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The Trailing Spouse: Key to Assignment Success

CompassPOINTS - January 2007

By Diana Matwichuk, Manager Assignment Planning Services

Often overlooked, but ironically one of the most significant determinants of assignment success, the trailing spouse is typically a misunderstood factor in the assignment planning equation. Focused on international deadlines and immigration details, assignment planning often ignores a single basic principle which can, surprisingly, make or break an assignment – the trailing spouse is often the pivot point of the family, and “if mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy”! Nowhere is that more true than on assignment in an isolated, culturally-foreign environment far away from friends and family, where he/she doesn’t even speak the language.

According to the Canadian Employee Relocation Council (CERC) 2005 Employee Relocation Policy Survey, “spousal and family concerns are the predominant challenge for relocation managers and are the main reasons given by employees for declining relocation.”

Investment in Assignees

Also highlighted in this CERC survey is the startling statistic that “the average cost of a cross-border move ranges between $50,000 - $100,000; 15% of moves are in excess of $100,000”. And further afield , “just fewer than 20% of firms reported average costs of over $200,000 for a temporary international assignment.” These are significant investments which merit preservation.

Workforce planning consultant Lynda Costello pays particular attention, in recruiting for foreign assignments, that the trailing spouse also meet suitability criteria for a foreign assignment, otherwise the risk of bail-out is increased.

One veteran expatriate trailing spouse, Cathy, who spent 10 years in Sharjah shares that she observed a signifi cant attrition rate on their assignment, and it was primarily the families whose spouses were unhappy or who could not adapt to the culture, which returned to Canada. They felt that the company had paid considerable attention to the working spouse and provided intellectually challenging work, but had not adequately prepared the trailing spouses for the challenges of living abroad.

Typical Level of Support to the Trailing Spouse

While CERC suggests that companies may be addressing family issues and the need for cross-cultural training in their development of assignment policies, it is a common complaint of trailing spouses that they are left to their own devices to adapt to a different culture and find things to do, often within the constraints of, often, a highly restrictive society.

Susan Gregory, trailing spouse to Saudi Arabia in the 1990’s, was not about to succumb to the boredom of attending coffee parties and keeping house. The options were limited in a society which frowns upon women working, but Susan found underground ways of putting her talents to use by volunteering at a church office and setting up a coffee shop in her home. She comments that assignees must remember that they “are guests in the host country, and it is important to do the cultural preparation, so as not to offend any of the locals”.

Spousal Preparation for Assignments

Cultural preparation is key to assignee and family adaptation to international assignments. Don Rutherford of Culture-Connect as often as possible includes trailing spouses in his sessions. An understanding of the culture and what prompts the social norms can promote acceptance and adherence to the new boundaries which are imposed on the newcomers.

Cultural differences are often more pronounced for the spouse who does not have the benefit of being immersed in a work environment that allows for the use of English. Language barriers can increase isolation, and Ricardo Carlos of Berlitz Language Centre aims to break these down with intense language preparation for assignees and their families prior to departing on assignment. His programs can focus on the language skills that will be necessary for daily life in the new location.

How can Companies Help?

A critical step to assisting families on an international assignment is acknowledgement of the importance of supporting the trailing spouse, who usually handles all manner of details related to the relocation. Considerable effort is involved in handling the financial arrangements required to sever residential ties, sort out expatriate taxation matters, coordinate medical requirements such as inoculations, research a new medical support network, and handle relocation issues. To underestimate this effort is to devalue the role that the trailing spouse plays as part of the assignment.

Many of our affiliate service providers specialize in these areas and can alleviate the effort on the trailing spouse’ shoulders, and allow them to concentrate instead on cultural and language preparation. Documented assignment policy specific to this assistance conveys an element of calm and organization to an otherwise stressful time in these families’ lives, and CompassGUIDES assists companies with this effort.

Assignment Taxation – Not the Least of the Worries

As evidenced by the number of assignment tax questions which arrive daily on our CompassTAX helpdesk, expatriate taxation is a prime concern for those departing Canada. Escaping the grab of the Canadian tax-man is no easy feat! To leave assignment tax planning to the assignees and their trailing spouses is often a direct drain on assignee productivity, as they attempt to become Canadian tax experts. Companies which adopt Assignment Tax Programs as part of their assignment policy allow the assignee to focus on the international business and their spouses to approach the assignment with a positive attitude. The costs of a well-designed Assignment Tax Program are miniscule compared with the rate of return and venture success.

Spousal Employment Assistance

The CERC Spousal Benefits Survey (February 2006) describes the typical profile of an assignee as a homeowner in the age range of 36 – 40 years, with children and a working spouse. While re-employment assistance to the spouse has apparently dropped significantly since 2003, this CERC survey indicates that 34 of the 40 participating organizations provide spousal benefits, primarily concentrated on career counseling and resume-writing.

There are usually immigration issues related to spousal re-employment assistance, and it is important that companies consider setting the process in motion early in the planning stages, as some countries require a work permit even for non-professional jobs. One of our clients moving to Spain, for instance, would like his spouse to have the option of working in a retail position as a means of getting out of the house and enjoying the assignment. Timing the application for a Spanish work permit is important, in order to avoid the spouse having to return to Canada to pick up the document in person.

Additional Assistance

There are many other ways in which companies can provide assistance to the trailing spouse, to contribute to the assignment being a positive experience. Cathy, for instance, came across an opportunity to provide volunteer fundraising assistance for a foreign-based charitable organization while she was living in Sharjah. It is worthy of note that she had to be proactive about making this happen, and company encouragement to trailing spouses to go out and find opportunities such as this can make a difference. Also, if company-provided babysitting were available to families, the trailing spouse would have free time to pursue avenues such as this, as a diversion to the stresses of the international assignment, in particular the inevitable isolation and boredom.

Similarly, assignment policy can be developed to allow for the provision of financial assistance in setting up a small business in the host country. (Plan for the work permits in advance though!) Occasional trips back to Canada for the spouse can also provide relief and a refreshed positive outlook on the assignment upon return to the host country.

In Summary

Our mission at CompassGUIDES is to help companies roll out assignments which are positive experiences for their assigned workers and their families, in order that the assignments ultimately be successful and cost-effective. During a Preliminary Needs Assessment, we determine any gaps in the assignment planning process, identify who will be doing these important steps, and bring in the appropriate expertise if required.

For more information about international assignment planning and the publications and services which CompassGUIDES offers to multi-national employers, visit our website at

Thanks to Susan Gregory, Cathy, Lynda Costello (, Don Rutherford (, and Ricardo Carlos ( for their contributions to this article.

You can contact at CompassGUIDES with assignment planning concerns at 403-531-2200 .


Tel: (403) 531-2200 
Fax: (403) 263-1826

Suite 600, 1333 8th Street SW
Calgary, Alberta Canada  T2R 1M6

Tel: (403) 531-2200 
Fax: (403) 263-1826

Suite 600, 1333 8th Street SW
Calgary, Alberta Canada  T2R 1M6