has been bitten by a spider and can barely move his foot, which has swelled to twice its normal size. Fearing the worst, you reach for the phone to consult a physician. But who do you call? You’re 4,000 miles from home. When you call a clinic, you connect with someone speaking a language you can’t understand.

Brien and Lauri Johnson faced this parental nightmare with their son, Mark, shortly after they moved to Germany. “We didn’t know what to do or where to go,” says Johnson, ’88, who moved his family to Heidelberg to take a new position with Becton Dickinson, a manufacturer of diagnostic medical equipment. With translation assistance from Johnson’s English-speaking secretary, the couple decided to take their son to the emergency room for treatment.

Lauri Johnson remembers that day–and others like it–well: “Sometimes I felt isolated and I just wanted to go home where everyone speaks English.”

Increasingly, companies are moving their employees abroad with families in tow. The already complicated task of moving an employee to another country–securing a visa and work permit, negotiating a compensation package, finding housing and transportation in the new country–becomes even more difficult when families are factored in.

Spouses who have given up a job in the United States may find themselves struggling to secure a post abroad or adjusting to a stay-at-home life. Some may start families far from the supportive circle of family and friends, hunting to find health care and schooling for their children.

A smart company helps their employees’ families overcome those struggles. Cornelius Grove of Cornelius Grove & Associates, a Brooklyn, New York-based firm that helps people with international adjustment, told the Wall Street Journal in January 1997 that dissatisfaction among spouses is the number one reason for early returns from international assignments. And early returns translate into extra expense to retrain and relocate a replacement.

“The working spouse has things to do. He or she has a purpose, people to talk to, any number of resources,” Grove explains. After the initial adjustment, however, “the other spouse, quite often, has very little to do. He or she is in a difficult situation, trying to find things to do that are fulfilling.”

Family adjustment problems can also take a toll on the performance of the transferred employee–another cost for the company to bear, reported Journal Work & Family columnist Sue Shellenbarger November 12.

Realizing the important role a family’s adjustment and happiness can play in an employee’s performance has led some companies to take a more active role in smoothing the transition to a new country and culture. Fred G. Steingraber, ’64, chief executive officer of consulting company A.T. Kearney, said his firm offers several services to facilitate expatriate adjustment.

“We offer pre-relocation trips to families to help them meet new people, find housing, and get comfortable with the idea of the new assignment,” he says. “We also have destination support services, provided by an outside vendor, that include community orientation and assistance with housing and school selection.” The services offered have grown along with A.T. Kearney’s expansion abroad. “We’ve entered 27 markets in the last six and a half years. [Staff relocation] is a big area of challenge for us and other firms.”

GSB families who are living abroad or have recently returned offered some advice for those facing this adjustment:


When moving abroad, “adults should definitely take language lessons,” advises Lauri Johnson, who didn’t speak German when she followed Brien to Heidelberg in 1992. “The company provided 100 hours of Berlitz lessons. It was a big help.”



What destination support services are provided? Will we receive any on-site orientation?

What kind of expatriate network exists in the new community?

What kind of housing is available in the new area? Should we sell our house or lease it until we return? Will the firm help handle that?

How will my work style fit into the local culture?

How difficult is it for my spouse to get a work permit? Is my spouse willing to put his or her career on hold? Are there opportunities for volunteerism?

Is household help typically used in the destination country? If so, what guidance is available for hiring and managing staff?

What kind of tax counseling and financial planning is offered?

What vaccines or health measures must be arranged before departure?

What type of schooling is available?


Parents who are relocating with school-aged children should begin exploring schools as soon as possible, advises Lauri Johnson. “Look very, very carefully into schooling opportunities. Make sure you know what you want for your kids’ education and make sure that’s what you’re getting.” She found that the German school system had “a whole different style and approach; it was a very different outlook,” she says. “There were times when it was difficult to adjust to the German school,” Johnson admits. “I would ask them if I could come in and volunteer for the afternoon, and their response would be, ‘No, why would you want to do that?’”

• Acculturate - The biggest mistake people make is “trying to live like an American [while] overseas,” says George Bennett Jr., ’82. “You’ll be so frustrated and unhappy if you try to live the same way you did at home,” says Bennett, who spent five years working for ABB, an international energy company, in Zurich, Switzerland. “You don’t have to become Swiss, or Spanish, or wherever you are, but you’ve got to learn how they do things,Switzerland. “You don’t have to become Swiss, or Spanish, or wherever you are, but you’ve got to learn how they do things, and try to adapt that way. It’s the outlook that makes the difference.”

When it comes to adjusting, attitude is everything, agrees Debbie Riedy, ’87, who moved to Singapore in August 1997 with her husband, Jim, ’87, and their two children. “You have your ups and downs,” says Debbie Riedy, “they come and go. But you have to ask yourself, are you looking for ways to make yourself comfortable, or are you fighting it the whole way? It all just depends on the attitude you bring with you.”



Spouses who accompany a transferred employee may have trouble obtaining a work permit. “My advice is to get a company to write a job description so narrow that it fits only you,” says Diane Nelson Kuhl, ’88.

Be prepared for a different work experience, Kuhl advises. She thought she had lined up a fundraising job with an Amsterdam dance company before moving to the Netherlands with her husband David, also an ’88 graduate. Because fundraising is almost unknown in the Netherlands, she waited two years for the company to put the position in place. Then, because there is no tradition of charitable giving to the arts in the Netherlands, she had to build a fundraising program from the ground up. “The infrastructure was not in place; there were no publicity materials,” she recalls. “I had to breathe life into everything I did.” the company two years to put the position in place. Her personality and direct approach also were foreign to her Dutch colleagues. “I brought in a much different work style,” Kuhl says.

In Switzerland, George Bennett’s wife, Rose, taught English, then started a relocation assistance company that served small companies posting employees in Switzerland. “It was a different type of work experience than I had in the United States. I left a job that I loved as director of finance at an architectural firm,” she explains. “But I knew I could always find something when we came back, and I figured moving [abroad] was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.” She acknowledges that employment can be a source of friction for dual-career expatriate couples. “If you are both very career-oriented but don’t both have a job abroad, that could be a problem. I think one spouse needs to be willing to ‘wing it’,” she says.


By the time all the members of the family have settled in, it is often time to return to the United States. The return home isn’t as easy as it seems: many families experience a sort of reverse culture shock.

“We missed Germany a lot,” says Lauri Johnson. “There were a lot of adjustments we had to make when we came home.”

The Bennetts agree. “We still miss it,” George says of Zurich. “It’s a really nice way of life. The Swiss have a strong sense of family, they take care of themselves, it’s very civilized. There’s a lot to be learned from them.”


E-Mail GSB Chicago
- Front Page - GSB Home - Current Issue -Archive