Dual-Career Couples Are Forcing Firms to Rethink Talent Management


Jennifer Petriglieri, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, asks company leaders to consider whether they really need to relocate their high-potential employees or make them travel so much. She says moving around is particularly hard on dual-career couples. And if workers can’t set boundaries around mobility and flexibility, she argues, firms lose out on talent. Petriglieri is the author of the HBR article “Talent Management and the Dual-Career Couple.”

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Sarah Green Carmichael.

To me, it seems ridiculous to tell someone they need to move across the country or to a new country in just a month. I mean, you might have kids in school, a spouse who needs to find a job, a house you need to sell, and new housing you need to find. Who are these people expect us to drop everything and jump for a new role?

JENNIFER PETRIGLIERI: And so, I think those people are us, Sarah, quite frankly, and I think it comes from two sources.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: That’s our guest, Jennifer Petriglieri.

JENNIFER PETRIGLIERI: So, one is really ingrained expectations — we might call them unconscious expectations — of what we as sociologists call the ideal worker, always available, can move at the drop of a hat, is 100% dedicated, and has the support crew at home who can take care of everything.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: She says the other expectation is the fact that sometimes someone very suddenly leaves a role; and because business must go on, someone else needs to suddenly fill it. Making this kind of move so quickly would be tough for anyone, but if you have a spouse who has their own demanding career, it can be near impossible.

Jen is an assistant professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, and she’s the author of the HBR article “Talent Management and the Dual-Career Couple.”

She’s here to talk about why companies shouldn’t make employees choose between their careers and their spouses.

Well, Jen, thank you so much for talking with us today.

JENNIFER PETRIGLIERI: It’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks, Sarah.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So, let’s just start with the overarching problem with traditional talent strategies. How do they fall short here?

JENNIFER PETRIGLIERI: Well, really the core of the problem is the logic they’re based on. So, the design logic of today’s time management programs were set in place 20, 30 years ago in an era of what I call “unbounded talent.” Now, what I mean by this is in those days, talent tended to have spouses who were what we might refer to as “trailing spouses.” So, they had people who took up all of the family commitments for them so they could dedicate themselves pretty much 100% to work. They could travel at the drop of a hat, they could move and relocate to relatively frequently, and they were essentially almost primarily committed to work.

At the same time, if we think back to that era, there was no technology than to support remote working or flexible working. That logic has completely changed, but the design of talent management is still rooted in that original logic. So, now if we think about most talent is what I call “bounded talent.” You know, very few of us have that support crew at home backing us up. Many of us are in dual-career couples where we’re managing logistics and challenges between us, and at the same time we have these amazing enabling technologies that could help us not need to be onsite all the time 24/7.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Tell me a little bit more about that challenge of the sort of — the demands of a physical location, like having to be in a particular place at a particular time.

JENNIFER PETRIGLIERI: Yeah, so a lot of organizations are still based on this idea of facetime, how we show a commitment and show our dedication is by showing up physically in the office and also showing up physically in different offices. So, if I need to do a piece of work, the assumption is I probably have to go to that location to do it. So, there’s this real idea of physical presence, even though we know, and I know you’ve had podcasts about this before, that if we work remotely, we are often actually more productive. So, it flies in the face of the evidence, and yet that logic of physical presence is still very much underpinning most of our talent management strategies.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So, in your work you have, you’ve kind of distinguished between two kinds of challenges. One is the mobility challenge; one is the flexibility challenge. Tell me a little bit about how you came to think of it as two separate challenges.

JENNIFER PETRIGLIERI: Yeah, so really the thinking came from two places. One is talking to many HR leaders and leaders of talent management programs and looking at the challenges they face, managing talent. And the other is talking to the talented people themselves and looking at the personal challenges they face. And really there’s a mirroring between them.

So, if we look at the mobility challenge first, more and more HR leaders are coming to me and saying, you know, well, we have these great opportunities to move locations, to do secondments, to spend some time abroad. People just aren’t as willing to take them anymore or they have more challenges in taking them. They can’t just go at the drop of a hat. And I heard time and time again organizations who would offer one of their talented people what looked like a plum role only to have it knocked back and say, well, the time’s not right for me now, or, I can’t leave tomorrow to that great opportunity.

At the same time when I spoke to talented people themselves in dual career couples, they would say, we want to move. It’s not that I want to be stuck in one location, and I realize that to become a senior leader, I must be mobile, but I cannot just be mobile at the whim of the organization. It needs to be a more planful move, particularly when we’re trying to manage two careers between us. It is possible to both find relocations and do them together or both gone secondments, etc. But it just requires more planning. And what’s very interesting if you look at the data is that when there is more planning behind it and when both people get good moves together, those relocations are more likely to work. So, it’s not just a constraint that we need more time. We know that they’re more successful when we give them more time. So, that’s the mobility side.

The flexibility side is a little bit more different. So, if we think of mobility, that is maybe once every six months, once a year, even once every three years for big rotation or travel. Flexibility is more of a day-to-day issue. And it’s really this issue that if both partners in a couple are working, there are still a lot of household tasks that needs to get done. You know, if the kids are sick, who takes them? If there’s some elder care that needs to be handled, who does that? There are things that happen in our daily lives in the week that need to get handled, and the question is, who has responsibility for those now? Now, in an ideal world, if organizations were using all the tools we have available for flex working, for telecommuting, that wouldn’t be so much of an issue; but right now what I heard time and time again from HR leaders and the talent themselves was, we have these policies, but if you make use of them, you’re stigmatized and you’re seen as not committed to the organization, not dedicated to your career, and therefore you’re punished for using them. So, it’s not that organizations don’t have the solutions. It’s that in curtailing people from using them, they’re creating this flexibility challenge, which quite frankly doesn’t need to be there.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So, tell us about a couple you talked to who found themselves in that situation. How did they handle it?

JENNIFER PETRIGLIERI: So, the first example I want to give you is a couple who were actually based in Boston, where you are Sarah.


JENNIFER PETRIGLIERI: Yeah. And he was in tech, and she was in pharmaceutical sales, actually. If you know the pharmaceutical sales world, it’s, it’s fairly fast moving, and opportunities come up relatively frequently, and people really trying to climb the ladder quite quickly. And she was offered a golden opportunity down in Florida, OK? And it was exactly one of those situations: You’re your high potential. We know you’re raising up the ladder quickly. You know, someone’s gone to a competitor. This amazing opportunity to lead one of the bigger sales teams. Can you take it? And, of course, the way it’s sold is all in the benefits: This is because we believe in you. You’re going to be great in this role. We really trust you. It’s a fantastic opportunity to move into senior management, you know, but by the way, please pack up and leave in the next month.

You know, of course, in that situation, like any of us, it’s a little bit of a rabbit-in-the-headlights situation. On the one hand, it is a great opportunity; let’s not deny it. And you can also see that by not taking it, this is going to be a black mark against you. At the same time, her husband’s working in tech. His company has no outpost there. Florida is not really known for the tech industry either. And so, when they went back and talked about it, you know, on the one hand, it was extremely difficult because she has this great opportunity, but he really can’t match it.

But what it did do interestingly for the couple was start them thinking about mobility and thinking about, OK, well, maybe this option might not be very good, but what else is there out there? And so, what it did in the couple of spot they’re thinking. And what actually happened in that couple is they did move but not for that option. And so, what they actually ended up doing was moving to the west coast, and she got a similar option at a competitor, you know, and the, the job offer she’d gotten in her organization gave her the confidence that wow, I am ready for this role, so I’m going to apply to a competitor. And that was for him back to the head office of his organization. And so, of course, what her organization did by giving her that now-or-never opportunity was lose a key talent and lose one to the competitor and not to a parallel role, but to a more senior role. And I think this story shows that it’s not that they weren’t mobile, right, and it’s not that she wasn’t ambitious; it was that by giving her that really tight deadline, and it’s kind of Florida do or die, they lost a key talent.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So, that’s interesting to me because you had some other examples, too, in the article of people where this sort of opportunity comes up, and what ends up happening is that eventually the talented person leaves and joins a competitor. Is that a common reaction to this kind of thing?

JENNIFER PETRIGLIERI: It is actually quite common for many organizations. Of course, there are some organizations who are a little bit more savvy about this, and oftentimes what might happen is that same situation and the person says, OK, you know, I just really cannot take that now; I’m not interested. Now, organizations at that point, they’re one of three ways. Either one strike and you’re out, and the person very often leaves, and they lose the talented. And then there are two of ways organizations go. Some organizations try to find a workaround, and this is great, and so there’s lots of different ways for this, depending on the type of roles. It might be a commuter-leader role where you spend two or three days on that site and the other two or three days on the home site. It might be some kind of combination of job swap or secondments or some way to sort of manage that transition. It might also be the third way: OK, we realize this isn’t, this opportunity isn’t right for you, but we, we still really want to keep you and value your talent, so what might be the right option? And at that point sit down and really try and map out the other mobility options. So, those tend to be the three paths.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Yes. So, let’s talk a little bit more than about what companies might do better because I doubt that they want to be sort of shooing their best people away to the competition, right? So, I’m wondering how common is it to have a kind of two-way conversation between the talented person we’re talking about, the kind of protagonist, their manager, or maybe a three-way conversation that brings in HR. Do you see companies where there is this kind of transparent dialogue going on?

JENNIFER PETRIGLIERI: Yeah, and I also think is quite idiosyncratic. So, it’s not true to say X company does it and Y company doesn’t. It tends to be very dependent on the relationship between the talented person and the manager and also quite frankly, how much HR is willing to get involved. And I think this is really from both sides. I think for the talented people, especially if they’ve seen peers face this one-or-two-strikes-and-you’re-out, it can be quite frightening to have those conversations in organizations and to really set those expectations and say, you know, I’m committed to my career. I want to be mobile. That these are my boundaries. And it’s particularly difficult for talent who are, who are a little bit younger. Because if you think of our career cycles, when we start our career, we are relatively unbounded. Most of us have pretty much no commitments at home.

We can travel at the drop of a hat. We are willing to make those moves. And then there comes a day when that changes for whatever reason. Maybe it’s, you know, we partner with someone who also has a career, and we’re committed to living in the same city. Maybe we have a child and we we have more commitments there, or maybe it’s different commitments, elder commitments, etc. And not transition from being unbounded to bounded talent can feel quite frightening because up until now I’ve pretty much said yes to my manager, and suddenly I need to start saying no, and that can be very frightening to have those conversations.

So, I think part of it is from the talent person, and I think part of it is from the manager, HR. And here we see different problems. Sometimes for some managers who were of the older generation who were unbounded talent, who maybe had a stay-at-home partner, part of it is it’s hard for them to just get it, right. They’ve never been in that situation themselves, so it’s hard for them to put themselves in the shoes and understand there might be constraints. So, why would they start those conversations? And I think then from HR, there can be some reticence around approaching too many personal aspects and asking them about personal things. So, I think the issues can come from all angles.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: It sounds like one of the challenges here is that managers and HR are reluctant to ask about people’s personal lives. Um, in some cases they might even feel like it’s not even legal to like ask about those kinds of plans, right? So, how can people have these difficult conversations that are so awkward and kind of have them in a way that’s ultimately helpful and not kind of a creepy, like poking around like, so, what does your spouse do?

JENNIFER PETRIGLIERI: Yeah, it’s hard, and I think we have thought impression of these conversations if we look at these relationships in a very decontextualized way. You know, if you don’t know your manager at all, that is a creepy conversation to have. But most people have a decent relationship with their manager. I think then the starting point for the conversation is from the, the area of, you know, hopes and aspirations and constraints. And it’s that very few of us now can go anywhere and do anything. So, you know, what are the kinds of constraints you have? Are there places you would love to go and work in? Are there others that are totally off the map for you? Is there some ways we can engage in more flexible working and what is helpful for you?

So, very recently, um, I was actually talking to an, an alumnus of INSEAD, and they were trying to increase flexible working in their organizations and really take away the stigma and start to talk to people about what they need. And the way they did it was to target, um, high- profile men who were popular and recognized as, as very good in business and start working with them and encouraging them to use flexible working. And then it kind of cascaded out. And it was like, OK, this guy’s doing it who’s very popular, well respected in the organization. Then it’s OK for me to have that conversation with my manager, etc. So, I think part of it is about the norms, but I think part of it is not approaching it from what does your spouse do but more approaching it from, what are the kinds of constraints, what would make your life easier to work with, and are there any places you want to go because I think the danger is we think of this issue as one of constraints, and but it’s not just about constraints; there are some real opportunities in having people with partners and spouses who are also talent and that is from this location aspect, as I said before, the main reason relocations fail is because the spouse or partner is unhappy.

Now, if you’ve got two people relocating together with great jobs, the likelihood for your organization, yours goes well, is extremely high, so there’s an opportunity you just don’t get with people who have a trailing spouse. That’s a huge advantage for the organization. Equally with flexible working. Now, it’s healthy, might be helpful for some people to go home at a reasonable hour, spend a few hours with their family, and then log back in and make some calls later in the evening. That may actually be a helpful thing for the organization. So, I also think we need to get out of this thinking that it’s a bad thing we need to manage, um, and thinking how can this thing play in our favor in organizations?

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: And let’s talk a little bit then about what the company should be doing for the spouse, because it seems like if that’s the person who really can make or break an overseas assignment, for example, what is the appropriate role for a company to take with a employee’s spouse?

JENNIFER PETRIGLIERI: So, let’s just talk about what organizations do now to start with. So, organizations range, and one of the talented people I spoke to summed this up brilliantly when she said her organization, which was a big multinational, there was a lot of resources but very little support. And I thought that was a fantastic way of summing it up because many organizations think, and in some ways do offer a lot. They offer relocation programs, connections to people. But when she said there’s a lack of support, what she was meaning was there was very little thought into her couple’s personal situation. And for her, her husband was also an executive who needed relocating. And of course, the resources offered were tailored to a stay-at-home spouse. And so, they were all around cultural integration and finding a place in the community and maybe volunteer roles, which were totally inappropriate for what his needs were.

So, I think a part of it is, is getting more personalized in that support. And a part of it, again, is just changing the assumption that the support is not necessarily for a trailing spouse; in many cases now, the support is for an equally talented and in some cases even more high-potential person than you know, the employee that you’re dealing with.

And so, there are some novel ways that organizations are dealing with this. Particularly when we look at those hub locations where there’s lots of organizations based like Dubai, like Boston, like San Francisco, like Geneva, like London — these places where there’s lots of organizations based, organizations or clubbing together and looking at how they can fill their own vacancies locally on the ground with people who are moving and following a spouse’s career. And this is a great solution for organizations because they can almost sort of trade the CVs of spouses and see how together as a group they can solve this issue.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: I’m also wondering, like, what’s on the flip side, what is realistic in terms of setting boundaries? So, is it realistic to say, you know, I really like living in the city I live in. I really don’t ever want to move. I have roots here. I have family here. Can you still have a very successful career setting that kind of limit or saying, you know, I, maybe it’s not mobility. Maybe it’s flexibility, maybe it’s, you know, I never want to travel at the drop of a hat. I just don’t want to do it or don’t want to travel at all. Can you do that and still get ahead, or is that just unrealistic?

JENNIFER PETRIGLIERI: I think having some boundaries, it’s realistic, but I think having very rigid boundaries honestly is unrealistic. For example, let’s say you join a big multinational. To say that you want to get to the top that you never want to leave your city, it’s just not going to happen. I mean, you know, let’s be honest. OK, maybe you happen to live in the city of the headquarters, but even then you would be expected to at least some time, you know, in the field if you like, on other locations. Likewise, with flexibility. We may have a, you know, a general rule, you know, I just can’t travel at the drop of the hat, but if something enormous crisis came up and you didn’t travel at the drop of a hat for that one occasion, of course it would not look good. There’s this idea of having flexible boundaries, OK.

Let’s imagine you’re a Bostonian. You always want to live in Boston in your life, but there may be a time in your life were doing a short secondment somewhere else or a job swap or being a community leader for a period is OK; it’s bearable. I think you will need to do something like that to get to the top. Now, of course, if your business is, is a more local business or regional business, that may be less of an issue, but if you’re working for a larger organization, even if it’s just a national organization, you know, there’ll be lots of locations. It will be very hard to reach a very senior level without some flexibility on this.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So, I’m imagining that there are some people nonetheless who are listening and thinking, you know, this is all about millennials wanting to have everything; in my day we just sucked it up and did it. Do you ever sort of hear pushback from managers that this is like, you know, part of like going through this process, everyone has been through this. It is painful, but it’s what you have to do to get ahead?

JENNIFER PETRIGLIERI: All the time. And what I would do say to them is they are missing out on talent. So, there is a very interesting trend in organizations now where the managers — see the managers who was saying that are people, I can guarantee who have a stay-at-home spouse or who have a spouse who very much has the trailing role, I can guarantee it. But this a very strong trend in organizations now where managers who get this issue and are really supporting it are doing what I call talent hoarding. And so, when I talked to talented people, especially in big organizations who, you know, sometimes there’s a choice between roles, there’s an informal network which where people communicate, oh, this person is great, he or she really gets it. They’re super supportive. This person, don’t go and work for them if it’s the last choice in the organization. And so, what is happening in organizations is those, there’s, of course, it’s not just a war for talent between organizations. There’s a war for talent within organizations. And if you’re a manager who has that attitude that people should just suck it up and do what I did, I can guarantee you are going to lose the internal war for talent. And we can see this very strongly because those people winning that internal war for talent are people who may themselves have had stay-at-home spouses or come from this unbounded talent, but they’re people who have taken the time to really understand the issue and try and accommodate it.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Now, the people that you talked to and interviewed for this, you talked to couples, you talked to people in HR. I’m wondering — managers — I’m wondering if there is someone you talked to who had kind of been on both sides of this. They were part of a couple who dealt with this, but then now they’re also managing other couples who are dealing with this, too.

JENNIFER PETRIGLIERI: Many. Many, many. And I think this is what is actually the hope for organizations, is that what’s happening increasingly is the wave of people who are getting into middle and more senior management now have faced these issues themselves, and so it’s easier to manage. And so yeah, this is an increasing trend is that the people who are doing the managing and making the decisions have face this themselves, and that’s where we see this issue starting to ease.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Well Jen, I’m glad to know that it’s getting better.

JENNIFER PETRIGLIERI: Thank you. I know; me too.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: That’s Jennifer Petriglieri. She’s an assistant professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD. And she’s the author of the article “Talent Management and the Dual-Career Couple.” Read it in the May–June 2018 issue of Harvard Business Review or on HBR.org.

Our show’s produced by Amanda Kersey and Curt Nickisch. Adam Buchholz is our audio product manager. And we get technical and production help from Rob Eckhardt.

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