The challenge of working abroad

Executives posted to foreign countries find their work-life balance is way out of whack.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As an entertainment architect for Universal Studios, David Froehlich responded with an enthusiastic yes when he was asked to relocate from Orlando to Osaka, Japan. Armed with a sense of adventure and curiosity, he and his wife, Joyce, enjoyed their two-year stay.

Even so, they faced adjustments that are common to the growing ranks of expatriates. Mrs. Froehlich had to put her career on hold. "They're very touchy about labor-law issues," Mr. Froehlich explains. At the same time, he had to work long hours the first year. "The Japanese are very diligent," he says. "To adjust to their culture, I couldn't leave the office until they did."

Driven by a booming global economy, more than two-thirds of multinational corporations reported an increase in international assignments in 2006, according to a new survey by GMAC Global Relocation Services. The numbers will be even higher this year. Yet employees are increasingly turning down overseas posts, citing family concerns, including dual careers and elder-care responsibilities, as the top reason for refusing.

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"The satisfaction of the spouse with relocation has a lot to do with retention as well as recruiting," says Christine Durst, CEO of Staffcentrix, which specializes in developing portable careers. "The old saying, 'If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy,' is true. The employee may end up leaving a very good job because their partner or spouse does not want to make the move with them."

Several new studies paint a picture of the changing landscape of international relocation. The global relocation firm Cartus finds that flexible short-term stints of a year or less, usually without a family, are replacing long-term assignments in some companies.

"Sending somebody out for three to five years has a big price ticket," says Sue Evens, director of Cartus Consulting.

Employers often calculate that the cost of expatriates is triple their salary on an annual basis, says Scott Sullivan, senior vice president of GMAC Global Relocation Services. "Usually we say it's a million-­dollar ticket for a three-year assignment." That includes footing the bill for relocated employees' housing, private schools for their children, and added taxes.

The profile of workers overseas is changing, too. They tend to be younger than in the past, ranging from their 30s to 50s, rather than their 40s to 60s. Women now account for 20 percent of expatriate employees.

Destinations are changing as well, with China, India, Russia, and Brazil the primary emerging markets. These are also considered the most challenging locations for expatriates.

David Huebner, an arbitration specialist, moved from Los Angeles to Shanghai in March to head the China practice at his law firm. Although this is his first long-term assignment overseas, he spent months at a time working abroad for a previous employer. He also lived in Tokyo during law school.

Ask him about the challenges of living in China, and he says, "Language is the big one." He is studying Chinese, though he adds, "It'll be a long process. Things that are routine at home, like going to a doctor or mailing something at the post office, are difficult when you're not familiar with the language." Other challenges include finding familiar foods to cook.

Yet Mr. Huebner speaks with enthusiasm about his stay there. "It's wonderful," he says. "Doing my work in a place like China just adds excitement and interest."

Still, other workers overseas find inequities. In a forthcoming study of work-life balance among expatriates, conducted by ORC Worldwide, 55 percent felt their work-life balance was worse than that of their colleagues at home. Three-quarters felt their company is not dedicated to helping achieve a better balance.

"There are still a lot of companies that don't really provide a lot of support to families," says Siobhan Cummins, managing director for Europe at ORC, a human-resources consulting firm. "They focus more on the employee. The family is very much left to function on its own."

She urges employers to develop more family-friendly policies and greater flexibility. She would also like them to do a better job of briefing expatriates, helping them when they arrive, and providing more support for families.

Spousal assistance, Ms. Evens notes, could include résumé preparation and job-finding services, networking opportunities, and financial support to get retrained or recertified so they can work in a new location if laws permit. Only 43 percent of firms in the Cartus survey had any of these programs in place.

When a spouse cannot work, that can have a significant financial impact on a family, sometimes causing stress, Ms. Cummins says. In the GMAC survey, nearly 60 percent of respondents' spouses were employed before the international assignment. Only 8 percent worked during the assignment, the lowest percentage since 2000.

Some companies do provide destination services and a preassignment trip or house-hunting trip. Also on the positive side, the number of firms offering language and intercultural training to expatriate families has doubled in three years, the Cartus survey finds.

Christine Elsea Mando­jana and her husband, Marcos, are on their third international assignment, this one in Lima, Peru. He is a political officer with the US State Department. Because they expect to spend the majority of his career overseas, she needed to turn her work as a CPA into a portable career.

When they arrived in Lima a year ago, Ms. Mandojana launched a business doing taxes and financial planning for US expatriates. She can file clients' tax returns electronically from anywhere in the world.

Relocating is harder for the spouse, Mandojana finds. "The employee enters a new country and automatically has work, colleagues, and a venue for meeting new friends. The spouse has to work harder at assimilating, especially when there are children involved," she says. She and her husband have two children.

"We have to set up a new household and find new grocery stores, playmates, schools, after-school activities, and our own friends," she says. "We have to do all of this in a different culture and, in many cases, in a different language."

In another sign of changing times, KPMG – an audit, tax, and advisory firm in New York – offers a year-old program called Tax Trek. Junior-level employees can spend a short time abroad to get a taste of the global experience and meet international colleagues without being uprooted for long-term assignments.

"You get an inside look at how other offices operate," says Christy Loebach, who lived in Munich for three months. "As you get more senior in your career, you can assess whether a longer assignment is something you want to pursue."

Despite the challenges expatriates face, some echo Mandojana's enthusiasm when she says, "I enjoy it and am very happy in this life."

Froehlich, now a real-estate developer in Orlando, adds, "If you go to a foreign country and simply look at every difference as a new and enjoyable mystery and something fascinating to find out the whys of the difference, you'll have more fun."

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