Trailing spouse issues: Working abroad

Joann S. Lublin’s Your Executive Career column at the Wall Street Journal highlights ways some spouses are able to pursue their careers while following their mate on an international assignment.

The article is very interesting, with one BIG caveat: Almost all the options described in the article are available more or less only to couples where both partners are high-level executives. Mid-level employees, or junior-level workers getting an important first assignment, will have a difficult time getting the same level of assistance from the transferred spouse’s firm. For obvious reasons, those lower-level employees will not be able to insist on, or make a “dealbreaker” issue of their spouse’s work status. Even senior-level employees may find it tricky to negotiate.

The first couple described worked for the same company, which found a way for the trailing spouse to work remotely as a part of a US-based department. This is not news: companies have been trying since the early ’90s to find ways to keep both members of a dual-employee couple together and working during international assignments.

Another difficulty is that even though companies are more willing nowadays to make a strong effort to obtain a visa with work permit for the non-employee spouse, work permit issuance is more dependent on agreements negotiated between governments, and may not be flexible enough for a corporation to get an additional free-floating work permit application.

I have seen more international commutes occurring than during the ’90s, when we lived in Norway. This is especially more common with European couples. Employment regulations that make it difficult for workers to obtain a “permanent” position also make it undesirable for those workers to leave behind a permanent job for a spouse’s two-year foreign assignment, so it is wiser to have the internationally placed spouse go on a singleton basis, and return for visits home during the work period.

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