offer a miscellaneous family allowance, which is frequently a one-time, lump-sum cash payment averaging $6,088.

* Sixty-two percent of companies impose an age limit on dependent children who can move with their parent. Of those, 27 percent said the limit is 18 years of age.

Almost 50 percent of European and North American companies offer a variety of assistance to help spouses of expats on assignment while only 20 percent of Japanese companies do. Popular forms of assistance include language tuition (67 percent), cultural orientation (61 percent), job-search assistance (50 percent) and work-permit assistance (46 percent).

One of the reasons more companies are offering such support has to do with demographics, says Ed Hannibal, leader of Mercer's North American mobility business in Chicago.

"Twenty years ago, there weren't as many working spouses in the population the companies were moving that there are today or in the future," he says, predicting that the number of boutique firms that provide relocation services will grow because of this increase in dual-income families.

Relocation-related online social networking is likely to grow. Because employees move to a variety of U.S. cities, Hannibal says, some companies are publishing monthly or quarterly newsletters to connect expatriate populations worldwide.

Others, such as the World Bank, are building and managing dedicated intranet sites where families can join global online communities.

In some cases, they can post resumes; ask for job leads, doctor or daycare referrals; share family photos; highlight family-member accomplishments; or mention their hobbies and other extracurricular activities.

Although companies are limited in how much they can help spouses gain immediate employment due to immigration laws -- obtaining a green card for unskilled workers can sometimes take more than five years -- some employers are helping spouses remain current in their craft, says Hannibal, by reimbursing their college tuition or registration fees for professional workshops or required certification courses.

Meanwhile, companies need to include spouses in employee orientations and help them develop realistic expectations about living and working in the United States before their suitcases are even packed.

"There's always a challenge in moving to a foreign country," says Hannibal. "It's a fallacy to think that moving to the United States is going to be any easier than moving [elsewhere]."

Spousal-assistance programs come in many different forms. But they typically share common denominators such as cross-cultural training courses, English lessons, or destination and assimilation services that help families with everything from finding housing and doctors to obtaining driver's licenses.

Still, most programs offer more. General Motors in Detroit, for example, offers career-continuation services, which reimburse spouses $2,500 each year during the expatriate assignment for activities such as maintaining professional licenses or certifications, says Linda Deskins, senior HR manager for International Assignment Services at GM.

Depending on the cost of a preschool, GM also pays for most, if not all, of the tuition for up to two years. And since there's limited public transportation in Southeastern Michigan, spouses can obtain cars through the GM lease program after completing the company's safe-driving program.

However, the automaker's program helps fewer than 10 spouses a year, representing less than 10 percent of its spousal population, Deskins says. She believes HR must develop broad guidelines for expense reimbursements.

She recalls the spouse of an expatriate from Germany, who taught linguistics to children and adults in Germany. While living in the United States, she was reimbursed for taking Spanish-language lessons, claiming the lessons would help advance her teaching career after she returned to her native land.

"The No. 1 issue is to be flexible with your program," Deskins says, adding that 95 percent of GM's international assignments are successful. "Do it with the idea that you're helping the spouse get acclimated."

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Tying Loose Ends

More than 15 years ago, GlaxoSmithKline created the U.S. and International Service Center, which handles all of its domestic relocations -- inbound and outbound -- except to or from the United Kingdom, which has its own support system, says Gloria Wilson, manager of the pharmaceutical company's Center in Philadelphia, which operates under HR's umbrella.

The Center offers a buddy system, connecting spouses who recently moved to the area with others who have lived in the city for the past two years. Spouses and their families can also join different networks that are run by volunteer employees, such as the Asian Alliance Group, the African American Alliance or the Domestic Partner Alliance.

While most spouses are "just awestruck" with the amount of available resources and choices, Wilson says, their biggest source of dissatisfaction is their limited access to the U.S. job market.

"[Spouses] come expecting to find work almost immediately," she says, adding that employment-authorization documents usually take between 45 and 90 days to process.

Still, the company's expatriates have a high success rate. Eighty percent of the estimated 50 employees who move to the United States each year stay for five years or longer.

But moving to a new country isn't for everyone. Despite the Center's comprehensive assistance, she says, some spouses have trouble adapting to the U.S. culture, can't find a job or become homesick. Others who come from countries offering socialized medicine are frustrated with the American health system.

That's partly why the company plans on exploring various ways to help spouses cope with personal issues. "We call it a dip," she says, explaining that problems often arise six months after a move, when spouses are no longer occupied with all the details of an international move, such as finding housing or settling children in school. "They were somebody in their country and are dealing with a loss of identity. Spouses realize they're all alone and need more support versus less."

Each year, Nestle USA reimburses a family's expenses for one trip back home. In that Glendale, Calif.-based company, roughly 130 expatriates move with their families to the United States annually, says Norma Cuellar, manager of international HR and corporate relocation.

Yet only about 20 percent of the spouses take advantage of the company's global expatriate mobility program. Cuellar suspects the reason for the low utilization rate is that many are spouses of career expatriates and have grown accustomed to living abroad.

The program -- which is designed to help spouses over a three-year period, the average length of an expatriate assignment -- has gone through several changes over the past several years, says Cuellar.

Spouses can either be reimbursed for expenses such as resume writing or job-coaching services or receive one lump sum during the first year of the assignment to help pay for college tuition. They're also granted more flexibility in wrapping up their career or allowing their children to finish school at home. The whole family no longer has to move at once, she says.

But one challenge Nestle didn't anticipate was how the family unit is changing.

"A lot of European couples are not married," says Cuellar, adding that the Swiss-based global company exports much of its talent from Europe to the United States. "That's something we've had to adjust to. We've opened up our benefits to domestic partners as well, trying to keep up with the changing of our workforce."

The company also created a spousal support network in Glendale and plans to expand it nationwide. Spouses and domestic partners meet monthly to address their challenges or concerns and obtain a wide variety of referrals, ranging from pediatricians to hairdressers.

Cuellar, who has worked at Nestle since the 1990s, recalls only a handful of expatriate assignments that have not been successful, mainly due to relationship issues between employees and their spouses or partners.

"If you marry your business needs with the employee and [spouse's] needs, really give them the appropriate support they need and anticipate what that will be from prior experience," she says, "it makes for a good, successful program."

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