SHRM Foundation Research
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SHRM Foundation Research


Increasing the Success Rate of Expatriates

Funded: March 2007     Completed: July 2008

Nina D. Cole, Ph.D., Ryerson University, Canada

Executive Summary
International assignments are increasingly common for managers, but the failure rate for expatriates is high and very expensive.  The main cause of expatriate failure is spousal and family adjustment problems.  Understanding the spouse’s adjustment and perceptions of assistance is critical for increasing the success of expatriate assignments.  Research conducted by Nina D. Cole reveals that spousal perceptions of organizational assistance efforts are frequently misaligned with their actual needs.  Her findings suggest firms will save money by focusing on the types of assistance most valued by spouses.


Only 18% of spouses received any kind of assistance from the expatriate’s organization.  Spouses who had an interruption or cessation of their employment had lower adjustment.  Male spouses had a more difficult time adjusting to the move when their employment status changed; particularly when they were career focused individuals.  Interestingly, the discrepancy between the home and host countries’ economic development did not affect spousal adjustment.

  • To increase spousal adjustment, organizations should make spousal assistance programs available.  
  • Incorporate the opinions of spouses in the design of assistance programs.   

Of the few firms that offer spousal assistance, the most common types of assistance were help with job search/employment and some form of spousal financial assistance to offset lost wages.  These practices were perceived to be only marginally helpful.  Instead, spouses indicated a preference for the following:

  • Offer networking information for spouses (e.g., employment information before arrival, creation of spousal networking associations).
  • Provide more information to spouses about internal jobs and jobs with associated organizations.
  • Provide spousal career counseling.
  • Offer spouses assistance obtaining work visas and advanced language training.
  • Provide information to understand the business practices of the host country.

The interviews highlighted two critical issues.  First, the first few weeks during the relocation are critical.  Practical assistance during the settling-in period is vital.  Second, the firm’s Human Resource staff (in both the host and home countries) was frequently poorly equipped to handle relocation questions. 

  • Include the expatriate spouse in the relocation process and negotiations of the details that affect the family.
  • Train Human Resource personnel in home and host countries to understand concerns specific to expatriates or outsource expatriate assistance to vendors that specialize in such arrangements. 
  • Offer practical and immediate assistance such as providing information on the transit system, where to buy household necessities, and where to find key family services (e.g., churches, banks, medical practitioners).
  • Develop a “mentoring” or “buddy” program where new expatriate spouses can communicate with existing expatriate spouses in the host country before, during, and after the transition.

Study Methods
This study employed both a quantitative and qualitative design to examine the adjustment perceptions of expatriate spouses.  The quantitative study analyzed surveys completed by 238 spouses of expatriates from 30 different countries (the most common being the U.S., U.K., and Australia).  International assignments were in one of 11 countries, with the most common being East Asia (e.g., China) and Australia.  The qualitative study involved interviews with 100 spouses to understand their perceptions of adjustment, organizational practices, and training/preparation. 

Download the full research report (in pdf).

 View the full list of SHRM Foundation funded research.