You have accepted a two-year stint as your company's lead marketing executive in Amsterdam, but your 16-year-old son says he won't go. "No way," he says. "What about my friends? What about the football team?”
Your husband has reservations, too: Will he be able to find work as a networking consultant? Or should he take some time off to rethink his career goals? The move may be what your company wants -- and what you want -- but it can also wreak havoc on your family life.
Companies often pick up the tab for moving expenses and other major costs related to relocation, but they vary greatly in the assistance they provide when it comes to the personal issues such a move can create, from your spouse's employment situation to the cultural dislocation inherent in working in an entirely new environment.
Many companies have begun to realize the importance of helping employees and their families adjust to the sometimes tumultuous transition to a job abroad. "A lot of attention has got to be paid to other family members to make sure that they are able to adapt," says Peter Burgi, director of research and a trainer for International Orientation Resources, a firm specializing in cross-cultural training. "If they do not, I can guarantee you, the employee will not be successful in their position."
Some companies arrange for children to speak to others who have gone overseas, as a way to reassure them and give them a sense of what to expect. Others may include the entire family, rather than just the employee, in cross-cultural training programs. And even if a company does not provide such programs, resources on the Web and elsewhere can help make the move less chaotic and disruptive.
As a first step, ask your company what help is available, if any. Does your company have a contract with a relocation services firm with expertise in family issues? Will counselors assist both you and your family in the transition? Know what to expect in assistance, so that you can supplement it with your own resources if necessary. Consider these issues when inquiring about relocation programs:
- A "Look/See" Visit: Will your company send you -- and possibly your spouse -- on an extended visit to the country where you will be located? "If enough time is allocated, this can provide individuals with an opportunity to literally set foot on the ground, size up their new environment, and begin developing some measure of emotional awareness of what it is they are going to be stepping into," says Burgi. "It's an important factor in creating some sense of security."
- Spousal Adjustment and Employment: For dual-career couples, the move to another country presents especially troubling issues. Work permits may not be available for a spouse. Even if one is, "professionally advancing employment" may be difficult to find, says Burgi. "For a growing number of dual-career couples, this is a point of serious stress," he says. Spouses, whether male or female, may decide to devote themselves to volunteer work, furthering their education, or managing family issues.
- Children's Social Life and Adjustment: Children, if they are old enough -- 6 years or older, for instance -- may be included in training about the culture and values of their new home. Phone conversations with an expatiate youngster at the child's new school can help to reassure a child that he will be around others with a similar vocabulary and interests. "This really helps establish a level of personal, one-on-one, kid-to-kid connection," says Burgi, "and that helps to bolster their sense of security about where it is they're going. Otherwise, it simply appears as a step off the edge of the world."
To get a better sense of the programs available to individuals working abroad, review the Web sites of companies specializing in assistance to overseas employees, such as Berlitz, Charis Intercultural Training and GMAC Global Relocation Services. Your company may have its own programs. The more information you have, the more likely it is you'll be able to discern what level of assistance is necessary to make the transition as smooth as possible.
Of course, you cannot rely on your employer for everything. Whatever level of assistance it provides, the following sites should help you and your family find further resources to ease the transition:
- Expat Exchange: A comprehensive source for advice and resources, with areas devoted to spouses and taxes, along with forums to ask questions of expatriates.
- Expat Forum: A gathering spot for expatriates, with 24 country-specific areas, including Australia, Belgium, France, the Philippines and Saudi Arabia.
- Overseas Digest: A free newsletter, with articles like "Car Combat" (driving in Saudi Arabia) and "Managing House Guests" (when your home turns into a hotel). The publication includes advice, essays and recommended resources.