Transferring Employees Smoothly Takes Time

By Lin Grensing-Pophal Sep 1, 2001
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HR Magazine,   September 2001Effective relocation programs can become a retention tool.

Faith Brewitt has relocated numerous times—from Chicago to Boston, to Beijing, to Shanghai, to Taiwan, back to Chicago and, most recently, to San Francisco, where she is a senior account executive with Niehaus Ryan Wong Inc., a public relations firm. While some moves have been extremely stressful, her most recent move was a success, she says.

What made the difference? “I felt that this time HR was very much involved at every step,” she says. The result: a smoother and more efficient transition. But relocation can be traumatic, as another woman discovered several years ago when she transferred jobs during a merger. She felt the move might offer a better chance for “survival” or, if not, the larger metro area might provide more opportunities for jobs than the smaller community from which she moved.

“The whole experience was pretty terrible,” she says.

“The timeline wasn’t sufficient at all from a personal perspective. Our house sold in months, not days. And the company only provided one month’s worth of rent in the relocation package. I don’t think I was very productive those first few months on the new job because I was too preoccupied with home front—or lack of home front—issues.”

For HR professionals, taking the stress out of relocations means a transferee can quickly be settled into the new position and the new home—and more productive on the job. ·

Timing Is Everything

How lengthy is the relocation process? “It depends,” relocation professionals say.

Patrick Sylvester is a managing partner for Banister International, a Philadelphia firm that specializes in recruiting high-level management staff in which relocations typically are part of the process. “Without first communicating with or understanding your employee’s goals, desires, career motivations and how the relocation impacts their family lives, you can’t get a good answer for this,” Sylvester says.

“It completely depends on the personal needs of the transferee and the reason for the relocation,” agrees Shelly Seale, president of RPS Relocation in Arlington, Texas.

The primary factors affecting the duration of the transfer are “the personal needs of the transferee—the biggest factors being whether he or she has a family to move and whether he or she is a homeowner—and the job factors precipitating the relocation,” Seale says.

“Every case is different,” says Mickey Leong, a certified relocation professional with the relocation administration for the Integrated Systems Sector (ISS) of Northrop Grumman Corp. in Los Angeles. She is responsible for approximately 400 open domestic relocations annually and has spent the past six years of 23 years in HR management specializing in corporate relocation.

“It all depends on the individual situation and even the time of year,” she says. “If it’s in the spring and you know the employee has children in school, it’s not likely that they will be able to move quickly. There are a lot of factors involved.”

You also don’t want to rush the process, says Sylvester. He sees value in allowing the employee, and the employee’s family, to take the time they need to make the transition. “If you have a happier family, then you have a happier employee.”

On the other hand, you don’t want to take too long to get the new employee settled. If the employee has not made a permanent relocation to the new setting after four to six months, Sylvester says he starts to worry about his or her commitment.

“Any time a relocation is delayed or elongated it creates issues both for the employee, and his or her family, and for the company,” says Jesus A. Romero, manager of relocation services for Levi Strauss & Co. in San Francisco. “Generally, if you keep it simple and make it quick, it’s a smooth, easy transition and everybody’s happy.”

Streamlining the Process Keeps Move on Track

On average, 11 percent of employees transferring domestically leave the company within two years of relocating, according to an article in the Employee Relocation Council’s (ERC) June 1999 Trendspotting. Considering the high cost of relocation, and the high cost of recruitment, selection, orientation and training, when transferring an employee, it pays to get it right.

Developing and communicating a program is the first step. Relocation professionals recommend that organizations involved in transferring employees pay attention to the following details to streamline the process while ensuring a smooth transition.

Ensure that your policy is complete and proactive. Ernst & Young LLP in Cleveland has had a relocation program for more than 15 years. In 2000, the company’s Center for Mobility Services handled between 1,300 and 1,500 transferees, says director Gail Davis. The policy addresses every aspect of the relocation process, including home sale and purchase, shipping of household goods, travel, temporary living and allowances for sundries and cost-of-living adjustments.

“The No. 1 way to limit the time and reduce cost is to have a defined policy where everybody involved knows what’s expected and what benefits are provided,” says associate director Terry Davis. If you have that, the process runs smoothly, he says.

Yet, too often, particularly in organizations with little relocation activity, the “transferee is in the driver’s seat,” says Gail Davis. Having a policy in place will specifically outline the levels of financial assistance the organization wants to provide. That can eliminate haggling or negotiating over issues, a situation that can delay the transition and alienate the transferee, she says.

To ensure that employees don’t abuse the policy, she recommends that it address areas such as home sale, home purchase, household good shipping, final travel expenses, temporary living, duplicate housing, a sundry allowance, cost-of-living allowance and any other incidentals. “What differs in these policies is how generous they are,” Gail Davis says.

The policy also should address recovery of costs when a transfer does not work out. Levi Strauss in 1999 instituted a payback agreement, Romero says. “We make sure the employee signs the agreement to pay back their relocation costs if they leave the com.pany with.in a year. That’s a policy that’s been around in Silicon Valley for a number of years.”

Centralize responsibility for relocation. At ISS, relocation was centralized both for consistency and to streamline the process, Leong says. “Prior to the centralization of the relocation process, each site handled relocation as best they could. From a cost standpoint it was more expensive, and there was a lot of confusion caused for the transferee because the delivery of service was not consistent.” Without consistency, the process also took longer and was more frustrating for all involved.

Both education and communication are critical, Leong emphasizes. She developed a complete manual, including flow charts, to show how pro.cesses should work. “I then went to each site and trained all of the HR professionals that even remotely touched relocation. That upfront work saved a lot of time and a lot of confusion later on,” she says. Leong continues to share information with HR point people through an “HR shared services folder” on the company intranet.

Building and maintaining relationships with key HR staff members is critical, Leong says. “It has helped us to identify transfers or new hires earlier in the process so we don’t have to play catch-up later on when you find out they’ve already moved to the new area and now want to know how they’re going to be reimbursed for their expenses.”

Know the transferee’s needs. Because every relocation situation is different, Ernst & Young assigns a counselor to work with the individual being transferred. “If you don’t take the time to talk with them one on one, then you won’t know what their issues are,” says Gail Davis. “For some people it’s real estate; for others it’s shipping the antiques; for others it’s finding the girl’s travel soccer team or a nearby military school.”

Don’t forget the family. Determine the one or two critical elements for each family, and establish rapport and trust early, says Terry Davis. “If the family will bring you into their trust, if they will tell you, for instance, that they have a child with special educational needs, then you’re over the hump,” he says.

According to the ERC’s 2000 Transfer Volume and Cost Survey, 81 percent of the responding employers said employee/family resistance ranked as the top reason for reluctance to making a move. Recognizing this, the initial meeting with Ernst & Young transferees almost always includes the spouse, Gail Davis says.

“We consider that to be of vital importance. If you don’t include the spouse at the very beginning, you’ll find at some point down the road [that] the spouse feels out of touch and ill-informed and you’ll end up backtracking.” That uses up valuable time.

“Any policy that does not address the issues related to the spouse and family misses the mark,” says Terry Davis. “If the family is not settled, then nine times out of 10 the employee is not going to be settled.”

Establish solid relationships with reliable vendors. Sylvester recommends that HR professionals find the appropriate outside resources to assist in relocation. “I would align myself with a private banking organization, a top-end real estate professional and some top people that know the areas I’m relocating to,” the recruiter says.

Gail Davis agrees that vendor relationships provide the transferring employees with solid resources and serves to “build confidence in the process; it gives the individual a sense that they’re supported and that the HR department knows what it’s doing,” she says.

Look for vendors that share your goals and service commitment because they typically spend more time with the transferring employee than the employer—and in more personal settings, advises Terry Davis. “Movers, for example, are physically in the employee’s home for three to five days; real estate agents are in their home. If they don’t represent us in a professional manner, it reflects on us. Selecting the right vendors is critical.”

Leong looks for accessibility and service. “What I look for in a provider is their concern and sensitivity to clients. I want to see that they spend my money as though it was their money.”

Manage expectations. The Ernst & Young relocation process starts with an informal timeline that outlines the various steps in the process, which vary depending on the needs of each transferee, and serves to manage the transferring employee’s expectations about the move, Terry Davis says.

Throughout the process, make sure you provide information that is reliable and consistent. Before Northrup Grumman’s ISS relocation services were centralized, transferees were likely to receive inconsistent information depending on the area of the company in which they worked, Leong says.

“As we all know, relocation is very stressful,” she says. “The more information that we can communicate to a relocating individual to ease that stress, the better off they will be and the more productive they will be.”

At ISS, Leong’s mission is clear: to deliver consistent, high-quality service to relocating employees. “Relocation is not an easy process,” she says. “There are a lot of different steps and different phases. You’re dealing with the entire family unit—not just the employee. You’re dealing with emotions; you’re dealing with people’s attachments to their old location. Extra care should be given to the whole process.”

Effective relocation can boost retention, Sylvester says. “A lot of companies are really looking at relocation not only from a cost perspective—because it is expensive to move people—but more importantly from a branding perspective. The smart companies get it. There’s a shortage of talent that will continue for the next decade. If you keep the talent, you win.”

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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