Global Mobility Guide | How best to support partners on assignment?

How best to support partners on assignment?
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Anna Michielsen

Anna Michielsen

General Manager, Australasia and the Pacific

Many expatriates are accompanied by their partner and children when they go on an international assignment. ECA’s Managing Mobility survey identified that the top three key concerns of candidates when considering an expatriate assignment were family-related, with the partner’s career/income being the second most important issue. For many families whether the partner can or will work whilst overseas, or what they will dootherwise, is critical to the family decisionto take an assignment.

This matters for organisations because attracting individuals to go on expatriate assignments isn’t always easy. 74% of respondents to the survey reported they often or sometimes have difficulty attracting candidates with the right skills and experience. Addressing issues relating to the partner’s career potentially increases the candidate pool for assignments.

Challenges facing expatriate partners who want to work
For many partners getting a job in the new country would be ideal. There are, however, essential challenges to be overcome first:

  • Can the partner get a work visa or work permit? Do they need a potential employer to apply for the work permit on their behalf?

  • Do they speak the language, or can they learn enough to be employable?

  • Are qualifications recognised automatically, recognised but through an accreditation process, or not at all?

ECA’s Country Profiles provide information on work permit availability for partners. It is important to note some countries make a distinction between a married partner and an unmarried partner for the purpose of work permit availability, limiting availability to married partners only.

The challenges relating to work permits, language and qualifications lead to very real limitations on employment abroad. Even if these essential hurdles can be overcome there are also the practical challenges of the job market, including finding a job in a new country and adapting to a new work culture. The Permits Foundation records partner employment falling from 79% pre-assignment to just 28% whilst on assignment.

Can a partner work remotely, or ifself-employed continue that overseas?
Technology has enabled much more flexible working with many organisations offering work from home and non-standard hours as an incentive to attract and retain talent. If pre-assignment a partner works in an organisation which offers flexible working, could they just work from a home or office in another country? To answer this question organisations need to carefully consider permanent establishment, tax, immigration and labour law as well as any practical challenges presented by the role itself. Increasingly organisations are including clauses on international flexibility in their employment policies to clarify the responsibilities of employees and manage these situations.

Self-employed partners, especially those in the digital space, may have a range of options available. However, they also need to be very aware of any legal or tax implications.

Remote work possibilities are also changing the game and it may be possible for a partner to secure a remote role, especially, though not exclusively, in the digital space. A quick internet search of best remote job sites will turn up dozens of sites and literally thousands of jobs. Again, the partner needs to be mindful of legal and tax implications – some organisations may include this in their partner career advice.

How are organisations supporting partners?
ECA’s Benefits for International Assignments policy survey shows that 24% of organisations globally provide support for the partner to continue their career or personal development. Practical support may be provided in the form of career or recruitment advice and assistance with work permits. Some organisations provide a broader scope of support including networking or paying for education which will further the partner’s career generally or assist with employment on return to the home location.

Perhaps unsurprisingly only 8% of organisations provide direct financial compensation for loss of income if the partner is unable to work, and where it is provided it is generally of token or nominal value. A slightly higher percentage of organisations pay the partner’s social security or pension contributions during the assignment.

Where direct financial compensation is paid, over 90% of organisations pay that benefit to the assignee, their employee, rather than the partner. This practice demonstrates the very real challenge organisations face as they navigate the relationships with their employee and potentially the partner and family as well. For the partner to participate in any programme offered by an organisation they need to be contacted and engaged by the organisation. Organisations who do this well engage early and often with partners, create networks and invest resources. Some organisations do this directly, others prefer utilising the services of independent third parties.

An international assignment can be an exciting and rewarding experience not just for the assignee but also their partner and family. The partner’s ability to work abroad may impact the decision to take the assignment in the first place, both for personal fulfilment and financial reasons. Organisations who acknowledge the challenge and provide support to partners maximise their candidate pools and minimise the potential for family issues to derail an assignment.

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