Harvard Business Online

Short-Term Overseas Assignments


Posted on HBR Editors' Blog: July 20, 2009 11:00 AM Congratulations! You've just been told you will work in the south of France (or northern Russia, or Timbuktu) for six months. But you have a spouse holding down a job and kids in school, and they can't tag along. Now what? In the old days, companies would tell managers, "You're moving overseas for three years, and your family will go with you." Many spouses and children understandably resented being uprooted, despite the opportunity to learn a foreign language and gain a new perspective. More recently, companies are trying a new approach: Ask employees to take shorter-term assignments while leaving their family at home. This tactic seems much less costly to the employer while also less disruptive to the family and more bearable for the employee. But a two-year research study conducted by the Brookline, Massachusetts-based Interchange Institute sponsored by the relocation firm Dwellworks reveals that short-term, employee-only relocations create serious problems, too. The survey included 1,461 employees who had taken short-term overseas assignments, and some of their spouses. It revealed marriage troubles, depression, child behavior issues, and other difficulties. One of the most significant reported stressors was financial. Spouses resent it when the family has to pay for tasks the absent employee used to do (household help, child and elder care, bill paying and so on). More than a third of respondents (35%) experienced new financial costs as a result of the assignment, and only 39% said the employer had done all it could to protect them financially. "Families are not asking for the sky—they just don't want the assignment to cost them money or for the company to force them to jump through hoops to recoup per diem expenses," says Institute director Anne Copeland. She added that employees and spouses also resent when terms of the assignment feel dictated rather than offered and negotiated. So how can you work with your company to make a short-term overseas assignment more tolerable? Negotiate flexible terms. According to Copeland, employees and spouses who felt in control were more positive about the jobs, their employers and the assignment, and were less likely to suffer familial problems. "Ask for as much flexibility, especially about trips home and family visits to the country you're working in, as possible," she advises. "Ask for clarity about assignment length." Negotiate a realistic per diem. "If your family feels taken care of, everyone will happier about the assignment," she says. "You will enjoy work and co-workers more, work more efficiently, have fewer cultural complaints, be more loyal and more willing to take another similar assignment." Ask for cross cultural training. "Employees who receive it can hit the ground running, and report less trouble with communicating and working with the locals." Ensure communication. "Let your employer know that your family would like to hear from them," Copeland notes. "It's also a good idea for companies to offer to put spouses in touch with each other." What other things do you think can you and your company could do to make overseas assignments easier?

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