Moving a dual career couple across borders: Tips for employers

What if you want to hire a talented individual from abroad and it turns out that they have a career partner? Or if you want to expatriate a manager who happens to be part of a dual career couple?

Moving staff to another country is challenging enough. But what if they’re in a couple and there are two careers to develop? On top of moving families across borders, dual career couples are a growing phenomenon and a different challenge for organisations. It’s a tall order for employers to bring it all together and to attract and retain talent that is in such a situation. Fortunately, there are ways to deal with this.

That’s what happened to Silje and Tim, a Scandinavian couple who’ve been together for almost 20 years. They have two children. Silje and Tim hadn’t thought of an international move until Silje’s employer, a Food Science company, came up with an opportunity in Asia. Silje was offered the job of Regional HR Director, based in Singapore. The couple already had a guiding principle of ‘all for one and one for all’, such that important decisions were always family decisions. Staying flexible, by not being chained to a financial commitment or an employer, is fundamental for them. After seeing that moving to Asia would fit this overarching purpose, they said yes to the offer.

It was an important and therefore not easy decision, says Silje:

“When the opportunity to move to Singapore came up, we talked. We came quickly to a positive decision. Yet I was conscious of the need for Tim to have a job. I felt the pressure of responsibility for Tim and the realisation that I would have to spend a lot of time away in the new job.”

After having moved to Singapore, Tim continued his career as a Business Process Manager in the Oil & Gas industry without any help from Silje’s employer. Very independently minded and working as a team, Tim and Silje managed to continue both careers while abroad.

Several factors contributed to the successful move of this dual career couple. First, Silje and Tim develop not only their individual career, but also the one of their partner. With complementary skills, they help each other with the challenges they face at work on an ongoing basis. Silje for example relies on Tim’s capabilities to prepare important presentations. On other occasions, Silje has been using her HR coaching skills to help Tim through difficult periods at work.

Second, they are clear about who they are. Even before moving, Silje and Tim consciously constructed an identity as a dual career couple. They are committed to their strong desire to stay (financially) independent from an employer—or, say, a house—in a specific location. They continue to build their identity in the new location. Singapore has many expatriates, 90% of whom are men. Silje and Tim purposely have been presenting themselves as a career couple in social settings. It’s equally important for them to be transparent that Silje is the expat and Tim the locally employed spouse. There are several reasons why an identity is important to a internationally mobile dual career couple. First, it gives the couple roots when being “unrooted” by a move abroad. Second, constructing and communicating an identity determines how other people behave toward the couple. In Silje and Tim’s case it is important to them that Tim is not addressed as the expat and Silje as the stereotypical “trailing spouse”. What’s more, a self-constructed identity based on being different and unique can make a dual career couple more successful.

Third, the couple has what we call a Secure Space: a special moment or special place where the couple can exchange and discuss important matters:

“We do talk a lot. We are in constant conversation, often while taking a walk in the evening or when we can share a ride on the train to work. We tend to find small moments, small pockets—and integrate those into the day.”

Not all employers get as lucky as Silje’s company. Her employer happened to pick a person who had already done important groundwork in her couple well before the topic of expatriation was raised. It is interesting to note that the items which often take up a lot of resources when it comes to international mobility (e.g. schooling, housing, social life) were no priority items for Silje and Tim. They knew that they would be able to sort that, as they already had for years in their home country. No, their discussion was about how they would realize their vision as a dual career couple and how to stick to their core values.

What we recommend is that employers empower International Career Couples by handing them the tools and the space to reflect and develop their own solution rather than forcing them into an expatriate policy framework that does not really fit them. This means for example encouraging the couple to go away and think rather than giving them a catalogue of benefits to read through. Paying for a weekend away resulting in a strategic plan for the move may be a better investment than a look-see visit to the new location.

Interested to learn from the success stories of these other dual career couples? Get yourself a copy of HERE WE ARE: The International Career Couple Handbook. This practical, no-nonsense book offers powerful ways to guide the employers of internationally mobile talent. With in-depth research and substantial HR experience this book argues that the future of global careers requires a holistic strategic perspective on professionals living and working in international trajectories. Applying organisational methods, such as strategic planning, and facilitating meaningful conversations are ways to make ICCs mobile and for organisations to retain them. This handbook is filled with practical tools with which employers can help their dual career couples to construct their own map of the future.

About the Authors:

Dr Paul Vanderbroeck

(Dutch / Swiss)

has a background of managing talent in multinational organisations.

He is an Executive Coach, an accomplished researcher and sought-after speaker on gender balance and leadership development.

Jannie Aasted Skov-Hansen


is a seasoned Human Resource professional, specialized in global people mobility and leadership development.

She is Founder of a community and start-up consultancy, aimed at supporting ICCs in their global careers.

Both authors are themselves each a partner in an ICC as well as parents. Therefore they have first-hand experience of the challenges and opportunities that mark the life of an ICC. They met through a network connection, which underscores one of the book’s main messages: Opportunities arise when you commit to pursuing a long-term vision and short-term goals on a global development path – while remaining open for unexpected turns. They firmly believe that a growth mindset and a supportive network are key for ICC success.

Work experience
Sign me up for the Undutchables newsletter and keep me up to date!

Always up to date to find your dream job!

We only need a few personal details, thanks!

Work experience