Last week, I walked over to Andy's apartment before racquetball, and he was quite excited about this article on the BBC web page.  As he described it, "It's an entire article just about us!"  The article wasn't actually about the foreign service, but the themes were applicable.
[C]ompanies from Shell to Dupont are looking at the factors that can lead to successful stints abroad for their employees. A happy spouse has long been, and continues to be, the best predictor of a successful move.
"The number one reason for assignment failure is the family's inability to acclimatise and adjust to the new location," says Andrew Walker, the director of global mobility at WorleyParsons, which oversees more than 3,000 employees who move abroad.
"As long as I've been in field, it's been an issue," he says. "But it's only within the last five or 10 years that organisations have been more pro-active about addressing it."
I actually think that the moving employees is one of the largest expenses in the foreign service.  It's a necessary evil, but the article discusses the "trailing spouse."  I would preface this by saying it could be much easier when you aren't working on government salaries, but trailing spouse happiness is usually a defining element on how long an employee stays overseas.
As recently as 20 years ago, most of these so-called "trailing spouses" were women who stayed at home with the family.
But over the past decades, more and more are looking to find work.
Kathleen van der Wilk-Carlton, the director of the Permits Foundation, which lobbies governments to allow spouses to get work visas, warns: "Employers ignore this at their peril."
Yup, that sounds like the foreign service about 20 or more years ago.  Ironically, in our building, we have, I think, 7 trailing male spouses.  In fact, I think all the trailing spouses are male.  With that being said:
According to a 2011 study of global employment trends, 60% of trailing spouses were employed before relocating, but only 15% found work after they moved - down significantly from the peak in 2006.
"This is a huge problem for corporations because they are now finding it increasingly difficult to find a significant talent pool candidate to staff these overseas assignments and these transfers internationally," says Scott Sullivan, executive vice-president at Brookfield Global Relocation Services, which produced the report.
Brigitte Hug, who runs Dupont's global relocation office in the US, says that the company tries to tailor relocation packages to the employee, and that the package typically includes some sort of career coaching both before and after the move, as well as relocation support and job assistance for spouses.
But even though the number one reason for assignment failure is spousal unhappiness, only 18% of spouses felt they had been adequately supported by their partner's companies, according to a 2009 survey conducted by the Permits Foundation.
Finally, it's not always possible for spouses to work.  Diplomats enter the country on a diplomatic visas.  If the host country doesn't have what is called a bilateral trade agreement with the US, US diplomats cannot work in that country without a work visa.  Some countries are extremely protectionist about doling out work visas.  Speaking from experience, I know that the Thai government limits the amount of work visas that English companies can give out based on the capital invested in the business or the number of Thai workers employed there.  So, even if firms want to hire more foreign workers, they're not always able to do so.  The BBC calls this the "visa trap":
The general trend in granting spouses work visas has been toward protectionism, says Peggy Smith, chief executive of Worldwide ERC, a global mobility industry group. She cited China, Japan, Brazil, and India as places that were particularly difficult for spouses looking to work after they had relocated.
Ironically, Australia is singled out by almost everyone as being particularly hospitable to spouses who want to work as expatriates.
I don't want to publicly state any opinions, but the issue of spousal employment and satisfaction is starting to enter the zeitgeist.


  1. Really interesting post! Speaking of which, what is Andrew up to these days? I hope it involves cooking you dinner and rubbing your tired feet when you get home from the office. :o)

  2. There's also de facto work agreements!

  3. Good point, there are de facto work agreements! But they also don't have those everywhere. Again, speaking from the only experience I have, Thailand and the US do not have even a de facto work agreement.

  4. Spousal employment is a very interesting issue. On internal surveys, it is consistently ranked high as an issue within the FS.

    Understanding the importance of happiness of the spouse of the employee to the continuance of the employee's happiness, I sometimes wonder what is the right balance of expectations from the company/organization. By providing an expat assignment, is it the responsibility of the employer to actively provide spousal employment opportunities or is it adequate to provide services to help locate in country? What is the right balance?

    The issue of work agreements even further complicates because the employers can't even really control that. In those cases, maybe employers have to have the perspective of staffing overseas through families (the main employee and employing the spouse) rather than only the employee.

    I wonder what is the best solution for spousal employment for expats?

  5. Those are good questions, SuitUp, and clearly no right answer. I think the key take away at this point is that the government (or private company) is going to have to start considering what they want to do in the future as the trailing spouses transform from unemployed housewives to professional men and women.

    More than just employee's happiness, I would think that many highly qualified individuals will either leave the foreign service or decide not to join if their spouse is unhappy because they can't work or only have menial opportunities. The expense in hiring new employees, training new employees, and then teaching these new employees a language is likely to be very costly, both in terms of time, money, and man-hours lost at post.

  6. On this topic, I did come across a blog post linked from the blog diplopundit on FS Spouses.

  7. That was an excellent post. Thanks for sharing. She really did provide a perspective that you just don't hear before entering the FS.


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