Organizations have a duty of care to their assignees, but does this extend to the families of assignees too? After all, relocation affects not only the assignee but their entire family. When looking at expatriate success factors we cannot underestimate the importance of family support and involvement in the assignment project.

Research shows a clear correlation between family support and a successful international assignment. Despite this, many organizations still overlook the importance of providing the assignee and their family with a support structure that can ease the adaptation process in the new country.

This is where Global Mobility professionals can play a fundamental role in helping both the assignee and their family to adapt as quickly as possible. A bad start can set the tone for the rest of the assignment.

What happens when a family relocates?

When a family relocates, there is a typical set of issues they must deal with. If adequate support is not provided from the outset this can hinder the family’s capacity to adapt.

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1.  The family must establish a new “norm”

The family identity relies on recreating a “home” dynamic almost as soon as they arrive in the new country. While each family member mourns what they have left behind in the previous country (friends, a home, a routine, etc.), there is also an overall loss of family identity.

This lack of “past” can weigh heavily and affect family members in different ways. Disagreements and cracks in a relationship can be exaggerated, and children may feel sacrificed to the assignee’s career. 

Re-building a new family dynamic must be a priority.

Global Mobility professionals must be on the lookout for the telltale signs that the family is not completely happy, or that they are drifting apart. A timely intervention through counseling or just a friendly phone call can save a marriage as well as the assignment. 

2.  Differences in roles can create frustrations and misunderstandings

Each family member is focused on their own adaptation and may overlook the efforts other members put in making things work, thus making the first days and weeks even more difficult.

Global Mobility can deploy numerous expatriate success factors such as putting the assignee in contact with other assignees and families in the country, or by speaking to other family members, not just their employee.

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Family members want to take ownership of the relocation and to be involved, and it is sometimes down to the Global Mobility professional to be proactive.

3.  Some family members may find it easier to adapt to life in the new country

Moving abroad is a stressful ordeal. Some family members may adapt more quickly as they have a specific role lined up e.g. a student at a new school. Other family members must strive to find their own meaningful position in the new set up, and this requires a lot of energy.

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The sending company has an important role to play in all this. Regardless of how high the value of family ranks in the home or host culture, the importance of family support amongst vital expatriate success factors should never be underestimated.

And for the family to be able to adapt to their new environment, it is important that the difficulties highlighted above are seriously addressed by those who interact with the assignee and contribute to the success of their assignment. Make sure that the local team also recognize their role in helping the whole family adapt.

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A relocation package should include enough orientation support to give the family a clear idea of what to expect from their trip. In some cases, a look-see visit can be a good idea as well.

There is much anecdotal evidence to suggest that a short break to a new country for a long weekend goes a long way in reducing the impact of culture shock. 

The family must be able to make an informed decision with realistic expectations. A look-see that is a promotional campaign to “sell” the post to the family may, in fact, do more damage than a realistic portrayal of the pros and cons.

However, the crucial moment Global Mobility professionals must be ready for is when the family physically relocates and the adaptation process begins.

5 tips to ease the relocation process

Some good practices to create a warm and welcoming atmosphere for the assignee and their family could include:

1.  Focus on the arrival of the whole family and not just the assignee

This might mean regularly enquiring about the family’s well-being and whether there is anything that can be done to make the transition smoother. For example, it is often the assignee’s partner who has more of a need for language training than the assignee.

2.  Have a specifically appointed person who the family can turn to

Someone who they can call upon to help them understand how to pay a bill, when to drive on specific roads, and possibly most importantly, someone who can help decode the cultural behaviors that can be so disconcerting at the start of an assignment.  

Often a family member of an assignee already based in the country will be very happy to take on that role.

Further reading

Why Mental Health Should Form Part of Your Duty of Care Policy

3.  Organize events that involve the whole family

Encourage the family to spend more quality time together. Particularly where the time differences are big, work commitments are more likely to overlap into family time. Encourage the family to travel within the region, take up new past times or hobbies. 

4.  Offer support but don’t overstep the mark 

Check in regularly with the assignee and their family without pushing them too much.

Offer your assistance and make the family feel they are not alone, without imposing practices that might not be appreciated.

Frequently Global Mobility just needs to be the empathetic listener on the end of a phone – you may not be able to or even need to fix anything, but just be available.

5.  Encourage the assignee to take some time off at the start of the assignment

One of the many expatriate success factors that many firms believe in is to minimize work assignee and family overload and associated stress

To paraphrase Annie Lennox, the singer, behind every great assignee, there’s got to be a great family.

Relocation is a stressful process and family support is key amongst expatriate success factors. The company’s duty of care is to support everyone involved in the move. Not only will the family settle in more quickly and be happier, but the assignee’s professional performance will be safeguarded, and the risk of assignment failure significantly reduced. 

Saving money on reducing family support is a false economy. The risk of early return or reduced performance surely outweighs the benefits of a relaxed, high performing assignee and a happy, balanced family.