Words to Move By

By Martha Frase-Blunt May 1, 2004
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HR Magazine, May 2004Providing clear, constant communication tailored to relocating employee's needs makes for a smooth move.

A relocation typically combines three of life’s greatest disruptions into one: Employees are changing jobs, buying or selling a home, and separating from one community (while joining another)—all at the same time.

“Relocating is a very high-stress proposition,” says Lee Koehler, global relocation manager for EMC Corp., an international computer storage corporation based in Hopkinton, Mass. Each year, her company relocates 250 to 300 people, both overseas and domestically.

Koelher adds that many relocations have an additional stressor: a life change that prompted the employee to take the out-of-town job or accept the transfer. “This is why communicating during a relocation is so critical,” she says.

Done poorly, communication regarding a relocation can lead to performance issues and even greater stress for the valuable transferee, adding to already high turnover rates for relocated employees. (The most recent data from the Employee Relocation Council in Washington, D.C., published in March 1998, found that the annual separation rate for relocated employees was 2.4 times higher than that of non-previously relocated employees—12.3 percent vs. 4 percent.)

That’s a lesson some companies have learned the hard way.

“It used to be that when proposing a transfer, HR would tell the employee ‘Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you,’ leaving the details vague,” says Susan Schneider, vice president for client relations at PLUS Relocation Services in Minneapolis. But companies have paid the price for not giving employees a clear picture of who is responsible for what.

Eventually the family will become stressed during the process, “and that’s when they get entitlement issues. They suddenly want to know why the company won’t pay to move their car.” Once the move is under way, it’s too late to have such conversations, she says.

Relocation stress is magnified in an overseas move, when the family is dropped into a strange new culture, customs and language. RelogistiX Inc., an international relocation management company in Sterling, Va., moves families all over the developing world.

Steve Tattum, the company’s president and chief development officer, says “My goal is simple: to deliver the family and its belongings safely to another country. To do that, we have to communicate with our clients and their relocating employees constantly, making sure all their goods are in the right place at the right time. That’s where the skill comes in.”

Employers and relocation services providers say that effective communications need to focus on establishing and distributing clear policies, taking advantage of technological changes, and tailoring communication to meet various employees’ needs.

Well-Written Policies

Keeping the lines of communication open among all the parties involved in a relocation—the employee, the family, the shippers, HR and the finance people at both ends—requires both human and technological intervention, but it usually starts with an agreement. That may come when a candidate is offered employment that will involve a move or when an employee accepts a transfer.

“Of all the steps companies take to ease a transition like relocation, having an agreement in place is the most critical,” says attorney Alan I. Model, principal at Grotta, Glassman & Hoffman PA in Roseland, N.J., which exclusively represents companies in employment and labor issues. “Since companies these days offer different levels of relocation assistance, they need to properly communicate the services to the transferees in a clear manner at the outset.”

Model has found that “many employers like to finesse their way through a relocation offer, making overly optimistic statements that will get them into trouble. To convince an employee to pick up and move, managers might tell them how it will enhance their career, or that all their needs will be met. Those statements could be considered an oral or implied contract.”

Unfortunately, when companies decide to let recent transferees go, or unhappy employees claim the relocation wasn’t what they were expecting, the result can be legal action. “Employees may sue based on alleged misrepresentations, and, without a binding agreement, they could win,” says Model.

To protect the business and ensure that relocating employees know what to expect, HR needs to draft a letter of agreement that starkly details all the parameters of the move—from approved vendors to the official process employees should use to file a complaint if problems arise once the transfer is carried out. Communication about the agreement should carefully balance the need to show employees that they are valued against the need to simultaneously and accurately set the limits of the policy.

“It is important to stress the employee’s importance to the company and the potential for new opportunities, but stay away from any words that will imply some sort of promise of continued or indefinite employment or advancement,” says Model.

At a minimum, the relocation agreement should contain an “at-will” disclaimer, emphasizing that the employee can be terminated with or without cause, with or without notice, and that relocating does not affect this “at-will” status.

In addition, he adds, be sure that other managers refrain from saying anything to the employee about the move that could be binding on the company. To do so, “Include language in the agreement that makes it clear the employee is only relying on what is set forth in the agreement, and that they are not relying on any other representations possibly made by managers or other agents of the company.”

Each relocation should be supported by detailed policies, and these should be widely and effectively communicated in the employee manual and, if available, on the company intranet. “It may not seem as important as a policy against sexual harassment, but it is a step toward building better morale and deterring complaints,” says Model.

(For more tips on crafting legally binding relocation agreements, see “Policies, Not Promises.” right.)

Tools and Technology

Koehler believes that one of the most versatile tools for communicating during a relocation also happens to be the simplest: e-mail. She encourages everyone involved in the relocation to use e-mail and even to back up phone conversations with an e-mail summary.

“It leaves a valuable electronic paper trail and enables information to be forwarded to anyone,” says Koehler. She also makes liberal use of the CC button: “Copying [to] all the parties closes the loop and enables anyone to see the full scope of the communication.”

When it comes to keeping track of who’s responsible for what in hundreds of unique relocations each year, however, more sophisticated tools may be required. EMC Corp. outsources relocation activities to PLUS Relocation Services. “For each move, we assign an ‘engagement manager’ who creates all the communications pieces. All the client has to do is approve them,” says Schneider.

Employees can access a personalized, password-protected web site that guides them to all the resources they will need. Features include a personalized relocation handbook with links to policy information and organization tools, a “moving resource” area packed with relocation tips, and tools to help track expenditures and other tax-related data.

“We’ve found that the people most likely to use these tools are the trailing spouse who is left behind organizing the house sale and the move. We make sure we have included information especially for them,” says Schneider.

On the employer side, PLUS has developed an online summary area where HR can get a clear view of all relocation activity, and also can access customized reports. The cost of this service ranges from $500 to $2,500 per relocation, depending on the types of services the company elects to include.

As valuable as technological tools can be in complementing relocation communication, there still is no replacement for human contact, say relocation specialists.

“Years ago, many companies had a relocation manager on staff who would be the liaison between us and employees,” says Schneider. “But with downsizing and restructuring, their role had been diminished or eliminated,” despite the fact that the need for an always-accessible human point of contact continues.

At RelogistiX, the value of human contact is so important that the company does not have voice mail. “Calls roll to our cells on weekends and evenings, so we can offer 24-hour service,” which is something all employees need, says Tattum.

Matching the Message to the Audience

Employees all may be equal in the eyes of the law, but that doesn’t mean their relocation situations or informational needs are identical.

Tattum says he deals with every kind of “relocation personality” in his work, and each needs to be communicated with appropriately. “Some employees are excited about the move; some really don’t want to go. Some are used to traveling the world with a rucksack, while others want to be coddled every step of the way.”

He says most moves average 10 to 15 contacts with the relocating family, by phone or e-mail, “But we can have up to 50 if the family is new to relocating and has more questions.”

Koehler observes that relocation “rookies” may need more hand-holding when it comes to communication. “You will be giving them the same tools and access, but you have to be prepared to spend more time in counseling them,” she says.

On the other hand, she points out that relocation veterans also deserve special attention—and raise their own special communication concerns. “There’s a tendency for them to jump the gun and try to manage their own move, potentially wasting the employer’s time and resources,” Koehler says.

It’s a problem she sees often, and one she tries to mitigate by pointing out the financial advantages to both employee and employer of going by the book. She also attempts to get written policies into the hands of relocation veterans as soon as possible, to prevent them from acting too quickly and in a manner outside the company’s normal procedures. For example, an employee who contracts directly with a provider outside the employer’s circle of approved vendors is likely to run into problems with reimbursement.

By comparison, relocating new hires might seem to hold certain advantages over moving existing employees. After all, these employees made the choice to pick up and move when they first applied for the out-of-town position.

But that doesn’t lessen the importance of skillful communication from the outset. In fact, some of the same rules apply to new hires: It pays to get policies into their hands quickly and to communicate constantly.

Terri Hoehne, director of HR for Aurora University in Aurora, Ill., relocates about a half-dozen people each year, mostly new faculty and director-level administrators brought on as new hires.

“When we initially offer the position, we give all information about our relocation policies, which can be found on our public web site. We also give the new hire contact information for our recommended moving company, Blackhawk, which is a local United Van Lines affiliate,” Hoehne says.

Hoehne’s close relationship with Blackhawk is key to the communication process, she says. “They constantly refer to our relocation policy—in fact, they helped us write it. Once we make the hire, we give Blackhawk the new employee’s information and they will often make the first contact. They will typically arrange to have a local affiliate start the process of collecting information related to the move, and can counsel the new hire about what is and is not covered. The employee can then decide if they want additional services.”

These add-ons are initially paid for by the university, which then bills the employee. “This little step makes things so much smoother on moving day,” says Hoehne.

Meanwhile, she stays on top of the transition, “and we make sure they know we are available to smooth any bumps with Blackhawk, if necessary, and with any other parts of the process. We’ll often trade e-mails and phone calls several times over the course of a move, offering assistance on anything from questions on whether a given price seems in the range for a specific neighborhood, to school district [or] private school information, even where to find a good Japanese restaurant.”

Listening Skills

As important as it is to communicate clearly and continually to relocating employees, it is equally important to listen.

Hoehne believes listening is the most critical intervention. “I think the most important thing we do is listen. Most moves go so smoothly that all we hear is how wonderful everything is. Those we are thankful for. But a few moves are less fortunate and have some issues, so we do what we can to smooth things for them. While we can’t buy their old house, we can help them scramble to find a rental if their contingency-based purchase fell through.”

Once the new employee is settled in “and has their belongings about them, we ‘debrief’ a bit,” Hoehne says. “We’ve learned from each move that has problems, and celebrated each one that went well.”

Heeding those lessons can help ensure that the next employee who relocates has an equally smooth ride—and that another success will be celebrated in the future.

Martha Frase-Blunt is a freelance writer based in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

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