62 percent of families in the USA have both parents working which means that dual career couples are now the norm and no longer the exception. Dual career issues, however, remain a huge obstacle for couples advancing their career and, in particular, for international assignees looking to further their career through an expatriate assignment. Clearly, organizations and their Global Mobility departments must strive to provide relevant and appropriate relocation packages that cater to the modern family and support dual career couples as they ascend jointly the career ladder.

Dual Career Couples: Have They Been Left Behind?

HR and Global Mobility leaders have seen a revolution in family-friendly policies: flexible working hours, parental leave, mobility allowances are just the start.

But according to research from Harvard Business Review, talent management strategies still force valued talent prospects to choose between their career and their families. And unfortunately, the only people benefiting are their competitors.

Why Global Mobility Needs to Help Shape an Organization's Talent

A single-status relocation does not involve loss of income, an awkward job search, or an even more difficult conversation that starts, “don’t you value my job, then?” and gets worse from there.

The key challenge for couples and families when there is any discussion about a job change, even when it doesn’t include a relocation, is the impact on the other partner. 

Dual Career Couples: When Two Careers Turns into One

About ten years ago a couple was moved by their company from South Africa to London so that the wife could take up a position as the Senior Marketing Manager for the European office.

Although she earned significantly less than her husband, who was a leading eye surgeon, they felt that he would have more chance of finding a new job in the UK: after all, his research was often used in UK medical schools.

Unfortunately, at the time, the UK did not recognize his qualifications and he faced three years of not practicing medicine – he would have to re-qualify on return to South Africa. Unsurprisingly the couple returned home early.

The Marketing Manager left the company, branded a failure and took up a more junior position in a smaller company.

We can argue about who was primarily at fault: the wife for not researching opportunities; the husband for not checking the job market in the UK; Global Mobility for not asking their destination service providers for advice; Talent for not investigating the impact on the family…

Why 40% of Overseas Assignments Fail and What You Can Do to Prevent It

The fact remains that this kind of narrative is repeated many times every day in every company that has a mobile population. And this is only for dual career couples. For children, moving away from friends and school can seem like the ‘literal’ end of the world. 

Stuck in the Past

The 1980’s workplace was very different: a woman would not expect to keep her job if her husband was offered a foreign posting. Certainly, a manager who declined a post because his wife was reluctant to leave her job would not last long, and dual career couples were uncommon. 

40 years later – the world, not just the workplace has been transformed.

Same-sex marriages, non-binary partnerships, more egalitarian policies and attitudes mean that we have family flexible hours and society is no longer surprised by a woman earning more than a man (although more work is needed here). BUT declining a promotion because of the impact on your family is still considered career suicide.

Why Global Mobility Needs to Help Shape an Organization's Talent

Career or Relationship?

Amy (not her real name) was considering an international assignment involving a move from Chicago to Australia. She went through several rounds of interviews and discussed it with her partner Sandra.

Sandra, was keen to move to Chicago, as she had not traveled much before. However, neither Amy’s nor Sandra’s company would allow them to work remotely or commute.

Amy’s role required her to be near her clients and Sandra’s company did not allow remote working. 

Amy and Sandra had been together about nine months, and when Amy’s company also said that there was no flexibility in the location of the role, she had to choose between her relationship with Sandra and her career.

She was even asked by a well-meaning colleague if the relationship was “serious.” The relationship did not survive.

We cannot measure the impact of this decision on either partner – but the positive impact on an employee who sees their organization proactively trying to find solutions to their mobility challenges, rather than having a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude must not be underestimated.

Dual Career Salaries

We mustn’t discount the financial aspect either. Even in these austere times, an assignee will still expect a salary and package increase when they take up an assignment. For a dual career couple, it is highly unlikely that this pay rise will cover the second salary.

For some destinations, or some professions, this is not a challenge: teachers will usually find a job somewhere, as will nurses.  

Ljuba, a Russian national, was an English language teacher at a university in Moscow. When her husband moved to London, she found that no one needed a non-native teacher of English language, and there was no demand for Russian teachers.

Losing that second income completely negated the increased salary and packages.

Although it was only a one-year assignment, the move took place in the middle of the academic year, causing inconvenience to the university, and meant that she was out of work for nearly two years.

No organization is expected to replace the partner’s lost salary, however, they must be prepared to provide additional support to the dual-career couple to offset the inconvenience.

Why 40% of Overseas Assignments Fail and What You Can Do to Prevent It

How Good is Your Organization’s Duty of Care policy?

Put this into perspective for your organization, and ask yourself:

  • Is your talent team aware of an assignee’s family situation? Do they have policies in place to ensure that the assignee’s career and promotion prospects are not hindered by their family situation?
  • Does your organization offer flexible alternatives to an assignment if an employee has a personal reason to stay?
  • When an employee is considering an assignment, does your company help them to research their partner’s career options?
  • Does your company support the assignee and their family to maintain relationships whilst away?

If you answer ‘no’ to any of those questions, you probably need to reexamine your policies and the duty of care that you have to your assignees and their accompanying families.