24 June 2015

Supporting spouses to improve expatriate talent retention

By Heidi Collins

Malaysia’s Talent Roadmap published in 2012 indicates that the Government of Malaysia recognises the need to improve the country’s attractiveness to foreign talent. This article highlights one way that this can be achieved; through government and employer policies which support the career aspirations of expatriate employee’s accompanying spouses.

Following a 2014 survey of 159 multinational companies around the world, Brookfield Relocation Services reported that spousal career concerns were rated as being of critical or high importance to almost 60% of these companies. With growing numbers of couples in the global workforce in which both partners are career-oriented, this is an issue of growing concern among employers of expatriate staff.

My research into expatriate adjustment indicates that it is not the food, climate, or adjusting to the local environment that is particularly significant for the so-called “trailing spouses” who follow their working partners on international postings. What is crucial is their ability to re-establish a strong identity in their new location. Without a job, friends, family and community from home to provide them with continuous feedback, expatriate spouses do face various threats and challenges to their identity.

Many on-lookers comment to me that these trailing spouses should be happy for the opportunity of not working. However, for spouses who are career-oriented and who desire to work in the host location, barriers to employment often pose threats or challenges to their closely held career identities. This can contribute to negative outcomes such as a loss of self-esteem or an increase in marital tensions.

Allowing such trailing spouses to work under certain visas, for example the Federal Government’s “Resident Pass-Talent”, confirms initiatives are being taken to attract expatriate families and encourage them to remain in Malaysia. Requirements for foreign talent look set to grow in Sarawak as increasing amounts of foreign direct investment are being sought, although the Sarawak Government has followed a slightly different track with its visa policies.

The spouses I have studied were all living in Sarawak on a Dependant’s Pass, a visa which grants temporary residency in Sarawak to live with their employed husband or wife. A condition of the Dependant’s Pass, stated clearly inside the holder’s passport, is that “any form of employment is strictly prohibited”. While trailing a spouse may find a potential job and apply for his or her own Employment Pass, or apply for a special endorsement on their Dependant’s Pass, this does not often happen. Unless the spouse has a high level of education and experience that will satisfy the criteria of the authorities, finding such work and an employer willing to sponsor their application for a work permit is often difficult.

In my research on expatriate spouses living in Sarawak, most have expressed a desire to work here, yet few perceived having a good chance of gaining the kind of work they would like and being granted a relevant visa. None of the spouses wanting to work was particular about the kind of work they would be willing to do here. Often they just wanted something broadly related to their employment background. Many of them preferred to work on a part-time basis to keep themselves busy, enhance their sense of self-worth, and to have something to show on their resume at the end of their time living abroad.

Several of the trailing spouses I have interviewed suggested that if their working spouse was offered an extension on their initial employment contract, the family would more likely consider staying if there were also employment opportunities for the trailing spouse. This is an issue of concern for employers wanting not only to attract, but to retain expatriate staff as long as they are required.

Recent work by the noted expatriate researcher Yvonne McNulty of the Singapore Institute of Management has highlighted the influence organisational support can have to help trailing spouses address their career concerns. Unfortunately very little such support has been offered to the spouses I have been studying.

Professional support for a career-oriented spouse in areas such as providing career guidance and counselling, education reimbursement, assistance to obtain a work permit and helping to create professional contacts have been suggested by McNulty as steps that employers can take to help support and thereby retain expatriate families. With or without favourable immigration policies for expatriate spouses wanting to work in Sarawak, the needs of trailing spouses must be taken more seriously by employers wanting to attract and retain international staff.

Heidi Collins is a postgraduate research student in the Faculty of Business and Design at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. Her research is on the adjustment of expatriate spouses living in Sarawak. She may be contacted at hcollins@swinburne.edu.my