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Keeping It In The Family

Global companies are seeking new ways to encourage expatriates' relatives to become future employees, especially in regions where the talent pipeline is dry.

Friday, February 1, 2008
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Large companies with global operations are starting to use innovative techniques to augment their overseas workforces as worldwide staffing demands increase. Some are now focusing on building loyalty among family members of their current employees, hoping that spouses or even the children of employees, as they grow old enough to work will be attracted to the employer.

It's a decided switch from the corporate attitudes of decades gone by. Fifty-some years ago, employing the spouse of a foreign worker was "unusual, if not unheard of," says Kathleen van der Wilk-Carlton, director for The Hague's Permits Foundation, an agency that lobbies governments worldwide to grant open-work authorization for spouses and partners of expatriate staff.

Additionally, she says, companies often shied away from recruiting expats' spouses and children for fear of claims of nepotism and possibly conflict of interest. "Spouses would never have been able to work anywhere near each other," she says.

But such attitudes have softened significantly in recent years. International mobility and global recruiting demands have turned HR's attention toward thinking outside the box to fill job openings.

In India, for example, the local culture places extremely high value on tight-knit family ties, prompting many companies to offer family-inclusive activities, according to Director of Global Initiatives for Worldwide ERC Brenda Fender.

Such activities might include philanthropic participation, special events or social receptions where family members are invited.

It's at these family events, she says, that HR can get acquainted with spouses and children who might have interest in and qualifications for company employment.

Though declining to name them, Fender says many Indian companies are "quite aware of their corporate-responsibility activities and have active local outreach programs that involve employees and their families."

Forward-thinking HR leaders of global companies, she says, find expats' family members a welcome treasure trove of potential talent and enthusiasm, and can offer promising prospects for filling jobs and cultivating company loyalty.

Identifying Family Potential

In the past, engaging family members in business was common largely in cottage and home industries, according to Titus John, human resource department manager with DP World in the United Arab Emirates. For example, in India, such industries included weaving, handicrafts and artifact production. Today, however, the trend extends to areas such as Sivakasi, an Indian village where entire families are engaged in making fire crackers, says John.

In Japan, it's also common for companies to actively engage family members in employers' business activities. For example, John says, some companies in Japan practice Shushin Koyo, or permanent employment. "This means an employee serves his or her entire career life with one company," says John. "Naturally, in this situation, the family too is drawn in."

In the 21st-century business environment characterized by globalization and multinational business, some companies are now "wooing family members so that international expat assignments can be extended for longer periods," says John. That is, if spouses or children can find attractive and rewarding jobs, the pressure to return to the home country is likely to lessen.

Companies can identify employees' family members who might themselves be considered for employment through several channels, John says. For example, some obtain qualification details of the spouse on the job application at the time of employment.

Others might simply ask employees whether any family members might be interested in employment, via telephone, e-mail or even through a questionnaire. Or, he says, HR can provide descriptions to employees outlining job opportunities for spouses or family members and the types of support the company can provide for families.

In addition, hiring managers can ask whether a spouse is currently employed, has been previously employed or is seeking a job. "An HR representative can initiate a dialogue through a home visit to understand the family well and build a closer bond between the family and the company," he says. Becoming personally involved, he adds, is by far the most effective tactic.

Some companies schedule and organize family-day functions to "share the company values and goals" in an attempt to attract the attention and support of employees and their families, John says.

Holding athletic or sports events, quiz competitions and similar competitive events, he says, goes a long way toward "drawing the family and companies closer together."

Among the first steps in attracting employees' family members is a "basic orientation program" related to the organizational structure and mission of the company, according to John, who notes that companies that engage in community development programs will likely garner greater attention among family members.

Given today's growing interest in corporate social responsibility, he encourages companies to actively engage in programs that result in social advancement and improvement. Results, he says, are likely to be noticed by family members.

"Especially in emerging markets, sponsoring programs such as health [initiatives] for women and children will gain maximum attention and support, not only from the local community but also [from that country's] government," John says. "All this will certainly boost the image of the corporation and attract more people to join."

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Companies in acute and immediate need of manpower or talent may offer language training and apprenticeships, or even provide full educational support -- all of which can serve as attractive incentives to prospective employees.

In the Middle East and India, some companies have drafted HR policies to prohibit the employment of spouses, siblings and children so family members cannot become "influencing factors in recommending for promotions, performance appraisals or anything that can influence a decision-making process that favors relatives," John says.

However, he says, under another scenario, a retiring employee might recommend his oldest son for employment with the company. The company then embraces the recommendation as a show of gratitude to the employee who has served for many years. Such instances are somewhat uncommon and "vary from region to region and according to company practices."

Not surprisingly, where expat assignments are concerned, just as with real estate, it's all about location, location, location.

If the expat location is not attractive, "it really becomes a challenge for companies to attract families," John says. "In this context, several oil-exploration companies and mining companies find it hard to attract talent because the locations are far away from normal city life and employees have to work during odd hours."

At the same time, he adds, where there is a high rate of unemployment, families might also become interested in moving to these new locations to seek plentiful jobs.

Paving the Way

In order for more companies to take full advantage of recruiting expats' family members to their workforce, modifications to work-permit regulations will have to be made. Currently, family members of expats don't arrive at assignment locations with an automatic right to seek or accept employment.

Accompanying spouses are not permitted to work under their dependent status, says van der Wilk-Carlson. "[They] would have to acquire separate work authorization ... and that is often difficult and time-consuming to obtain," she says.

Van der Wilk-Carlson says, "most countries require foreign workers to have permission to work" in order to control migration and protect locals' employment rights and wages.

"Allowing [relatives] to work represents a 'triple win' for families, employers and countries," says Jan Schaapsmeerders, chairman of Permits Foundation, in that it helps families manage dual-career challenges, helps companies attract and retain international staff and helps countries create attractive climates for international trade and investment.

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