The world is going multicultural at a rapid rate. Businesses are changing the way they operate. Increasing competition has led to an increase in demand for fresh insights, new perspectives. The skilled labour force is more international today that it was even ten years ago. Yet despite the huge strides the international business landscape has made in this decade, some areas remain unaddressed.
I was at a meeting yesterday with expat spouses (all women) from different nationalities. They each have lived in anywhere between 2-10 countries within the last 5-20 years, followed their partners around the world, some have taken care of their children during maternity breaks, many have found a variety of different types of work in the places they lived in. Some have impressive track records in corporate jobs. I sat there listening to each share their own personal stories. With a sense of deep admiration yet also with a sickening feeling in my gut. For these courageous, brave women have one thing in common: they are unable to find paid work within The Netherlands. Despite most of them being highly qualified.
So, what attractive traits do expat trailing spouses have that ought to draw hiring managers and talent acquisition leaders to them like fireflies to light? What is this blind spot in recruiting practices that I am referring to that those in HR ought to take heed yet fail to recognize? Research has shown that expat spouses possess a wide range of extraordinary skill sets, knowledge, experience and expertise that come from living in different places. These traits are sought after and can be transferred and applied to any competitive position expat spouses apply for. These skills make them "valuable, rare, imperfectly imitable and non-substitutable" resources in today's competitive corporate world. Precious human capital that ironically lies unutilized.
The following are some key traits and qualities that expat spouses possess. This list is by no means exhaustive. Also, although I refer to the expat spouse as “women”, I firmly believe that these traits extend also to men who trail their spouses/ partners around the world on expat assignments.
1. They are resilient in the face of change: When you are in country that is different than your own, you are thrown into the unknown and must do everything like the locals in the country. And why is this hard? Because every single thing is likely to be done differently than in your own country. To try and juggle life as normal within the unfamiliar takes extraordinary strength, perseverance and resilience. Expat spouses do that! Often times companies ask during job descriptions for people that are not afraid of new challenges or of working in a changing environment. Why, it beats me, do firms not realize that expat spouses are great candidates for these roles: their lives are shining examples of being fire fighters every single day.
2. They can multitask: An expat spouse in a new location, particularly one with children, has the task of not just finding her feet quickly in a new country (add to the challenges of learning a new language, adapting to a new culture), she is often also responsible for caring for the family: groceries, bills, family finances, children etc. it is a huge responsibility considering that she must do this with barely any support system in the new country.
3. They are persevering: Living in a new country as an expat spouse is hard. It is rough. It is lonely. Particularly if you do not have a support system. The support HR offers for families of expats on assignments is often very short and insufficient. Yet despite these limitations, expat spouses show extraordinarily high levels of perseverance in the face of many difficulties. They do not back down. They learn not to back down. They often do not have any choice to back down but to keep moving forward.
4. They possess extraordinary inner strength: this perseverance that expat spouses learn also gives them a great inner strength. When you are faced with challenges, you can either decide to run away from them or face them squarely. The expat women I often meet have this commendable strength and aura about themselves. They are fighters in their own right.
5. They possess a high degree of patience in the face of unfamiliar situations: The intensity of living in a country that is not your own is not one to be taken lightly. It requires a high degree of patience when things do not go the way they normally do in your own country. During our time in Oman, we were often quite disappointed with the taxi services that promised they would come but never turned up. With no public transportation, this was a big deal to us. Particularly when we needed to take our sick child with burning fever to the doctor and had to stand on the road in the intense heat during our initial days, trying to flag down a taxi. Yes, such struggles are real. And yes, they teach us to become incredibly patient.
6. They are creative: Expat spouses sometimes land in countries where they cannot find jobs in their own field of interest. Therefore, instead of fretting over the challenges, they learn to make the best use of opportunities to get creative. Some turn to hobbies. Some others try their hand at new fields. Still others take the plunge and become entrepreneurs. Their creative skills are of course limited by the restraints within their host countries. For example, if they live in a country that does not allow trailing spouses to work, they are not legally allowed to work and may consider then, based on financial limitations to study or pursue hobbies.
7. They are flexible: When you are faced with myriad challenges, and the unfamiliar everyday in different ways, you learn to be flexible. You learn to adapt to the unfamiliar. You become malleable and flexible and open to learn to stay sane. Moreover, these women often juggle many different roles in the new environment because they often lack a support system. It takes time to build a community of support that you can trust. That you can rely on. Often others who do not share these struggles fail to understand what their problems are. That very attitude is disheartening because these women do not feel understood.
8. They are unafraid of new challenges: When you are constantly faced with the unfamiliar during the initial years of living abroad, you become bold and unafraid. Even if you never really were bold and courageous in the past. The situations and circumstances you face abroad without a support system make you stronger.
9. They are adaptable: An expat spouse I know is a qualified dentist. Yet owing to the dentistry exams being in Dutch, she needs to first learn the language for many years before she becomes “fit” for the labour market as a dentist. Instead of grumbling about the situation, this brave woman decided to turn to new hobbies to shift her focus. Living abroad has taught her to be adaptable to change. Now, how many of those in traditional jobs who have never lived outside of their own country (except for traveling as tourists to different destinations) will be able to do that?
10. They are versatile: If you look at an expat spouses’ CV, the chances are that you will find that they have many career breaks caring for children or adapting to the new country: they spent time studying or learning a new skill instead of continuing in their line of work owing to various factors. This makes them versatile. They can easily learn new skills. Before you toss that resume out the window because the skills you need on the job do not match that of the expat spouse who has applied, perhaps you should stop to consider that these skills the expat spouse is capable of learning at a speed that will surprise you. Because we learn by our experiences to be versatile.
11. They are quick learners: Many expat spouses I have met are quick learners. They are eager to learn. Eager to connect and plug in to new networks. Eager to adapt. Eager to help. The women I met yesterday were all very happy to even volunteer because they said they know the challenges that expat assignments entail like no other. They are aware that no one else can relate to their stories the way they can to each other. So, they readily and willingly offer their time to support others.
12. They stay grounded: It is a humbling experience to be an expat spouse. These are unsung heroes. They do not go around loudly proclaiming their “achievements” of fighting through the system and limitations in their new place to land a small assignment or even taking their children to school. No one recruiting is even aware or has the time to sift through countless applications and read between the lines of expat spouses’ CVs. Yet despite these myriad challenges, despite these difficult circumstances, expat spouses stay grounded and humble.
13. They are unique: the skill sets that expat spouses gain overseas are unique and quite unlike the skillsets those within traditional roles gain. In our increasingly globalized world that is constantly changing and evolving, we cannot afford to turn a blind eye to expat spouses that are highly skilled. It is a waste of precious human capital. Despite being “stars” in their own right, many expat spouses fail to be recognized or even considered for jobs when they apply. If they belong to minority communities, their struggles are still worse. Not only because of the stark differences in culture. But also, because their CVs have unrecognized educational qualifications or jobs that are “not in par” with Western standards.
14. They are excellent team players: Expat spouses are often tasked with being “cheerleaders” within their own families: they help their children navigate through school with an unfamiliar education system (particularly if their children study in local schools), support their spouses in their career, associate and collaborate with others like themselves and support each other through their challenges. They learn to listen more and to be empathetic.
15. They are great networkers: Expats overseas learn that to survive they need to network. With other expats. With potential employers. With neighbours. With new colleagues. With volunteering organizations etc.
16. They are great leaders: Many expats learn to lead their families through unfamiliar situations, to take charge of the unknown and to confidently push through difficult circumstances. They are great candidates for companies looking to venture into unknown and unfamiliar territories.
17. They are teachable: The myriad experiences that expat spouses go through make them humble and teachable. They become open to the new. To learn. To explore. To embrace the new.
The HR practices of today are unfortunately flawed when it comes to hiring expat spouses. For these traits that these women (and men) gain come from everyday living as an expat cannot be added to the CV. Traditional CVs look for educational qualifications and experience but do not consider skillsets that are learned from rich experiences gleaned by living abroad. Moreover, they do not understand why certain CVs have different kinds of unrelated jobs on them. Instead of asking “why” this candidate took that route, they often reject such applicants as failing to demonstrate sufficient knowledge and expertise in the field. This in essence is a bias in itself. A blind spot that is often overlooked. Much to the frustration of expat spouses.
With the increase in globalization and an increasing need in the West to recruit highly skilled multicultural workforce from other countries, this is certainly an area of concern that cannot be overlooked. There is so much at stake.
Will you be that company that gives these highly skilled stars an opportunity?
Will you be willing to swim against the tide, stop and listen and take the risk of taking these valiant risk-takers onboard?
In an effort to share the challenges expats and their spouses/ families face, I have written down my personal story and offer vital nuggets of wisdom I gleaned from my experiences so expats and their spouses as well as hiring managers and friends of expatriates can be sufficiently helped.
My book “Headwinds: A Personal Story to Spark Corporate Diversity Conversations” is available on amazon around the world as well as online in leading bookstores within The Netherlands and Belgium.
Here is a link: https://www.amazon.com/Headwinds-personal-corporate-diversity-conversations/dp/9493171086/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=headwinds+helga&qid=1581068412&sr=8-1
Don’t forget to order your copy today!!
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If you are a HR manager/ team looking for advice and training for your team to adapt to the changing times, please get in touch: email@example.com
If you are an organization with a multicultural workforce and want to be trained in the latest proven and time tested strategies to effectively promote inclusion of diverse workforce, get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you are an expat or expat spouse struggling to find your feet in your new destination, we are happy to support you. Please get in touch: email@example.com
About the Author: Helga Evelyn Samuel is Founder and CEO of Curry & Culture Company, a cross-cultural management consultancy (www.curryandculturecompany.com). She also serves as Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Consultant with ACCESS Netherlands, the largest organization that serves the expat community within The Netherlands. Helga is a natural bridge builder and has a passion for the inclusion of a racially diverse workforce within European corporates, governments and institutions. Helga is a public speaker, writer and singer who also enjoys cooking. Helga lives in The Netherlands with her family.
I thoroughly enjoy writing and would like to use this space to write on a wide range of topics pertaining to cross-culture and international business. These blog posts will range from anecdotal personal encounters to latest cross-cultural business issues on the news, personal musings et al.