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The Dislocated Americans

Tuesday, December 2, 2008 

Christopher Capozziello for The New York Times: Meg Sondey, left, during a return visit to the United States to care for her mother, Eleanor, right, in Wallingford, Conn., and to visit colleges with her daughter.
Published: December 1, 2008

More and more workers have relocated abroad in recent years, but despite the growing numbers, family issues remain a major factor in the failure of overseas postings.

The initial excitement of an exotic new posting can turn to culture shock, loneliness, identity loss and depression, and it is often the employee’s spouse and children — without the familiar routine of work — who are most affected.

“I thought it would be an adventure, and it was,” said Francesca Kelly, who moved 10 times in the first nine years as a Foreign Service spouse, living in places like Belgrade and the former Soviet Union during the cold war. But it “was much more difficult than I ever imagined it would be.”

Brenda H. Fender, director of global initiatives for Worldwide ERC, an association concerned with work force mobility, said “if the family cannot adapt, the employee will likely not succeed.”

And not succeeding can be expensive.

Scott T. Sullivan, senior vice president at GMAC Global Relocation Services, told the story of a man from Cleveland with an important role in building a large manufacturing plant in rural China. He left the work and returned home when his wife and child became desperately unhappy. This disrupted the project, a joint venture with a Chinese company, which then backed out — a loss for the American company of hundreds of millions of dollars, Mr. Sullivan said, that could have been avoided with a better assessment before the man left home.

Cross-cultural training helps families know what to expect, Mr. Sullivan said, but only 23 percent of companies make it mandatory.

A GMAC Relocation Trends survey released in May found that despite a slowing economy, 68 percent of multinational corporations continued to relocate employees at record levels. Experts say it is too early to tell how the current crisis will affect global work force mobility.

Jeanne E. Branthover, head of the global financial services practice for Boyden Global Executive Search, a recruiting firm with offices in 40 countries, said that financial services recruiting in emerging markets remained constant. “Candidates are much more willing to relocate compared to a year ago.”

Yvonne McNulty, a Singapore-based consultant who studies mobility issues, said the biggest issue for spouses was loss of identity. “What I found in my research is that almost all spouses face an identity crisis but only about 10 to 15 percent did something about it, by becoming authors, getting an M.B.A. or starting businesses,” she said. Most “felt they were victims, with no control.”

Even when a company offers generous support, which may include help finding housing, language training and even funds for personal development for the spouse, that is often not enough.

In the early 1990s, an in-house study conducted by Royal Dutch Shell found that an increasing number of two-career families were turning down overseas assignments. In the past, “a cadre of highly mobile employees would go anywhere at any time they were told,” said Simon Armstrong, who until recently was manager of Global Outpost Services, a support network for Shell employees and their families that was created in response to the study.

Mr. Armstrong, who is an expatriate spouse, said the network typically starts advising spouses six months ahead of departure. “We’ve been on the ground and done it. We know what to expect.”

Ms. Kelly, the Foreign Service spouse, who now lives in Bethesda, Md., and another spouse founded The Sun (The Spouses’ Underground Newsletter) as a way to create their own support community. Initially, it was an irreverent mix of poetry, opinions and the continuing tales of a fictional “highly flawed, complete disaster of a diplomatic wife,” she said.

Soon contributions took on a more serious cast; readers wanted information about where they were planning to live. By 2000, The Sun became Tales From a Small Planet, a nonprofit Web site where members can read reports on some 350 cities written by expatriates.

Patricia Linderman — living in Guayaquil, Ecuador — edits Tales and is co-author of “The Expert Expat: Your Guide to Successful Relocation Abroad” (Nicholas Brealey, 2007). She said there had been an explosion of resources in recent years that support expatriates and many now also “focus on the personal and emotional aspects of cross-cultural living,” she said.

Due to lack of experience or not investing in professional relocation services, “don’t necessarily expect the company or organization that sent you abroad to take care of your needs,” Ms. Linderman said.

That was Meg Sondey’s experience when she moved to Torreón, Mexico, four years ago when her husband was sent by the Lincoln Electric Company to run a factory there. The company, based in Cleveland, had only one other person in Torreón at the time. She handled most of the details — housing, immigration issues, getting a driver’s license — on her own. It was “like jumping into a cold lake,” she said. “It’s uncomfortable, frightening, everything is on hyper alert because it is so different.”

She added: “There are times you are fed up and depressed. Sometimes you are in shock and the only person who understands is another expat.”

A version of this article appeared in print on December 2, 2008, on page B4 of the New York edition.


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