Business

Tales of woe from the roaming professionals

Man in despair
Image caption The list of things that can cause headaches when moving countries for work is a very long one

Moving country for work was not a good move for Lieve Monnens-Cash - it prompted the collapse of her marriage.

Originally from Belgium, she had already experienced living and working in another country: "We'd been in Macclesfield in the north of England, but after 10 years there I had only three friends. I thought if we moved it would kick-start our life and our marriage. But after a year and a half the marriage had fallen apart."

She and her two children had moved to be with her husband, a photographer, in the US.

She settled in Princeton, New Jersey, but her marriage fell apart: "I was on all the antidepressants you can imagine. And I was seeing a counsellor, sometimes you don't want to bother your friends."

Of all the things that can go wrong on a placement, marriage breakdown is the most likely, says Scott Sullivan, executive vice-president of Brookfield Global Recruitment Service.

"Whether it is the refusal to take an assignment or the failure to complete one, the obstacles in the path to a successful international assignment have less to do with what is happening at the office and more to do with what is going on at home."

He points to Brookfield's recent Global Relocation Trends Report which indicates that 62% of all refusals to accept an international posting are family related.

They include a range of issues; children's education, family adjustment, partner resistance, partner's career, host location, quality of life, lack of practical support and personal security.

Of these issues, he says 34% of expatriates return from assignment prematurely because of family concerns.

'Shrivelling'

Lieve Monnens-Cash says her marriage was suffering anyway. Her husband was already working in the US and she thought the move would mean they could be together more.

That didn't happen: "I was on his visa so I couldn't work. That meant he had to work even harder because there was only one income.

"When the marriage broke up it was terrible. We'd sold everything, but because I was on his visa we couldn't split up as I would have had to leave the country.

"It was so difficult to find work. I have a communications degree, something that in Europe was very useful. But in the US it wasn't special enough.

"My husband was classed as an 'alien of extraordinary ability' - someone unusual, and valuable. Not only did it mean he could work, it also did a lot for his ego, while mine was shrivelling as someone who had always worked, but was now a kept wife."

But there doesn't have to be a big drama to make an overseas placing an unhappy affair.

Alexis Crowe followed her husband from the Southern United States when he was posted to the UK by his firm, a software specialist company: "Whenever you move to a new culture there are a million small things that in and of themselves aren't a big deal, but when you're constantly bombarded with them they become one."

Glitch sequence

It didn't begin well: "We had a terrible send-off. My husband came out from the US in advance and myself and the kids, then aged two and three, prepared to follow once the container with all our things had arrived so we could move straight in.

Image caption Alexis Crowe and her children found England a cold and unfriendly place

"The fun then really began to start. The first glitch was an email telling us a pipe had burst in our old home in the south which had flooded our house - and we had to pay for it. At the same time, the house in the UK that we'd chosen suddenly became unavailable when the landlord decided he wanted to stay in it so we had no home to go to.

"Then the volcano in Iceland started erupting and there were no flights over in any case. We finally got on a plane we were told could be going anywhere - even Africa - but we decided it was time to hope for the best and just get going.

"It ended up landing in Ireland at Shannon - at least it was the British Isles."

Various problems continued to dog the move.

Alexis was unable to find any schooling for the children for six months, finally she did, and she set about trying to make friends.

But that was another venture that didn't go well: "The other mums didn't speak to me for five months - we stood out there outside the school every day, and no-one spoke - even the neighbours didn't even look at me when I said hello.

"Sometimes I just thought 'My god, I hate this place'."

Crime

Children were the biggest headache for another family, who moved for work to Sao Paulo in Brazil. This family did not want to be named as they were afraid of offending acquaintances.

All the children were at least a year ahead of their Brazilian counterparts. The amount of homework was tiny and the standard of that very low.

Of more concern was the discipline at the school. Compared to the private UK and the US system, there was more disrespect of teachers, disruption in the classroom, including bad language and rudeness - even the children were shocked by it.

The last straw for the family was that their primary-school aged child was released at the end of the school day into the care of the domestic help of another parent who the child's parents didn't even know - for the second time.

The high crime rate and violence in the city underlined the parents' fears. They decided the children would be better off at boarding school thousands of miles away in the UK.

Delayed pay

Brookfield's Scott Sullivan says companies can do a lot to address challenges posed by dangerous surroundings: "Traditional, softer benefits, like spousal transition assistance, cross-cultural training, and mentoring programmes, take on even more importance in higher-risk locations and should be a mandatory provision for the family."

Alexis Crowe says her husband's company had little experience in relocating people and a better package would have helped enormously. They received $3,000 (about £2,000) which was mostly taken up by just the cost of the oven, fridge and washing machine.

But it wasn't just the financial side: "It would have been really nice to have been met with a car at the airport, just to take off some of the shock of arrival and the stress. Because there was lots of that - on top of dozens of other things, my husband's first pay cheque didn't come through on time."

Barbara West of Culture Works, says cultural problems are often not anticipated by those moving from one English speaking country to another, as in the case of Alexis Crowe.

Image caption Lieve Monnens-Cash stuck at it in Princeton and has now remarried

One of her clients, who did not want to be named, said his wife decided her move from London to Melbourne in Australia was not a good one.

His company was one that provides wide-ranging support for their placements, but even this did not help.

Barbara West explains: "His company only provided cultural training for the couple after she started having troubles, which was much too late because she'd already made up her mind and started the process of going back without him.

"As is often the case, she assumed that moving to another English speaking country would be easy and if she had any problems she could simply ask the locals. But every country has its differences, differences in child-rearing practices, education systems, friendship patterns, hierarchy at work, and when people don't understand this they think it's the people around them, rather than the system.

"This escalates the spiral downward as the once helpful and sympathetic locals start to ignore and ostracise the 'foreigner' - who seems to hate everything about where they are living."

Hanging on

Alexis Crowe has kept her chin firmly up, even though she experienced such coldness.

She says part of the problem for her was the very nature of the placement: "We took it because it was temporary, but because it was for a set period of time people felt it wasn't worth getting to know us.

"It takes 18 months to get close to fitting in, even things like finding what you like in the grocery store, I'm just getting used to it - and finally so is my son - after well over a year suddenly last week he said he liked his school.

"My motto to myself was just keep swimming - just keep swimming - finally a year in I found a new quote: 'Bloom wherever you're planted' - I just had to get on with it."

Lieve Monnens-Cash hung on in Princeton. After a struggle which involved her returning to her home country of Belgium to wait for a new visa - leaving the children with her husband in the US, she made it back and through starting small by voluntary work, has now a paid job - and a new husband: "If your marriage is shaky, moving countries is like having a baby to make it work - it puts a lot of stress on you a lot of pressure.

"If you're having issues it's not going to help you at all - you have to really work together to make such a move."

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