Relocation - Children Don't Move Easily

By Susan Lackey Jun 13, 2008
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HR Magazine, June 2008 Address youthful worries upfront; encourage employees to use available resources to smooth the transition.

After leaving friends in St. Louis to relocate to Memphis, Tenn., because of her father's job, Laura Herring, then 13, found herself in a city where neighborhood girls called her a "damn Yankee."

Now president and chief executive officer of the IMPACT Group, a relocation company with headquarters in St. Louis, Herring understands the challenges of relocating a child and says no family or child should have to endure such a painful move.

In fact, employees are twice as likely to cite family or personal circumstances than other reasons when turning down relocation assignments, according to a 2007 survey conducted by Cartus of Danbury, Conn. The global relocation company analyzed responses from 184 HR professionals in 25 major industry segments.

The Worldwide ERC in Arlington, Va., found that an estimated 60 percent of employees who do move have dependent children. To meet their needs, HR professionals must:

  • Be aware of potential problems.
  • Understand how to make an employee's relocation less disruptive for children.
  • Offer viable support and advice for parents.

An easier transition for family members means employees will spend less time worrying about the move and more time preparing for their new job.

Furthermore, employers that don't address family needs may hurt their recruitment efforts, warns Janet Olkowski, vice president of consulting services for Cornerstone Relocation Group, with headquarters in Basking Ridge, N.J.

Relocation specialists report that employers are having a difficult time balancing employees' family needs with the challenges and high costs incurred in the lagging real estate market. Because it's costing so much for companies to buy houses that relocating employees can't sell, some employers have reduced funding for other kinds of relocation assistance.

Documented Problems

To a child of any age, relocation means severing friendships, being thrust into a new school environment, and coping with feelings of loneliness and confusion. Yet children's relocation issues often go overlooked and under-addressed, researchers say.

Generally, younger children may have an easier time adjusting to relocation because they have not yet formed as many close friendships as older children. Older children who are relocated often develop more behavioral and social problems than younger children, according to a study published in the September 1993 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association. The researchers reported that 23 percent of children who move frequently were more likely to fail a grade, while 12 percent of children who had not moved or who had moved infrequently were forced to repeat a grade. The study, analyzing 9,915 6- to 17-year-olds, also suggested that behavioral issues can arise with frequent moving: Children who moved more frequently were 77 percent more likely to have four or more behavioral problems.

Though no recent follow-up studies have been conducted, Paul Newacheck, professor of health policy and pediatrics at the University of California in San Francisco, and one of the study's authors, expects the results would be similar were the study conducted today.

The Employee: Not Alone

During relocations, employees can become overwhelmed with endless tasks prior to the move, often neglecting issues regarding their children. HR professionals often recognize this burden and offer support either internally, through counseling and assistance, or through the use of third-party vendors that assess and help resolve specific child-related relocation matters.

"In most HR departments, depending on the size [of the company], the relocation aspect is part of an HR professional's position, but it is not his or her sole responsibility," says Nancy Davies, HR director at the law firm Bodman LLP in Detroit, who was involved with relocation when she previously worked at a banking organization and an auto supplier. "They likely wouldn't have as much time to devote to the transferee and the family as a relocation consultant would."

Regardless, some aspects of relocation should be kept in-house, advises Davies, who is a member of the Society for Human Resource Management's Staffing Management Special Expertise Panel. Furthermore, companies with competitive relocation policies that address children's needs will be more successful than companies without such policies because they will help alleviate employees' reluctance to move, Olkowski adds.

Relocation specialists suggest several strategies to help children involved in relocations adjust to new environments. Some examples:

Engage family members. Employees should be encouraged to regularly talk to their children about uncertainties pertaining to moves.

Frequently, an employee will complete a relocation successfully but then move back to the old hometown because his or her children were unhappy with the new environment. Relocation specialists and HR professionals see a definite correlation. "When [family members] are happy, the worker will be happy," predicts Susan Spinali, relocation director for The Move Management Center in San Mateo, Calif.

Involve children in planning. Cornerstone Relocation Group provides young children of transferees with a "Corn Dog Moving Kit," complete with an address book, maps, stickers for moving boxes, labels for postcards to send to their friends and a stuffed puppy. It makes children feel like "they are participating in the process and not being told what to do," says Olkowski.

Chris Shoemaker can attest to that. A senior quality assurance engineer for American Power Conversion, he is relocating for work from Effingham, Ill., to Wentzville, Mo., taking with him 6-year-old son Austin.

Shoemaker says the kit helped reassure his son and make him excited about the move. "He has really grown attached to ["Corn Dog," the stuffed dog]. He can relate to it on his level," he says. "When the rest of us are running around trying to get everything done, it gives him something to hold on to."

Actively engaging children in planning a move makes them more receptive to change and less likely to be afraid, relocation specialists say. It helps children to part peaceably from former homes and friends and be more open-minded about a new environment.

Meet special needs. Some vendors provide support teams of counselors who meet with family members to identify and address parents' specific concerns about their children before and after a move to make sure the transition goes smoothly. In some cases, by employing counselors and psychologists, parents can get help in assessing a specific child's needs and find the best environments for the child in terms of schools and community activities.

Scout out the place. To make a child's transition easier, relocation specialists suggest that parents conduct prelim­inary investigations into the new area's schools and community activities. The 2007 Worldwide ERC's Family Issues report shows that although nearly 50 percent of transferees said their companies offer school-finding assistance, only 30 percent actually take advantage of the services.

Provide adequate time off. It is important that a transferee recognize that although he or she may be adjusting well to a location, others in the family may not be.

Employees don't perceive that much of a change "because they are still getting up and going to work and still interacting with the same people as before," Davies says. "They have a routine that has continued. … For the other parts of the family… everything has now changed."

Giving time off -- about a week -- to a relocating employee can help bridge this disconnect and be beneficial to the entire family's assimilation. The employee can use this time to spend with his or her children and become acquainted with their adjustment issues, perhaps by touring the family's new neighborhood or visiting the child's new school.

Timing: A Vital Link

Contrary to common belief, summer is not the best time to move, according to relocation specialists.

Kids "need to assimilate and make new friends to help acclimate them and spend more time with during the summer," says Paragon Relocation Resources Senior Director Katherine A. Trachta.

Relocating an employee while school is still in session gives children an opportunity to immediately integrate into the school and consequently makes the transition go more smoothly.

"That is an aspect that HR can discuss with the employee. It is something you need to point out to the transferring employee," Davies says.

One element of international relocation absent in domestic relocation: Children enrolled in international schools are surrounded by other relocated children. This often creates a support network that helps the children cope with the move more easily.

Staying Involved

An employee who has concerns about moving his or her family may be more reluctant to agree to a transfer, making it that much more important to have a competitive relocation policy and to make communication with the employee a priority.

It's easy to rely on a third party, but if HR personnel remove themselves from the policy and its implementation, "you have absolutely no control over the program" in terms of what elements of the program are actually working to promote successful relocation, Davies says. "If you are not involved, there is an opportunity for waste and overspending."

Therefore, HR professionals should not just fund relocation and leave details up to the vendor because then company officials have no way of seeing if its relocation policy actually makes families happy, Herring says.

"If you are going to move people, [the company] needs to invest in the resources that will make the move as positive as possible so that that employee is as productive as [he or she] can be," she says.

Speaking from her own relocation experience, Davies concludes that employees "want to know there is a connection to the company and that the company is overseeing and looking out for their best interests," especially those of their children.

The author is an intern for HR Magazine and a May journalism graduate from the University of Maryland in College Park.

Web Extras

SHRM white paper: International Relocations: Remember the Children

SHRM article: Think About the Children (HR Magazine)

SHRM toolkit: SHRM Relocation Toolkit

Article: Kids' Relocation Issues: Easing the Trauma of Moving for Children (RPS Relocation)​
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