31 August 2011

Supporting expatriate spouses in Sarawak

By Heidi Collins

The development of SCORE and Sarawak’s drive for expansion of industry is bringing with it growing numbers of an increasingly mobile international workforce of expatriate staff. From senior management to consultants and specialist technical staff, expatriates can bring valuable skills and international experience to both multi-national and Malaysian companies operating in the state. But the costs of employing such people are high; direct costs alone include relocation costs, housing and travel allowances, school fees for accompanying children, as well as internationally competitive salaries. In addition to the direct costs of employment are the potential costs arising from failed expatriate postings, such as loss of market share, negative effects on the morale of local staff, as well as damage to relations with partner companies and government agencies. When these costs are considered it becomes clear that Human Resource Management policies concerning expatriate staff in Sarawak are an important area of consideration for management practice and research. 

Both academic researchers and industry professionals alike attest to the importance of cross-cultural adaptation by expatriate employees to ensure the successful completion of an international assignment. ‘Cross-cultural adaptation’ refers to the degree of comfort a person has, and their ability to function effectively in a culture other than the one they were socialised in. While the larger multi-national employers of expatriate staff may provide some level of cross-cultural training or give a degree of practical assistance to their expatriate employees to support adaptation, the families, especially the spouses, are often left without such benefits. Yet given that the most commonly cited reason for failed international assignments is the failure of the employee’s spouse to adapt to the host country, there is a strong argument for companies to make an investment in not only providing support for expatriate staff, but also in assisting the spouses of expatriate staff to adapt to life in their new environment.

The demographic of expatriate spouses has changed over the years, moving away from the traditional ‘trailing spouse’ being typified as a woman who follows her husband’s career around the world, to now include women who have their own careers. But whether the (still-predominantly female) spouse was working in the home country, and regardless of whether she may want to work or take a career break while in the host country, adaptation to a foreign environment is arguably more difficult for the spouses of expatriate employees than it is for the expatriate employees themselves. Not having colleagues to draw on for guidance and support, the spouse is less supported in the foreign environment. In taking responsibility for running the household and caring for children, the spouse is often more immersed in the local culture than their working spouse and must often deal with a broader cross-section of society. The adjustment challenges for the spouse can therefore be argued to be both different and greater than their working spouse.

So how can we help expatriate spouses to adapt to life in Sarawak, and thereby enable and support their employed spouses to become more successful in their work roles? One important aspect of expatriate adjustment is the quality and quantity of social interactions between the expatriate and people around them, including family, host-country nationals, and other expatriates.  By creating opportunities for people to connect socially and by encouraging them to forge relationships with host-country nationals as well as other expatriates we can help provide people with crucial social support. Another important determinant of cross-cultural adaptation for both employees and their spouses is the level of realistic expectations that they hold about the host environment and the challenges of adaptation. If foreigners arrive in a country unprepared for the challenges they face, the outcome for them will be less positive than those who are well prepared and hold realistic expectations.

The author of this article is currently embarking on a study of the ways in which the provision of social support and social networking opportunities can impact the speed and level of adaptation of expatriate spouses. The research will also consider how early access to knowledge about both the local culture and the process of adaptation itself may affect the cross-cultural adaptation of expatriate spouses.

Such research in the Sarawakian context will have relevance for local employers of expatriates to help them design and implement programmes that will be beneficial to the companies, their employees, and the employee’s family members.

Heidi Collins is a full-time PhD student at Swinburne Sarawak. She is currently working on the broad area of international human resource management. She may be contacted athcollins@swinburne.edu.my