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How best to support partners on assignment?

Many expatriates are accompanied by their partner and children when they go on an international assignment. For many families whether the partner can or will work whilst overseas, or what they will do otherwise, is critical to the family decision to take an assignment. This matters for organisations because attracting key skills and individuals to go on expatriate assignments isn’t always easy with 74% of respondents to ECA’s Managing Mobility survey reporting they often or sometimes have difficulty attracting candidates with the right skills and experience.  

This article explores how organisations can best address the challenges of the partner’s career and support the partner in ways which are both meaningful and cost-effective.

Commonest concerns about accepting an expatriate assignment

ECA’s Managing Mobility survey identifies the key concerns of candidates in considering an expatriate assignment. Family-related challenges fill the top three places, with the partner’s career/income issue second, demonstrating just how important this is. Addressing issues relating to the partner’s career effectively provides the potential to increase the candidate pool for assignments. 

Challenges facing expatriate partners who want to work

For many partners getting a job in the new country would be ideal. There are, however, essential challenges to be overcome first: 

  • Can the partner get a work visa or work permit?  Do they need a potential employer to apply for the work permit on their behalf?   
  • Do they speak the language, or can they learn enough to be employable?
  • Are qualifications recognised automatically, recognised but through an accreditation process, or not at all?

ECA’s Country Profiles provide information on work permit availability for partners. It is important to note some countries make a distinction between a married partner and an unmarried partner for the purpose of work permit availability, limiting availability to married partners only.    

The challenges relating to work permits, language and qualifications lead to very real limitations on employment abroad, as the graph below from the Permits Foundation demonstrates.   

Even if these essential hurdles can be overcome there are also the practical challenges of the job market, including finding a job in a new country and adapting to a new work culture.  

Can a partner work remotely, or if self-employed continue that overseas? 

Technology has opened up the possibilities on when and where work is performed. As they seek to attract and retain talent many organisations are adopting flexible policies including offering work from home and non-standard hours. If pre-assignment a partner works in an organisation which offers work from home or a choice of office locations, could they also work from a home or office in another country? To answer this question organisations need to carefully consider permanent establishment, tax, immigration and labour law as well as any practical challenges presented by the role itself. Increasingly organisations are including clauses on international flexibility in their employment policies to clarify the responsibilities of employees and manage these situations.   

Self-employed partners, especially those in the digital space, may have a range of options available. However, they also need to be very aware of any legal or tax implications.     

Remote work possibilities are also changing the game and it may be possible for a partner to secure a remote role, especially, though not exclusively, in the digital space. A quick internet search of best remote job sites will turn up dozens of sites and literally thousands of jobs. Again, the partner needs to be mindful of legal and tax implications – some organisations may include this in their partner career advice.  

How are organisations supporting partners who want to work?

ECA’s Benefits for International Assignments policy survey shows that 24% of organisations globally provide support for the partner to continue their career or personal development. Practical and valuable support may be provided in the form of career or recruitment advice and assistance with work permits. Some organisations provide a broader scope of support including networking or paying for education which will further the partner’s career generally or assist with employment on return to the home location.    

What about financial incentives/compensation for a partner unable to work? 

In ECA’s Benefits for International Assignments policy survey we asked organisations if they provided direct financial compensation for loss of income if the partner was unable to work. Perhaps unsurprisingly this is a relatively uncommon benefit with 8% of organisations providing it, and where it is provided it is generally of token or nominal value. A slightly higher percentage of organisations pay the partner’s social security or pension contributions during the assignment.  

How to ensure the partner participates and benefits?

Interestingly over 90% of organisations who provide direct financial compensation for a partner unable to work pay that benefit to the assignee, their employee, rather than the partner. This practice demonstrates the very real challenge organisations face as they navigate the relationships with their employee and potentially the partner and family as well. For the partner to participate in any programme offered by an organisation they need to be contacted and engaged by the organisation. Organisations who do this well engage early and often with partners, create networks and invest resources. Some organisations do this directly, others prefer utilising the services of independent third parties.


An international assignment can be an exciting and rewarding experience not just for the assignee but also their partner and family. The partner’s ability to work abroad may impact the decision to take the assignment in the first place, both for personal fulfilment and financial reasons. Organisations who acknowledge the challenge and provide support to partners maximise their candidate pools and minimise the potential for family issues to derail an assignment.  


International Assignment Guides are available to download and feature questionnaires, case studies and checklists designed to raise awareness of the issues to consider before committing to an assignment and before returning home after one.

ECA's Country Profiles are in-depth briefing documents providing essential information for individuals preparing to live and work in another country on a short-term, long-term or permanent basis.

  Please contact us to speak to a member of our team directly.

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