HR Magazine - May 2000: Think About The Children

By Lin Grensing-Pophal May 1, 2000

HR Magazine, May 2000Pam was a rising star at a Midwestern utility company when she was offered a promotion to an affiliated location about 90 miles from her hometown—a position that would have made her the highest ranking female in the organization.

The only catch? She would need to relocate her family—her husband who ran a successful contracting firm and her two children, a 5-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son. But she didn’t think twice. It was a great opportunity to boost her career.

She made the move and thrived in the new position. Unfortunately, her family didn’t fare as well. Her son began having behavioral problems that eventually resulted in the need to seek professional help. Her daughter became increasingly dependent, making morning drop-offs at the day care a traumatic event for everyone. And, her relationship with her husband—admittedly shaky even before the move—eventually deteriorated completely.

Could these relationships have been saved? Maybe. Maybe not. But, without question, Pam could have benefited from some assistance and support in moving her family—particularly her children—to a new location.

Over the past several years, there has been growing recognition of the importance of “selling” the spouse on a relocation. The need to “sell” the children has been less prevalent, but it is surfacing. In the Employee Relocation Council’s (ERC) 1998 Relocation Trends Survey, 65 percent of all transferees had dependent children. They were most likely to be middle-management employees, who were an average age of 38 and earned about $60,000 annually. About 20 percent were female.

It wasn’t that long ago that turning down a job transfer was considered a career killer. The rare employee who turned down a job transfer generally cited the cost of living in the new location as the greatest barrier. Not anymore. More employees are choosing to stay put, citing personal and family reasons.

In a 1997 study conducted by Atlas Van Lines, 73 percent of those responding said they turned down a relocation because of their families; two-thirds of the respondents indicated that they felt that declining a transfer would not harm an employee’s career. Since the early 1990s, according to Atlas studies, there has been a definite shift in the reasons employees supply for turning down a relocation oppor tunity; fewer em ployees cite con cerns over cost of living in the new location, but more employees are likely to cite family ties as the “deal breaker.”

Are these numbers having an impact on HR practices when it comes to helping relocating employees deal with issues related to their children? Perhaps, but the impact is slight at this time.

Ron Adler, president of Laurdan Associates Inc. in Potomac, Md., and a member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) Employment Committee and Consultants Forum, says he recently asked his local SHRM chapter about its involvement in helping employees deal with the impact of relocation on their children. “A lot of them aren’t involved in relocation,” he reports. “The general reaction I heard is, it’s not an area that’s on their radar screens.”

He admits, though, that this is an issue that will become increasingly important. “Perhaps it’s an area that employers have to pay more attention to in terms of assimilating the children. I suspect that it’s an area that’s being neglected.”

Other practitioners have similar perspectives. Mary Ann Williams of GMAC Global Relocation Services in San Ramon, Calif., manages Chevron’s domestic relocation center, an outsourced operation. “In the HR world, almost all domestic relocations are outsourced. The HR person isn’t involved in family issues unless they happen to know that person personally.”

Julie Klopp, PHR, is an HR representative at Delphi Automotive Systems in Lockport, N.Y., and a member of SHRM’s Employment Committee. She believes that providing assistance to employees with children during a relocation is important, but agrees that it is rarely something that is handled formally by the HR department. “I think EAPs are an alternative that can be used in those situations, but I don’t know if everybody sees that connection.”

What Families Need

The impact of a move on children and, consequently, on the employed parent, can be dramatic. The American Psychological Association (APA) indicates that, “relocation can have consequences later in life for at-risk children who lag in school, have social adjustment problems or move because of family crises such as divorce. Among mainstream children, relocation strains are often short-term. However, adolescents are most affected.”

Laura Herring is the founder of The Impact Group, a relocation firm in St. Louis, Mo. A psychologist by training, Herring had 12 years of experience in private practice. During that time, she says, she and the other therapists she worked with were finding that a high number of families with child and adolescent or marital problems could trace those problems back to a relocation. “I decided to become more proactive,” she says. She focused on the relocation issue and interviewed 400 spouses about their family life and discovered that child issues were a major concern to them. “I found that how the parents adjusted to the move directly correlated with the adjustment of the children.”

Herring says the greatest concerns for both parents are:

  • How to tell the children.
  • Quality of schools and day care.
  • Quality of life for their children.

When employers can adequately address these issues and ease the concerns of parents and children, everyone benefits. “Companies don’t do this to be ‘nice guys,’” Herring says. It’s a service that directly affects the bottom line. “Employees are up and running and more productive quicker when they don’t have to deal with family issues.”

The Role of HR—Getting Involved

Whether you are relocating existing employees or recruiting new employees who will be moving from another geographic area, you can play a pivotal role in helping to ease these transitions—and, consequently, to boost recruitment efforts and positively affect productivity.

“Not only do you have to provide incentive,” says Adler, “I think you have to grease the wheel. Moving is disruptive under most circumstances, but particularly if you have children. If the message of the organization is, ‘We’re moving you, but you have to fend for yourself in finding a house and school and day care,’ then I think it’s going to be harder to get the person to move.”

Klopp agrees. “Helping employees deal with their children’s concerns during a relocation is absolutely something HR should be involved with.” The form of that involvement would depend on the individual employee’s needs and willingness to share information.

“You’re buying a whole person when you hire somebody,” Klopp stresses. “That’s the part that I think many companies miss. You’re buying the spouse, the kids, the dog, the car, their beliefs and their values. They may physically leave their home to come to your office space, but their thoughts will be on those other issues.”

So what can you do to provide employees with the support and resources they need?

First of all, recognize that the issue exists. “The most important thing is to just know that in every relocation where there are children, there are issues,” says Herring. Some of her major clients, such as Citigroup, Pepsi, Wells Fargo and FedEx, “are recognizing that they can’t wait for people to complain.” Instead, they are taking steps to ensure that employees have the appropriate information and resources available.

Second, HR can begin to take a more active role in exploring employees’ needs relative to their children. “A lot of HR people wait for issues to be raised before they address them,” Herring says. “What we’re finding out after helping 45,000 families is that these people have not said a word of anything to their HR people. There’s an unwritten rule that you might complain to the relocation manager about your kids having a hard time, but you’re not really going to say anything to your boss. Those kinds of conversations don’t take place in corporate American by and large at this time.”

Third, HR can become aware of available resources both locally and nationally.

“What I recommend,” says Kevin Wilson, an HR consultant in Ridgefield, Conn., and a member of SHRM’s Employment Committee, “is to at least make information on the area available to people when they come into their interviews. The idea is to give the family as much information about the new area as possible so they can make the decision.”

Do you have an internal department that deals with relocation issues? Is your EAP a potential resource? Does your company rely on the services of a third-party vendor? If so, what services are available? If not, what are the company’s expectations of its HR department?

Become familiar with the family-friendly features and benefits of your community or the relocating community when recruiting candidates or coordinating transfers. Offer parents information about services that will directly affect their children—child care, schools, sports activities, etc. Allow parents to include the children in a trip to the new location so they can see the new neighborhood, school and other surroundings.

You also can be proactive in helping to address these needs even if your company is not already providing resources for relocating families. Ultimately, the role of HR seems to be in recognizing the need and being proactive in connecting employees and prospective employees with the resources they need to make relocation less stressful on the family.

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues. She is the author of The HR Book: Human Resources Management for Business (Self-Counsel Business Series, 1999

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