Out of Their Element

Acknowledging the problems with domestic relocations and providing assistance go a long way toward smoothing the transition.

By Roseanne White Geisel Feb 1, 2006

HR Magazine, February 2006

Making the move from one U.S. city to another is a lot harder than it appears. Sure, the language, currency and national customs are all the same. But strong subcultures differ greatly from region to region.

In today’s mobile society, employers may easily forget the disruption and cultural implications of relocating employees within the United States. Though some companies have formal programs designed to ensure that an employee and his or her family have the fortitude and assistance for an international move, often far less attention is given when the move occurs within the United States.

But what companies must understand is that the psychological and logistical difficulties resulting from a domestic relocation can interfere with the success of the assignment. From cost of living to networking styles to finding certain ingredients in the local grocery store, relocations within the United States are jarring for employees and their families. At their worst, relocations can fail if the employee and his or her family aren’t well-prepared for the culture shock. A failed relocation can cost a company a lot of time, money and productivity.

The keys to success, experts say, are to educate the employee in the pre-decision stage, listen closely for concerns raised by the employee and his or her family members, prepare the employee and the family for the reality of the new locale, and provide assistance where necessary.

The employee, too, must take an active role and advocate for the assis- tance required to make a successful transition to a new location. And it’s up to the employee, of course, to determine whether the relocation hardships are outweighed by the professional and personal benefits.

Acknowledging The Problem

The greatest difficulty of any relocation, be it domestic or international, is resolving the family issues that arise, according to employers, consultants and relocated employees.

Family is the No. 1 reason employees turn down relocation opportunities, and it’s the No. 1 reason relocation assignments fail, according to research from Organization Resources Counselors Inc. in New York.

What can make domestic moves trickier is that the degree of adjustment can catch the employee, the family and the company by surprise.

“A lot of companies say, ‘Hey, it’s a mobile society today.’ But just because we are mobile and we can be mobile doesn’t mean mobility is easy,” says Laura Herring, Senior Certified Relocation Professional (SCRP) and CEO of the Impact Group, a St. Louis-based consulting firm offering relocation transition assistance for employees and their families.

Maggie Bailey would agree that relocating can bring hidden challenges. Bailey recently moved her family of five to Raleigh, N.C., from Arlington, Va., after her husband accepted a new job. After moving, she realized what good friends she had in her prior home—and how much she had to learn about forging relationships in the new locale.

“There are some cultural things that I’m learning, such as being able to read people,” Bailey says, now one year after the move. For example, soccer moms and neighbors in Raleigh often relate differently from their Washington, D.C., area counterparts. “When there’s a conflict, people [in Raleigh] just don’t come out and say what’s wrong. You have to read between the lines. If I need to express my needs, I must be as gracious as possible,’’ she says.

In such situations, a consultant could help by talking with the family about cultural differences prior to the move, providing adequate information about the region, or providing a host family or buddy. The Impact Group, for example, strives to shorten the time it takes relocating families to re-create a network by helping find dance instructors, churches, day cares and scout troops to replace those left behind.

Such assistance can be vital to employees—and perhaps especially to their spouses. For spouses, social changes and cultural differences are the most difficult elements to cope with, according to focus groups with more than 400 relocated spouses conducted by the Impact Group.

Employers, however, can’t overlook the logistical aspects of relocation, either. For example, while cultural adaptation was an issue for Bailey, her greatest stressor was re-establishing the basics, from finding the most convenient gas station to locating the best grocery store.

Christa—who asked that her last name not be used and who has made two moves for her husband’s career with a large financial services firm—also encountered basic logistical difficulties in her relocations. In her second relocation, for example, her family was assigned temporary housing in an upper-floor walk-up apartment, so Christa had to haul groceries up four floors with her two young children. She says no one who understands children would have put an employee’s family in that situation.

Both Christa and Bailey believe HR departments and consultants leave spouses out of the loop when it comes to relocations. Christa’s first relocation was hard as well because, being new to the experience, she didn’t realize how important the relocation services offered by her husband’s company were, and no one at his company emphasized how critical they would be to her family’s success in the new location.

Christa adds that even when employees receive information—ranging from benefits plan specifics to tips on restaurants and sports facilities—the failure to include spouses in such discussions is a mistake. Relocating employees are so focused on the new job, explains Christa, that they may not remember to convey the information to the spouse.

Bailey, who has a background in psychology, says companies must understand the psychology of relocations and offer support prior to the move for the entire family.

“HR [professionals] must be willing to acknowledge, without people telling them, that domestic relocation is stressful,” she says.

At Primacy Relocation LLC in Memphis, Tenn., the spouse is included in the initial conversation whenever possible, says Alisia Fisher, relocation team leader. The elicited information “determines the course of action we need to take to make their transfer as smooth as possible,” Fisher says. For example, the spouse of one transferee made Fisher aware that because of a child’s medical problems, the family must live near a hospital equipped to handle the condition. So, the relocation company had to cancel an agreement with one realtor and find another who worked where the family needed to buy a house.

Communication in the pre-relocation stage is pivotal to the success of the assignment. The most effective way to retain relocated employees and quickly raise their productivity is integration of the family into the new area.

An employee and the family can be bolstered, Herring says, even by an employer’s general statement: “We recognize there will be relocation transition issues; you will be given assistance.”

Communicating And Listening

Proactively educating the potential candidate, and listening carefully when the candidate expresses concerns, can ameliorate many issues involved with domestic relocations.

“If the company is clear on its objectives, where [the employee’s new] job is going to lead, relocations will be more successful,” says Lina Paskevicius, consulting manager with Cendant Mobility in Danbury, Conn. The employee will look past the problems with transitioning to a new location if there is an opportunity waiting on the other side of that struggle.

It’s helpful to have someone within the company talk the employee through the process before connecting the person with the relocation consultant so that they are well-prepared to ask the pertinent tax and logistical questions involved in a relocation, says Fisher.

Education must cover other issues as well. A move from headquarters to a division in a different region of the country can feel quite foreign. “Tell people to expect a different culture,” Herring says. Are people in the region more formal or less formal than in your current area? What does the average student wear to school? Is the dress code in the employee’s new division suits or khakis and casual shirts? What’s the weather like?

Paskevicius says this is key because often there are misconceptions about the new area.

Sometimes, the assignment isn’t a good fit, and HR must recognize the signs and prepare an exit strategy. Michael Washbourn, CRP, global relocation services manager for Pfizer Inc. in Peapack, N.J., has found that you can sense in the pre-selection interviews whether a relocation will or will not work for the family. “People who embrace it with a certain amount of optimism and enthusiasm are going to do better,” Washbourn says. “The other sign of a good candidate [for relocation] is someone who seeks information actively.”

But the services only work if the employee and the family make the most of them. If a spouse wants to make things difficult and not really work with counselors at finding a new job, for instance, the problem won’t be resolved, he says.

Cost-of-Living Adjustments

If the difference between the cost of living between one location and another is stark, and the salary doesn’t make up for that difference, there can be problems with the assignment—but there are solutions.

“One of the biggest surprises [over the past few years] is the difficulty companies have moving people to high-cost areas,” says Terri Myszkewicz, CRP, an account manager at Runzheimer International, a relocation services provider in Rochester, Wis.

When moving to a higher-cost area, “employees are frustrated because sometimes they feel the company should pay for more expensive housing,” as they often do in international moves, Myszkewicz says. But employees really need to look at their budget and the long-term picture, she adds. The employee must determine whether the career enhancement will make up for the sacrifice of temporarily living in a smaller home or incurring some debt.

Because of the cost-of-living issue, financial planning services as part of relocation packages is growing, Myszkewicz says. Relocation packages are increasingly including meetings between financial analysts and employees and their spouses to determine how they would fare financially in the move.

If the employee decides that the cost-of-living difference is insurmountable, HR needs to determine if the employee is valuable enough to offer assistance.

For instance, Beth Sharpe, product manager in compensation and benefits at Allianz of America Corp. in San Francisco, deals with the cost of living in the area when recruiting and relocating candidates. To bring the necessary talent to the headquarters location, Allianz has provided mortgage subsidies. Those subsidies increase the company’s relocation costs, but they are tax deductible to the employee, Sharpe says.

Being Flexible

The cost-of-living issue illustrates the importance of flexibility in relocations. If family assessments and pre-move conversations indicate the relocation could fail because the employee or his family won't fit into the new location, HR can take steps to make everyone happy.

For example, the company may get an exception request from an employee who, because of family issues, wants to delay the move. In that case, an employee might take the new position and report to the new boss while remaining at the old location for some time, Washbourn says.

Or an employee may choose to rent an apartment in the new location while the rest of the family delays the move for a short period or indefinitely, with the company subsidizing the employee’s commutes home on weekends. That’s where a financial lump-sum arrangement for relocation assistance is helpful. “We ultimately would not pay for an apartment for a year,” Washbourn says, but the lump sum could potentially defray up to half of the cost. “At that stage, it’s a decision for the [relocating] colleague” on how to spend the money, he adds.

“We’re seeing more of these exception requests,” Washbourn says. The employee “is actually trying to balance the desire to do the job for Pfizer and balance the commitment to family.” Knowing the employee is striving to live up to professional responsibilities, the company tries to be as flexible as possible.

“The goal,” Myszkewicz says, “is to get everyone in the family as happy as possible as soon as possible so the employee can work.” .

Roseanne White Geisel, a freelance business writer and editor in Arlington, Va., is the former managing editor of Business Insurance Magazine .


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