Last week, I answered a reader note about telecommuting that contained a comment about being a trailing spouse. Here’s the note to refresh your memory.
My husband is being put on a project in India for three months for work (we currently live in California) and his employer is taking care of our Visas. We feel that three months is too long to live apart so I planned to go with him and my boss enthusiastically agreed that I could telecommute during that time so that I won’t interrupt my job, which lends itself well to working remotely.
However, when my boss brought it up with HR, they told him it would not be OK for me to telecommute. We are keeping our home in California and will be gone a very short time, is continuing to work for my employer OK? I’m finding conflicting information online.
The term “trailing spouse” refers to someone who follows their significant other because of a work assignment. When organizations ask an employee to relocate or take an extended temporary assignment, they need to think about the impact that decision has on an employee’s family.
While I’ve moved for a job opportunity, I’ve never been a trailing spouse. So to give you some sense of what trailing spouses think about making a move for their significant other’s company, I reached out to a couple of people who have first-hand experience. Suzanne Lucas is a human resources professional well-known known for demystifying HR on her blog Evil HR Lady. And Keith Lauby is a marketing professional known to most of you fans of the blog as Mr. Bartender.
When employees are asked to relocate, the organization is really asking a family to relocate. What can organizations do to recognize the employee’s family in relocation decisions?
[Suzanne] For a long term relocation (not like this one) — especially one to a foreign country — the company needs to focus on the whole family, not just the employee. If a relocation fails, it’s most likely going to be due to the spouse and kids not being able to adjust to a new environment. The employee has a job to focus on and is usually just fine. The spouse and kids just gave up everything and everybody they know — and if the move is foreign, they even gave up their culture and maybe their language.
Companies can provide job finding help for the spouse, school tuition (especially in a foreign, non-English speaking country), language lessons, spousal associations (common in companies that have lots of expats), and even someone to come and help the family learn about the culture and how to operate within it.
[Mr. B] The entire family faces many of the same things in a relocation – displacement, confusion and a sense of loss. That can really challenge feelings of family unity. And if the relocated spouse is focusing on their new opportunity (as they should), that can add to feelings of detachment. If the company demonstrates the importance of relocating the entire family, that goes a long way toward reinforcing unity at a time when it’s needed the most.
How helpful are relocation packages (versus lump sum payouts) when it comes to the actual move?
[Mr. B] In making the decision to relocate, a package is great – – it can give the sense that everything is taken care of. And relocation packages can help reinforce the feeling of moving the entire family. Sure, they help financially. And they can aid with focusing on the move since many of the decisions, such as specific movers and realtors, come along with the benefit. As a result, fewer decisions to make. That’s great and it helps, but it can only go so far. In the end, you’re still being uprooted.
[Suzanne] This depends on the people and the length of the move. For us, we had to sell a house and having the whole relocation package was great — we didn’t have to worry about closing costs on the house and we got 6 months of temporary housing. For someone that’s not selling a house, offering a lump sum may be far more attractive. It really depends on the immediate situation.
Is job search assistance for trailing spouses a good use of resources – knowing that it could take resources from other relocation benefits? Why or why not?
[Suzanne] Great use of funds. It’s not that expensive and getting the spouse into a good job is key to a relocation sticking. A spouse that is used to working and can’t find a job can drag down your employee and make the relocation fail. You’ve spent a fortune getting the person here, throw in another few thousand dollars to help the spouse find a job.
[Mr. B] I remember that our first relocation happened during a period of economic recession. It took me months to find another opportunity. That kind of thing can really impact your feelings about the city, the relocation and, for some, even the relationship. I think job search assistance for the trailing spouse can go a long way to help them get acclimated to their new home town more quickly. That’s a huge benefit to everyone involved in the relocation.
Last question, for families facing the same decisions about moving and trailing spouses, what are 1-2 things they should consider?
[Suzanne] Is this something that will be good for the whole family, not just the employee’s career? Are we prepared to enter into a new culture (especially for foreign relocations)? If the new place is awful, can we suffer through for two years (or whatever the repayment clause is on the relocation)? Can we stand being away from family?
[Mr. B] Communication is critical at this time – no doubt. The trailing spouse will feel detached and secondary to the needs of the relocated spouse who is busy in their new role. Both need be empathetic for the new demands on their partner. For the trailing spouse, it’s easy to get buried under the details of relocation. Try to find time to enjoy the adventure and discovery of new opportunities.
I want to thank Suzanne and Keith for sharing their experience. It’s not easy giving up one’s own career goals for someone else. As organizations focus more on employee well-being, it’s essential for them to think of the employee’s family. Because often what’s good for the family is good for the employee – and vice versa.
Image taken by Sharlyn Lauby after speaking at the Healthcare Human Resources Association Conference in Stillwater, MN2